How retailers can reach out online while renewing the spirit of the physical marketplace

Alexis Vera ponders how bricks-and-mortars can keep up with online shopping trends while still creating compelling physical retail experiences that beg to be shared on social.

Alexis Vera_IDL WorldwideThe bazaar, the souk, the forum: wherever it emerges and whatever it’s called, the market is the centre of society. It’s the wellspring of civilisation and culture. When the invention of agriculture brought the need for trade, towns grew around the central gathering places where people could exchange not only goods, but ideas and inspiration.

The market has always been where people connect.

The impulse to socialise at the market lives on — witness the late 20th century phenomenon of ‘hanging out at the mall,’ or the 21st century rise of farmers’ markets and pop-up shops in the most densely urbanised settings. But as commerce has become more diversified and specialised, the social function of the market has largely retreated behind shelves of products promising unlimited choice and simple convenience.

Now, internet shopping has taken the choice-and-convenience model beyond physical limits. Social media allows people to share their likes with no need to be personally present in the store or even with one another.

To succeed, brick-and-mortar retailers must embrace these new realities.

They need to reach out online, yes, but they also need to renew the true spirit of the physical marketplace: not just unlimited choice, but compelling, curated choices. Not just convenient social interactions, but deeply shared experiences.

So what can retailers do to bring back the social vibrancy that gets shoppers out of their private spaces to mingle and buy in the public square?

Remember that for thousands of years the most powerful social experiences have happened where people gather. Whether it’s a street fair or soccer game, a church or a coffee shop, people will always crave company. What could provide a more engaging and social experience than shopping together? A show-stopping display, the big reveal as a friend emerges from the dressing room, an immersive installation – these occasions beg to be shared.

The most compelling social media experiences begin with in-person social interactions.

Retailers don’t have to cede the social space to digital technology. In fact, they can be creatively applying technology while reclaiming the social role that, over the past half century, has largely been sacrificed to choice and convenience. Today, people can sort through endless selections, colours, sizes and price points online.

What they can’t do there is experience true community, troll-free and unmediated by character limits or 5-inch screens. Physical retail can return to the true source of its strength by providing what’s worked for millennia – the space and structure to foster compelling social experiences.

Instead of competing against digital social technology, retailers can put it to work to make in-real-life connections even more compelling – transforming retail into the ultimate social platform.

Look at what’s possible in the realm of sportswear and equipment merchandising, for example. Sports, for many, are as much about socialising as competing and staying fit. But traditional sports marketing often overlooks that social element.

Nike

Case in point. In recent years, Nike has done an incredible job communicating prestige and breadth across a wide variety of brands that encourage buyers to express their individual style. But with its Brand Jordan division, Nike also wanted to reclaim its appeal to performance-oriented athletes – especially younger athletes who didn’t grow up under the Michael Jordan mystique that drove the brand’s earlier growth.

As it turned out, the key to understanding the young competitive athlete was understanding the social component of competition.

IDL created a campaign meant to get young basketball players into Jordans and provide a way for them to actively compare their performance wearing the new shoes. We turned to the model of the food truck a mini-retail environment that comes to your neighbourhood, offers a variety of choices, and lets you enjoy your selection on the spot.

An actual food truck was completely re-fabricated into a rolling shoe store, finished in stealth black and branded with the Jordan ‘Jumpman’ logo. The #riseabovetruck brought retro basketball culture directly to a new generation of players in several urban neighbourhoods across the US.

But while the styling of the truck and Jordan shoes provided the hook to attract attention, the real star was technology at the vanguard. The truck featured a digital vertical-leap machine that allowed participants to try on a new pair of high-performance shoes, prove for themselves the difference the shoes make, and track their results against other athletes locally and nationwide.

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We thought technology would be the star. It turned out to be the community.

‘Jordan Jump Truck’ events evolved into full-blown block parties. Retailers offered sponsorships and brought shoes to sell. Neighbours rolled out their barbecue grills and music systems. News crews showed up to cover the festivities. Social media shares took off. And the overwhelming response was: ‘No one has ever come into our community and engaged us in a shared experience like this before.’

It became more than a transaction, more that an experience — it became a moment. It became something worth sharing in a meaningful way.

 

What are some other ways to make retail more social?

Why not eliminate the need to paw through every available size and colour, instead providing space to experience the coolest product features within a meaningful context? That’s what IDL did in designing fixtures for The North Face’s Summit Series. With a few select products on display, storytelling became more important than sheer selection.

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Social interactions came to the fore as consumers turned to sales associates to ask about specific features, colours and sizes.

Why not transform the sales floor into a community-gathering place? Brands like Lucy and Lululemon are moving products aside to host yoga nights, building a community of people who will feel right at home when they shop there for workout apparel.

Why not make vulnerability a strength – for example by providing a way for consumers to rate and review products in-store, just as they’re accustomed to doing online? Why not create ways for shoppers to share their stories while they shop, bringing a viral energy to tactile experiences?

It’s time to think deeper than ‘omni-channel- marketing – the literal translation of the physical brand into social, media and other avenues.

It’s time to revive the power of moving moments at the market, creating space, vitality and surprise for authentic interaction. Because social connection is the true coin of commerce.

 

 

Alexis Vera is executive creative director at IDL worldwide – a division of SGK Inc, the global brand development, activation and deployment company.

 

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