For a teenager in the ’80s through early ’00s, the mall was a physical and psychological haven — from homework, parents, chores, expectations — a place that today sparks nostalgia not only for our youths, but for an experience that is rapidly disappearing from modern retail. It’s easy to miss the feeling of automated doors opening to a blast of AC on a hot summer day, squeezing in with the cool kids in Jansport backpacks at the Tower Records to snag the latest R.E.M. album, the rebellious air of Claire’s, the uniqueness of character that United Colors of Benetton promised. There’s a lot to be said for the mall experience, which architect Victor Gruen envisioned as an adaptation of the European plaza for American suburbia; it didn’t just give people a place to purchase stuff, going to the mall was an event.
We’ve shifted away from the mall-as-experience over the last couple decades, our former gathering place replaced by an experience that is largely defined by the act of shopping alone: e-commerce. Increased online connectivity, followed by the devastating impact of Covid-19 on brick-and-mortar stores, has pushed us further into shopping isolation. E-commerce saw 32 percent growth through 2020 and shows no signs of declining. During that shift, retailers improved the ease of shopping, but left behind much of what made it memorable. Physical retail doesn’t provide the convenience that online shopping does, but it can provide real, memorable, and transformative experiences that create stronger bonds between a customer and a brand than a slick website ever could.
Retail has the opportunity to fundamentally change, and to provide experiences that aren’t yet commonplace but are entirely possible. It’s become clear that digital shopping, while providing convenience and efficiency, is simply not enough to create an authentic social experience that drives us to think of brands not just as transactional locations from which we purchase products, but as pieces of a wider, interactive narrative. What can traditional retail do to fill the gap?
The Store of the Future Blends Digital and Tactile
Retail in the future will be driven by creating experiences. Retailers must take an activity that has always been immersive — but has become overshadowed by e-commerce’s more passive experience — and turn it into a memorable event. It should utilize the immersive power of physical spaces alongside the convenience and connectivity of digital. The “buy now” button doesn’t give you the lingering smell of Cinnabon just off to the side of the food court. It just gives you the end product. There’s no emotional bond through which brands can create a lasting connection that heightens the experience for individual customers. Brick-and-mortar stores should be treated as loci for an emotional encounter, not in competition with e-commerce, but in tandem with it.
What if the store of the future wasn’t a place to buy your favorite goods but, instead, was a museum of your favorite brand? What if shopping was an emotional bonding experience where the story starts in the mall, but the purchase might be made later, in the comfort of the shopper’s home? There’s no clutter or messy racks in our clothing store of the future. This is a place where goods are beautifully staged and organized with care. The experience starts with a clear goal — this is not the “everything in one place” that large online retailers already offer and excel at. This is something curated to exactly your interests. Our shop connects with the technology in your pocket — the smartphone that can bridge the gap between IRL and URL spaces seamlessly, if we let it. Sample clothes on neat displays are here so you can feel the fabric with your hands. The act of browsing becomes an interactive opportunity to explore.
We’ve already seen incredible strides toward blended digital/virtual spaces. Pokemon Go launched in 2016 and introduced the public to augmented reality on smartphones. In 2021, 472 Comcast Xfinity stores launched green screen experiences that integrate shoppers into AR scenes through QR codes, which have also seen an uptick in usage in restaurants throughout COVID. The Harry Potter flagship store in New York now offers a 30-minute virtual reality experience. L’Oréal has an app for testing out your next hair color. Sephora has integrated screens at the makeup counter for trying on your next eye shadow. Chanel’s Atelier Beauté in New York offers personalized Zoom experiences, makeup lessons, consultations, and happy hours from the comfort of your home. Retail stores wouldn’t have to push volume. Their measure of success could simply be in brand allegiance, the physical locations themselves becoming playgrounds that tell the company’s story. In other words: A purchase is great, but an immersive touchpoint is just as powerful.
So What Comes Next for Hybrid Retail?
What about AI-driven personal stylists in your pocket who help find the right pair of boots to go with that dress you’re eyeing on the rack? The technology exists. You could connect with your friends at home to get their opinion instantaneously, chatting and sipping a (perhaps imaginary) Orange Julius whether you’re in person or not. Instead of a dressing room where you hastily try on outfits, our clothing store of the future utilizes a smart mirror to virtually try on styles, like the digital-only shoes that took sneakerheads by storm — except that you can walk out of the store with a fresh pair. There’s no need to stand in line while someone ahead cuts coupons. Once you’ve made your choices, you check out on your phone and simply pick up the neatly arranged, cute, reusable tote filled with your purchases on the way out.
It’s not a gimmick; the technology exists to make all of these experiences a reality. They could change the way we interact with both products and our sense of space, while recalling the feeling that many shoppers miss from the meandering, exploratory experience of a mall.
IRL retail has butted heads with e-commerce for years, but there is now the opportunity to unify the two. COVID-19 may have pushed us toward digital shopping completely for a while, but the silver lining is that now more shoppers understand what technology has to offer as a tool to augment the in-person experience. Traditional retail may never quite hit the same emotional highs and lows of the American mall in its prime, but by creating smart digital tools that enhance our tactile in-person experiences, we can move retail from transactional to transformative. There’s an opportunity here to create something entirely new that bridges a widening gap between two retail options. A 20,000-square-foot Macy’s might not be financially viable anymore, but the feeling can be replicated — perhaps not the pre-teen exhiliration of buying the latest Pearl Jam album or grabbing a crispy, chewy slice from a Sbarro in the bustling food court — but that feeling you had when you walked out of that air-conditioned oasis feeling more connected to your friends, your community, and to the brands you love.