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NRF Recap: Immersive trends influencing store design

American Girl, New York
American Girl, New York (Photo by Richard Cadan)

Experiential retail remains top of mind as brands continue to experiment with new store concepts.

Immersive experiences are influencing modern store designs — and ideas run the gamut. Whether delivering entertainment, blending new lines of business or using technology to drive convenience, retailers are tapping new experiential ideas to redefine their store spaces and engage customers.

Store tours and sessions during NRF 2020: The Big Show revealed three trends that are influencing new store concepts in New York — and across the nation. Here is a recap.

Micro-experiences. Driven by experimentation and smaller “hands-on” experiences, so-called micro-experiences provide brands with a way keep customer engagement fresh. American Girl is known for its immersive experiences, but the retailer’s Manhattan flagship uses a micro-experience to put a new spin on an old favorite.

The store invites shoppers into “Julie's Groovy World,” an exhibit that highlights the characteristics of American Girl’s blond, long-haired 1970s-era doll named Julie Albright. Julie is an advocate for girls’ rights and making a difference — and she was introduced in 2007.

While visiting Julie’s Groovy World, shoppers can shoot hoops at a 1970’s arcade game; get tips on how to write a speech that could win an election (just like Julie did), and even take a selfie in a replica of the doll’s Volkswagen Beetle.

“Stories are always at the core of our experiences,” said Barbara Carlson, senior director of global creative services for American Girl, at NRF. “This micro-experience not only immerses shoppers into the character’s world, it helped us give a 13-year-old doll new life.”

Meanwhile, high end furniture retailer Natuzzi is using mixed reality (MR) to create it own micro-experience in its flagship on Madison Avenue. Wearing a pair of augmented reality (AR) goggles, shoppers can visualize 3D furniture and décor in their home before they buy it. After a store associate inputs the customer’s room dimensions into Microsoft-supplied software, customers don the goggles to position pieces of furniture, including sofas, chairs and décor, within their personal space.

By tapping virtual icons, shoppers move product images throughout the room, as well as choose colors, and magnify fabric texture or grains of leather. All 3D products are accurately sized to true dimensions, eliminating the need to physically measure an item before making a purchase.

“We feature 100 collections, but only have space to feature 5% of merchandise at store-level,” Jason Camp, president of Natuzzi Americas, said during a store tour. Furniture retailing is a needs-based business, but success comes from creating emotional connections. Merging physical and digital experiences is important way for us to do business.”

Six Natuzzi stores — including its Madison Avenue location — currently offer the technology. This will jump to 400 locations by the end of the year. All 1,800 stores will offer the MR experience by 2021.

Channel-blurring. The idea of customers purchasing merchandise in non-traditional retail segments is nothing new. However, the next wave of channel blurring is shaping up to be a collaboration between segments — and Peloton is taking advantage.

The high-tech brand that sells indoor cycling bikes and treadmills merges physical retail and media to provide customers a live-streamed workout experience. Unlike other retailers that are still getting used to the idea of showrooming — when customers use stores to browse and test merchandise before making a purchase online— Peloton relies on the strategy. In fact, Peloton encourages customers to visit stores and participate in personalized tutorials that immerse users in the live studio classes streamed on its connected bikes and treadmills.

“Some retailers repurpose their physical space to attract shoppers,” Jennifer Parker, Peloton’s senior VP retail said at NRF. “Peloton uses its showrooms to connect with our community.”

In early January, Peloton upped the experience ante with a new store format it introduced in San Diego.

“In the past, our stores were focused on ‘hero-ing’ the hardware,” Parker said. “The new format brings to life what’s ‘on screen’ — and shows how we are so much more than a bike company.”

The front half of the store features an immersive showroom experience of Peloton bikes, treadmills and accessories that customers can browse and try. The second half of the store features personal workout rooms where customers can trial connected fitness classes across Peloton’s bikes, treadmill, strength, yoga and meditation offering.

The design is influenced by “hospitality and spa-like backgrounds the encourage ‘test and trial,’” she added. “It offers a serene setting, and lets the customer know they are in a space where they can drop their baggage, take time for themselves, and connect to the brand.”

Circularity. Extracting the maximum value from merchandise while in use — as well as post-use — is top of mind for companies and customers, alike. Savvy brands are repurposing store space to ensure they are making a difference in this circular economy.

H&M for example, is jump-starting its seven-year-old garment recycling service with “smart” recycling bins that not only accept donations, but also offer customers a new, engaging experience. The new bins, which debuted on Jan. 12 at H&M’s flagship on Fifth Avenue, house a digital scale and feature integrated digital screens. As shoppers deposit their bag of unwanted clothing into the bin, the integrated scale tallies the donation. In real-time, the digital screen displays the weight of the donation, along with a QR code that rewards customers with a 15% discount coupon that can be used on a future purchase in-store or online. The code also directs shoppers to a website outlining H&M’s sustainability efforts and goals, as well as how their donations make a difference.

In addition to its Fifth Avenue store, H&M’s seven other flagship locations in Miami, Atlanta, Houston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles will add two bins each by the end of the year. The fast-fashion retailer has a goal of collecting 5 million lbs. of apparel by the end of 2020, according to the company.

Want to hear about other immersive experiences that are influencing new store concepts? Register for Chain Store Age’s SPECS 2020 conference, which will be held March 15-17, at the Gaylord Texan in Dallas.

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