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Retail has been practical for a long, long time. Big box stores have concentrated on the fundamentals, such as range, location, and price. The needs of investors have become a priority over the last two decades and doing things cheaper, leaner, and more efficiently has been a focus. Online channels have concentrated on making navigation and delivery fast and seamless. 

Covid-19 forced retail to become highly functional as well, as the world changed with lockdowns and social distancing. Practicality around delivery and safety became all-important. And as we became increasingly confident and accepting of online shopping, we were also lulled into a transactional retail world.

In all this practicality, retail has forgotten some of the fundamental human drivers of shopping, such as the need for surprise, spectacle, inspiration, destination, and entertainment. 

Now is the time for retail to get bold once more. 

Bring back the spectacle

It is worth revisiting history to remember what great retail can achieve. 

One of the greatest retail visionaries was Harry Gordon Selfridge ‒ a talented retail entrepreneur who knew shopping in an urban context was entertainment. 

Selfridge designed the retail experience to be one where people wanted to meet and be seen. He created an environment where filmmakers could set a movie, where stars wanted to be photographed, and where children pestered their parents to go. He made shopping fun. 

In the 1920s and 1930s, the roof of the eponymous Selfridges store had terraced gardens, cafes, a mini golf course and an all-girl gun club. Customers were allowed access to the roof, which hosted fashion shows and was a great place for a stroll after shopping. 

Selfridges also had educational and scientific exhibits and was the place of firsts, such as the launch of television. Selfridge surprised people with things like placing the plane from the world’s first cross-channel flight inside the store. He also wove the store into the community, even making the Selfridges basement an air raid shelter during the war.

When you consider great retail entrepreneurs such as Selfridge, who developed the department store and re-wrote shopping history, today’s shopping experience feels like a watered-down version that is purely transactional. 

Stores with sensuality

It is time to think of shopping as sensual again. 

We tend to think of a digital experience as lively, mainly because of gaming and entertainment. However, the digital medium is not very sensual at all. It engages the eyes mainly and not much more. 

Studies have been done to calculate the sensual variables of nature versus the digital environment. Nature contains the most variables – sounds, temperature, noises, smells, weather, and visual variations such as colour subtlety. 

‘Loose parts theory’ argues creativity, imagination, and learning in children are aided by exposing them to the maximum number of ‘loose parts’. Basically, the more variables you are exposed to, the greater your chances of development. Nature contains more ‘loose parts’ and is, therefore, considered more educational than looking at screens.

Similarly, early department store entrepreneurs realised placing perfumes and cosmetics at the entrance of the store was critical for enticing people to explore, imagine and stay. It became the classic department store formula because smelling things, hearing sounds and seeing colours and textures was setting the scene as customers entered. There is just something about the playing of the grand piano in David Jones in Sydney that beats many other retail moments.

Today, I yearn for the sensuality of shopping. Sensuality makes us feel special and indulged. 

In an urban world, many look to retail to replace nature, to provide those ‘loose parts’; that is, the sights, sounds, smells, and visual variation that give the inspiration to curate our identities and lifestyle. 

Surprise and delight

The original department store entrepreneurs knew that their role was to create an emotional experience. But Covid has worn us out and the war in Ukraine means our hearts are still sinking. In this emotional down mood, what can retail do to bring happiness into our lives?  

Online shopping is sometimes so unemotional it’s a chore. What can we do to inject emotions such as envy, jealousy, desire and temptation back into retail? How can we surprise? 

Long ago, there was nothing much to compete with in retail except the shop window. This creative display that made people stop and look was pivotal. 

I remember at art school where I first started studying, artists aspired to be window dressers, as it could be a creative outlet. There were many variables and ‘loose parts’ that could be used. 

Spectacle and surprises are rare in retail, yet this is such a fundamental human drive. 

Practicality has its place but there’s also a massive opportunity right now for retailers to get bold. And I, for one, would love to see that. 

The post Opinion: Why it’s time to go boldly where retail has gone before appeared first on Inside Retail.