What's hot and what's not in retail design right now
Our Senior Strategist Mike Tristram gives his very own power-ranking of the latest retail design trends.
Words by: Mike Tristram
Retail design is entering a new era. At times it's unpredictable, at others it’s often reassuringly instinctive. It’s what makes it such an exciting industry to work in. But to be in it, you have to be ‘on’ it. The most successful retail minds are on the pulse and open-minded to new ideas and innovations. Because while long-term shifts and macro-trends like direct-to-consumer models, the experience economy and omni-channel continue to guide retail in general - there are a myriad of significant micro-trends that influence an undercurrent of new design strategies and out-of-the-box retail concepts.
Mirroring the accelerated pace of consumer culture, these retail trends are ever-evolving and can go in and out of fashion very quickly. While we never advocate jumping on the bandwagon for the sake of it, it’s interesting to see how some trends in retail have significantly more clout and staying power than others. Over the last year we’ve seen a boom in URL to #IRL, or online brands relishing the need for physical brand spaces. At the same time, sustainable retail concepts and brand campaigns, which dominated headlines last year, have lessened in appeal. Instead, sustainable store design has become much more of an expectation rather than something that excites consumers (if it ever did).
Here we explore the new movers and shakers and give our very own power-ranking of the latest retail trends. The ‘what’s hot and what’s not’ in retail design right now.
Going up: Concept Store 2.0
Let’s start with the hottest ticket in town. The concept store is back – and better than ever. To put this in context, over the last decade globalization reigned and growth was based on brands entering new markets and rapid retail expansion. Retail design briefs tended to feature a desire for brand consistency and roll-out. This saw concept stores fall by the wayside. But now things have changed, and in a big way.
Multiple retailers are exploring much more diverse retail format strategies. Instead of one standardised retail concept, brands are opting for an ecosystem of store concepts - tailored to individuals markets, a specific product category or target consumer. This is more than just localization. This is about wildly different, multi-tiered and multi-dimensional formats, with very specific business goals, roles, and KPI’s as well as bespoke designs.
Burberry is a leading example. Their world-first ‘Social Store’ in Shenzhen features store-specific, gamified avatars. Designed to appeal to China’s digitally-native youth. In bold contrast, its Rodeo Drive store features an audio-visual viewing room and personal-styling service that specifically targets L.A.’s illustrious VIP clientele. This approach also exists outside the luxury retail sphere. Nike has no less than four retail concepts in the market, from its experiential flagship the House of Innovation, to its locally-designed and community-curated ‘Nike LIVE’. There’s also the brand’s new ‘Nike STYLE’ concept, dedicated to co-creation and content creation. All of which sit alongside the brand’s die-hard, product accelerator concept ‘Nike LAB’. Both brands have a unified retail design language, but both abstract and narrate this in multiple different ways. They succeed in creating desirability without creating a chaotic cacophony of brand expressions. Today’s consumer are actively seeking unique experiences. Our advice? Start putting multiple concept stores into circulation if you want to win favour.
Going up: Meta-Morphosis
The Metaverse blew up in a big way this year. Who knew?! Actually, we all expected it. All the trend reports and forecasters have been banging the drum so hard on this one that it’s turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. But this is one trend – love it or hate it, you can’t ignore. It’s more than just a buzzword. It seems that both high and low end retailers are game. They’re experimenting with virtual brand experiences. Up to now most have been pop-ups appearing within gaming platforms or digital doppelgangers of physical spaces, acting as online flagships. But as this retail trend evolves we are seeing it ‘meta-morph’ into something more out of the ordinary.
H&M demonstrate where this trend is heading. Earlier this year they launched a Virtual Showroom. Inside this virtual brand space, press and media could walk around, talk to other guests and virtually-view selected collections. These were showcased using photo-realistic 3D rendered clothing, with garments animated to simulate the movement of the cutting-edge materials. This was a fully interactive online space where people were immersed in the latest campaign, content and collections. It’s a new kind of retail brand experience that’s at once alive, responsive, social and dynamic. The brand then followed this up with consumer-facing version, where people could dress their own avatars in the new collections.
As Katie Baron from Stylus puts it - ‘retail is leading the meta-manoeuvres’. In a ‘world’ where the laws of gravity and physics don’t exist, this a great example of not just replicating ‘real-world’ but setting creativity free with event-style experiences to create something new and exciting for consumers.
Going up: Easter Eggs
Sorry to disappoint, but this has nothing to do with chocolate. These ‘Easter Eggs’ are the new surprise and delight of retail. They’re a little-known tactic retailers have introduced to gain the competitive advantage. But what are they exactly? That's a good question, because a lot of these are so secret you’ve probably never heard of them. But that’s kind of the point. Here’s some we do know of…
Glossier was one of the first to employ this strategy with a smoked-out perfume pop-up that didn’t give anything away. On entering the space a mirrored room housed a unique scent experience. Staff welcomed you in with a “press the button when you’re ready, darling”. When activated, the mirror retracted and a gloved human hand came through a hole in the wall to spray consumers wrist with the brand’s new perfume. Totally extra.
We took a similar approach when designing adidas Originals Hanbury Street concept store. The activation lobby contained a hidden safe, concealed behind a picture frame. This hatch opened to a secret stock room which housed the rarest of product drops and a separate mobile till. It played into the exclusive ‘If you know, you know’ of hypebeast culture. Gentle Monster is getting in on this trend too. On purchasing a pair of glasses in their Korean store, consumers are given a door code and street address. If you dare to venture there, the code grants you access to a secret café where you can claim a free local delicacy. Jacquemus is the most recent to apply this retail strategy with sensory product installations hidden inside their surrealist bathroom ‘changing rooms’ in their pop-up at the Selfridges Hotel. The key to making this trend work, is to keep it on the downlow – and make it hyper-relevant. What would you do?
Going down: Collab Fatigue
Now onto the trends that are on their way out. Like designer collaborations. Who remembers when these use to be a big deal? Not anymore. Nowadays fashion collaborations are an almost daily occurrence. It’s become so saturated, that they cancel each other out. Not only that, it’s almost impossible for average consumers to get in on the action because of bots, lotteries and resellers. So they just tune out. Highsnobiety have been at the forefront of calling this out.
In a bid to stand-out and bring back the hype-factor, brands have explored new avenues – and stepped right into the realm of absurdity. Crocs x KFC’s fried chicken smelling sliders and Lancôme x Emoji skincare collection are among the worst offenders (#cryingface). These are a far cry from IKEA x Virgil Abloh or the Victoria Beckham x Reebok days. Consumers ultimately desire newness - not novelty. Limited edition still holds a lot of weight. But there is no guarantee of success. With so much noise, if retailers want consumers to part with their hard earned cash, brands need to go back to the drawing board and dream up a collaboration ‘we never knew we needed’.
Going down: Window shopping
It’s widely agreed that social media is the new shop window. I mean, when was the last time a retail window display actively drove you in-store or stopped you in your tracks?... Most brands keep flogging this dead horse, as that’s what we’ve always done. Window displays are after all, considered a sacrosanct part of retail design. But brands need to move with the times, as mostly all these are doing is blocking the view into the experience.
The bravest and boldest brands are ditching traditional windows and taking to this to the next-level. Creatively activating their storefronts and facades – extending product storytelling beyond the confines of the window and out onto the streetscape or into the store itself. Louis Vuitton’s tiger tail installation for Chinese New Year is a clear stand-out. Galleria Melissa’s open-windows paired with an immersive entrance experience in SoHo is another winner. Taking this to a whole new level though, Apple’s flagship in Milan sees consumers literally walk through a glass waterfall - and there’s no product promotion in sight. Want to stand-out and see more ROI? Go hard or go home. Create an invitation. Maximise intrigue. As our Chief Creative Officer Steve Ubsdell recently told Vogue Business “the first thing a customer sees shouldn't be a mannequin.”
To wrap this up, we see the key to all retail trends is identifying which exist inside the ‘retail bubble’ and which will have a significant impact on consumers and pushing the industry forward. If done in your own unique way, these trends will enable you to stand out from the crowd and exceed consumer’s expectations. In this new era of retail, all options should be on the table. New avenues constantly explored. Let’s shake things up a little. Shall we?...