The return of the creche

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Putting the fun back into shopping

Amar Babbar, Strategist, London

I used to despise trips to IKEA as a child – experiences that have scarred me through to adult life.

It’s not because of the aesthetic appeal (or lack thereof) of the giant blue corrugated-steel shoebox in a faraway pocket of North-West London.

It wasn’t even because of anything on offer at the store. I’m actually quite fond of the cuddly snake draft excluder, the copious amounts of tea lights and, of course, Swedish meatballs.

I didn’t even mind the fake books and TVs.

It was for one simple reason, one that I haven’t forgiven my parents for: I was never allowed to play in the ball pit and, as a result, had to traipse around the entire one-way maze on countless rainy Sunday afternoons.

Now, this isn’t just me acting like a spoilt brat who didn’t get his way (though it is partly that). This is something that’s inherent in us all. It’s our natural desire to play.

Something which I was clearly deprived of and something I’m not bitter about at all.

But as we grow up, we’re conditioned to suppress this urge and do more serious, ‘meaningful’ things – something that is reflected across many retail experiences available to us.

No ball pits at the supermarket.

No climbing frames at the department store.

No slides at the menswear store.

Of course, it’s ridiculous to think of these as realistic ways to make the retail environment more fun and playful (I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether that was sarcastic…). But brands should embrace play in the retail environment, giving people a reason to come into store beyond a purely functional transaction.

The rise of the uncompromising, demanding consumer has put e-commerce in a dominant position: shoppers are able to find their desired item within seconds, on the device of their choice, at a price they’re willing to pay, and delivered to them when and where it suits them best. More often than not, all those features can be found in one place – just look at Amazon.

The risk is that with shopping moving online, a trip to the shops becomes a dull, mindless chore rather than an intrinsic and exciting way to allow customers to truly experience your products, your brand, and your story.

But the trick lies in setting the role of real-world shopping. Brands with a physical retail presence shouldn’t be competing with these leaner online services. They should instead reassess their competitive set to provide new reasons to visit the store, working in harmony with online shopping.

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Changing the opposition

Rather than online shopping, a trip to the shops should be viewed in direct opposition to other leisure activities. And a look at how we spend our leisure time can start to provide inspiration for the sort of behaviours a store should cater for in a post-Amazon world. Relaxing with friends. Reading and learning. Being amazed and entertained by the latest CGI-filled blockbuster.

If these are the cues retail experiences should be picking from, digital technologies have opened up a plethora of opportunities, particularly as shoppers are equipped and using their devices when they’re in-store.

Take groceries for example: in 10 years, the average duration of a trip to a supermarket has more than doubled to almost an hour and a half. And while this could be attributed to more deals and wider product ranges, one key factor is the use of mobile phones to check that shoppers are getting the best deal – 84% of shoppers use mobile devices in-store to help them make purchase decisions.

So, how can today’s brick-and-mortar stores succeed amongst a competitor set of other leisure activities? Here are four key principles to succeed by incorporating ‘play’.

1. Embrace e-commerce

Despite all the benefits of e-commerce, people still go down to the high street, the shopping malls, the flagships and the supermarkets to touch, talk about, try and taste things – in essence, to play with the product and learn about the brand before buying it. Blending online with offline provides a more holistic experience for the customer, catering for both their emotional and rational need-states.

Who’s doing this well?

When Burberry’s Creative Director, Christopher Bailey, introduced the world to the revamped flagship store in 2012, he wanted the space to feel like the Burberry website housed within a majestic Regent Street property, becoming a hang-out destination. In addition to regular live in-store music events and a British-themed café, the store is brimming with technological surprises aimed at bringing each piece of clothing to life. RFID tags on selected clothing allow shoppers to see how each of the pieces looked on the runway, or paired with other items. If you’ve browsed online and added items to your basket, they’ll be waiting for you in the fitting rooms. And there are no cash registers in sight, relying on wandering check-outs and, of course, e-commerce.

2. Focus on wasted moments

In every experience, there are highs and lows – and shopping’s no exception. But the negatives during a shopping experience form a formidable list. The queues stretching as far as the eye can see, trying on a pair of ill-fitting jeans on for the third time, everything being out of stock – these often detract from the joy of the eventual purchase. Brands should look at the total customer journey to identify these moments of frustration or boredom, turning a negative aspect of their experience into an opportunity for the brand.

Who’s doing this well?

Remember those halcyon days at the end of the school summer holidays when you were whisked away to the shoe shop, only to wait for what felt like an age with a paper ticket and cold, bare feet waiting to get measured? Well these days, kids waiting for their latest pair of light-up lace-ups are treated a little better, thanks to Clarks’ iPad foot measures. As well as collecting data to improve their shoe designs, the iPad measures keep the kids entertained with playful characters.

3. Don’t just sell

Consumers have become adept at buying online, so the retail space should offer something different – a physical manifestation of what the brand stands for, helping to engage people beyond products and plunging them headfirst into experiencing what life would be like as a customer of your brand. And in doing so, building brand affinity.

Who’s doing this well?

Skate brand Vans have created ‘The House of Vans’ – a lifestyle venue for skaters, music lovers and foodies alike. With London’s only indoor skate park accompanied by a restaurant, cinema screen and gig venue, House of Vans is creating a new standard in the role of a retail brands physical space. Rather than acting as a place to purchase, it combines the interest areas of the brand with those of its customers, giving people a space to experience not just the brand, but also the unique things their town has to offer.

4. Leave room for play

Culturally, we’re increasingly valuing experiences over possessions – seeing something you’ve never seen before, or learning something you’ve never known before, or going somewhere you’ve never been before. Shifting your retail space from a showroom to a playroom helps to get people involved with your product and gives your brand more relevance in the customer’s lives from the moment they leave the store.

Who’s doing this well?

Jamie Oliver’s Recipease is a restaurant that’s not a restaurant. It’s a place to shop for fresh produce and kitchen equipment, and a place to learn about cooking from the best. The space is regularly used to host events and classes to help people get more from their meals, giving them fresh ideas around their food beyond just buying it and cooking their tried and trusted favourites.

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