In an age where consumers can purchase a Manish Malhotra with a click of a button, do brick-and-mortar retail stores still stand a chance?
To talk about the future of retail, first let's look at the recent past when covid-19 hits us hard. Many retail experts predicted a steep rise in online shopping and declared the demise of traditional storefronts.
Suddenly we witnessed offline brands scrambling to get into a heavily diluted e-commerce market, to compete with the big leagues, whose pockets are deeper than they could have guessed. Entering the online sphere meant going up against titans of the industry and their resources. While safety concerns and government regulations were necessary to protect the population, it seemed impossible for brick-and-mortar stores to survive.
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Once the lockdown restrictions were relaxed, retailers began to open their doors amid the pandemic. It was a turning of tides, lockdown had given people an opportunity for stillness, mindsets evolved and presented a juncture to start anew. By surveying and polling a set of our clients based in Kolkata, there was genuine surprise at the unanimous response to one question: Should brick-and-mortar stores launch an e-commerce? The answer was a resounding no. An intimate shopping experience couldn't be replicated online; customers enjoyed visiting and spending time in a beautifully designed space, with the warmth and familiarity that comes with it.
The brands that pivoted to the omnichannel approach, however naively, saw the reality of abandoned carts, cash on delivery returns and exactly how high the rate of sale would need to be in order to sustain this business model. Creating and designing an e-commerce is not the hard part, but what might be lacking is the experience and competitive advantage that hinders a physical store to translate to a dot com. This should not be seen as a failure, there is much truth to the old adage “you never know until you try.” Because it is in the face of such failures that you start to double-down on your strengths. Staying true to your brand, a curated product range and top-notch customer service, all things that accumulate to the experience of stepping into a retail store.
A bridal lehnga can certainly be purchased online, but what is missing is the connection. A faceless person behind a screen lacks the emotional connect, the compassion and sheer patience for this level of end-to-end service. Walking into a bridal atelier, there is a memory to be captured–a bride-to-be surrounded by family, trying on her outfits and imagining that special day, with bridal experts who understand the complex nuances of couture customisation and delicately settle a disagreement on, say, veil lengths or neck depths. Ultimately, this is what gives meaning to the industry; to make this person happy and feel, and look, their best for life’s most treasured moments.
A cookie cutter, copy and paste approach to designing and executing storefronts across different cities is no longer what consumers are looking for. The future of retail, more specifically luxury retail, is being redefined as a place for experiences beyond a transactional relationship; a community hub and service touchpoint that translates the brand's message in dynamic, multi-faceted outlets. A brand can only be sustained by a deep commitment to their clients’ needs, and even anticipating their desires to mold their aspirations.
More than just rack space for designer labels, modern retail spaces need to be designed to delight and entertain. There should be a certain magic when you walk in. Luxury clients expect the very best, not only in terms of offerings, but to a degree of dedication to always go above and beyond.
To build on this concept of experience and stay relevant in modern retail, stores need to be focused on ways to use the space for more diverse outreaches. Hosting pop-ups, book clubs, open mics, live music, debates – curated events that fit the lifestyle of the brand. The future is about collaboration and creating a space where the creative minds can come together will be paramount to setting the gold standard when it comes to today’s brick-and-mortar storefronts.
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Richa Kanoi is the founder of Kolkata-based Bombaim, a multi-brand boutique.