Many, ourselves included, have spent the last few years assessing the worsening state of bricks-and-mortar retail, arriving at the same prescription: make it experiential. Convenience, discovery and cost are, for the most part, better served online. Stores now needed to be places where forging relationships took precedence over shifting product. Get customers in, sit them down and keep them there for as long as possible by immersing them in ever deeper layers of brand lore. Stores were no longer stores, but ‘embassies’; staff were no longer staff, but ‘representatives' . . . and in some cases, even ‘advocates’. But will this metaphorical, and sometimes literal, tactic of taking consumers by the hand fly in an era in which public space is being remapped as a series of private islands?

Katie Baron, director of brand engagement at trends intelligence agency Stylus, certainly thinks so. ‘I believe that the appetite for experiential retail will be far from diminished as we emerge from lockdown,’ she tells Frame. ‘In fact, if anything (and I think you only need to look at people flocking to parks and beaches at the moment) I anticipate an accelerated desire to congregate around shared passions and communities in all their sensorial glory. Consumers will be hankering to get back in touch with humanity IRL, but also to compensate for the sensory deprivation experienced while in isolation.’

Consumers will be hankering to get back in touch with humanity IRL, but also to compensate for the sensory deprivation experienced while in isolation

Retail futurist and independent consultant Howard Saunders agrees. ‘The demise of conventional advertising combined with the rise of online retail has certainly given birth to some innovative and engaging spaces. These stores have shone a harsh light on our more mundane and lacklustre retail, a light which does not fade just because we face another crisis. In fact, there will be a greater demand for engaging places that entertain and inform safely, when we dare to venture out again.’

Tokyo's Hipanda flagship, a Frame Awards 2020-winning project, was completed by Curiosity. Read more here. Photos: Courtesy of Curiosity

For both, striking a balance between encouraging engagement whilst building trust will be central to the future of physical retail. ‘The script for the Twenties has been written: we will be nervous, cautious customers,’ says Saunders. ‘Homo-Trepidatious is born. It follows that we will see a shift in brand positioning and communication. Reassurance and resilience will be the new watchwords for all brands.’ Baron thinks any forward-facing strategy has to account for ‘a more cautious consumer attitude, and a lingering reticence regarding hygiene.’

What this looks like in practice, as has proven true across many sectors, is the acceleration of a set of trends that were already finding favour pre-pandemic. Baron points to the concept of the ‘bookable brand’ – where you effectively ‘check-in’ to stores – as something that’s not only able to provide a sense of security, but could actually ‘premiumize’ an otherwise mundane store visit. ‘Bookable brand time chimes with the existing move from "soft sell” (non-transactional) to ticketed experiences. If an experience is worth it, why not be able to book it?’ she argues. The ‘power of new immersive media’ – such as that championed by brands including Frame Awards 2020 winner Hipanda – will also be hyper-charged by the need to adopt more ‘zero-touch technologies that allow consumers to engage with the store on numerous levels without needing to touch the space itself.’

Saunders makes the point that those brands who have already heavily invested in rethinking the role of retail over the last half decade are also likely those best placed to react to this new reality. ‘Social distancing will force large, community spaces, such as Samsung's 837 and KX flagships, to introduce carefully managed customer flow systems, but they’re sure to resolve this with creative flair. We’ll also see many more intimate spaces within spaces, like at Sonos, where individual rooms (visibly sanitized, of course) do their best to entertain and seduce us.’

Experiential is a broad term that can include any retail that is not the supermarket grab-and-go model

However, while Saunders may have faith in the means and the movers, he has little time for concept itself, and that’s an important position to take for anyone trying to conceive of how their shop floor with operate into the coming decade. ‘I try to avoid using the word “experiential”. Standing in line in the post office for forty minutes is an experience, just not a very nice one!’ he says. ‘Experiential is a broad term that can include any retail that is not the supermarket grab-and-go model.’ It’s a stance that Kate Nightingale, head consumer psychologist and founder at Style Psychology, endorses. ‘The current understanding of experience is fundamentally wrong. There is a view that experience is something tangible that a brand creates. In fact, when we look into psychology, it clearly shows us that experience is ephemeral and incorporeal.’

Gentle Monster's experiential interiors for Beijing retailer SKP-S. Read more here. Photos: Courtesy of Gentle Monster

To reinvent physical retail as something truly meaningful – crucial in an era when consumers will be weighing the personal cost of crossing the threshold more than ever – Nightingale believes that we need to ‘realize that experience happens within the customer's mind and therefore fundamentally that it belongs to the customer’. All that brands provide are ‘a set of stimuli that ideally evoke specific emotions or put people in a desired cognitive state,’ she says. Viewed in this way, Nightingale thinks that most of what has thus far passed for experiential retail ‘hardly came close to 60 per cent of what experience could be.’ What comes next, she argues, should start by going back to the fundamentals of ‘how the human brain perceives environments and how all tiny sensory elements within any space affect emotions, cognition and behaviour’. With an increased emphasis on how the spaces we create can not only protect our health, but actively improve it, brands that retrain their definition of what in-store engagement means might be set to profit. ‘If we think of “experiential retail” in this way, then yes, it absolutely has a place in the future.’

Physical space will be considered to have more potency as an interactive interface

The potential to create more emotive connections with customers is something Baron also now sees as inherent to the role of the store, a kind of raising of the stakes whenever brand and customer choose to meet face-to-face. ‘Physical space will be considered to have more potency as an interactive interface,’ she says, becoming the means for the most loyal and engaged customers to gain ‘access to the brand on many levels’.

While all three are cautiously optimistic about physical retail’s outlook, Saunders cautions that its prospects can’t been seen in isolation from the wider context. ‘This new flurry of innovation must be wrapped in a giant caveat,’ he says. ‘Our city centres, where "experiential” flagships live, will be very badly damaged. Closed stores, bars, restaurants, venues, shuttered theatres and cinemas, high unemployment and a dramatic plunge in the number of visitors and tourists, will make for a challenging retail landscape indeed.’

This week we're hosting a #FrameLive talk about the future of retail design post-COVID-19. Find the details here.