Kate Shepherd and Matt Parry, co-founders of UK creative consultancy The Future Collective, explain how retailers can best respond to the consumer’s heightened desire for human connectivity.

Collectively, the pandemic has taught us the importance of community and belonging, reigniting our appreciation of local brands and retailers and reminding us just how much we value and cherish human connection. The most influential brands are noting the positive health implications of human connectivity and fostering a sense of togetherness and exploring ways to localize their global presence in ways that really count.  

There is a certain irony attached to the reality that during a time when we were forced to live in social isolation, we began to care about one another far more; our friends, our neighbours, our carers. There is a universal understanding and agreement that it is people who matter the most.

Suburban resurgence

Our towns and suburbs are poised for a revival as the pandemic has triggered new patterns of living and working for people of all ages. Experts are predicting a ‘rural renaissance’ accelerating growth in suburban areas and second cities. Reflecting the customers’ heightened desire to connect with and support the local communities they live within, brands of every size and scale are adopting new retail strategies and investing in new neighbourhood formats. These new concepts act as local hubs, providing curated ranges that are tailored to the individual wants and needs of the people in the area. One of the most notable examples of this is the latest retail strategy from John Lewis. Following the announcement of multiple store closures and the transformation of over half of their flagship store on Oxford Street to offices, 'mini-John Lewis' stores have begun to open within Waitrose stores throughout the UK.  Speaking with The Times, chairwoman Sharon White confirmed their plans to ensure that most of Waitrose’s 331 supermarkets have one in the next 12 to 18 months. 

Case Study: H Beauty by Harrods, Lakeside, Essex
Harrods, the figurehead of luxury British retailing, has taken the unexpected step of opening its first standalone beauty store at Lakeside, Essex. Rather than venturing from the bustling capital to a similar retail environment in another UK city, they’ve opted to settle in suburbia. The move has provided an opportunity for the retailer to innovate in a way that extends their current value proposition, attracts a younger consumer and creates a space with a unique competitive advantage. The store boasts an immersive beauty experience, featuring a ‘Playtable’ for make-up experimentation, designated skincare treatment areas and even a champagne bar for some post-purchase relaxation. Investment in suburbia, particularly in the case of Harrods, puts a stake in the ground marking a new territory for retail innovation. Photo: Courtesy of Harrods

Photo: Courtesy of Nike

Hyper-local formats

One of the core advantages of creating hyper-local store formats is the opportunity to offer a curated range of products that is laser focused to the wants and needs of the local audience. Perhaps the most renowned pioneer of this approach is Nike. The opening of Nike Live on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles has sparked a new era for brands adopting this hyper-localized approach. The concept is built for and inspired by local NikePlus members, offering city-specific styles, all of which is determined by Nike digital commerce data (buying patterns, app usage and engagement) to serve local NikePlus members exactly what they want, when they want it. Following in the footsteps of this concept, Nike has launched several other neighbourhood-specific concepts in key cities around the globe. 

Case Study: Nike Rise, China
Nike’s new concept store in Guangzhou, China, is a digital hub led by the sporting community that engages in numerous activations within the city‘s sporting landscape. The store is part of Nike’s House of Innovation which seeks to create a sense of community through an equally local and digital approach. Nike Rise creates personalized experiences by tapping into the ‘sport pulse’ in Guangzhou. They focus predominantly on basketball, football and running - the primary activities of the city‘s residents. ‘Nike Fit’ technology allows visitors to have their feet scanned with the help of a store assistant, with the results of the scans informing customers of their size and the styles that will suit them best. Their personal information can be stored in the Nike app and referred to when making online purchases, promoting a true omnichannel experience. Photo: Courtesy of Nike

Grassroots culture

While global issues are of concern to consumers, there is equal merit in embracing localized concerns that are much closer to home. Appealing to Generation Z’s brand activist mindset, many of the most conscious brands and retailers are taking a far more localized approach. From collaborations that improve local economic recovery, to flagships serving previously underserved communities or filling the gaps in cultural programming left by government cutbacks, these initiatives bolster big brand profiles on a grassroots level. Building trust, credibility and authenticity and gaining invaluable on-the-ground insights.  

Case Study: Vans Downtown LA store
The Vans Downtown LA store is an LA cultural immersion, returning to the brand’s roots with heavy skateboarding influencers, intertwined with art and pop culture. The second floor houses ‘studio 808’ which is a hub for art and design, offering classes to local members of the community. There aren’t any fees attached to these offers, placing emphasis on authentic localism rather than commercial value. There’s a real uplifting spirit here. The experiential space is truly community led, the workforce is to be partially made up of previously homeless and at risk youth who are part of initiatives with non-profits such as Goodwill and Chrysalis. The space is a real signifier of the shift in the location of purpose within the retail environment, the singularity of solely aiming to maximize sales has been replaced with emotional concepts of community, localism and understanding. Photo: Courtesy of Vans

Photo: Courtesy of Vans

Broadcasting studios

Extending the cultural influence of the store way beyond the physical four walls of the space, innovative brands are taking to the airwaves and creating broadcasting stations, transmission zones and content hubs to amplify their brand influence on a global scale. Transforming stores into stages for livestreaming, podcasting, fashion catwalks and more. Vans, the brand and global icon renowned for championing self-expression and sparking creativity, has taken their “Off The Wall & On The Air” initiative and officially launched Channel 66. Described by the brand as “community radio meets the best of public access TV”. They’re planning to broadcast from New York City, Chicago, Mexico City, and Los Angeles to audiences everywhere with DJ sets, curated radio shows, talks, workshops and musical performances across music, art, action sports and community. Seeking to spotlight each city’s unique heritage and subcultures through the lens of the people who really live it. 

A magnet for the curious

As culture and community become core pillars of the future of the high street, many of the most notable brands and retailers across the globe are beginning to blend culture and commerce in the most interesting and inspiring ways. Blurring the boundaries of retail, brand experience and hospitality, and celebrating the intersection of art, music, fashion, food and culture. Part exhibition, part gallery and part event space, these environments reinvent the store as a cultural beacon and valuable community hub that is deeply connected to its locality. 

Department stores in particular are embracing this approach, transforming into iconic destinations, where culture builds communities and commerce thrives. Playing to their inherent strengths of size and scale, these agile and evolving venues are hosting a calendar of events that are geared towards participation and cultural conversation. Bringing like-minded people together by celebrating their passions, interests and perspectives.

Case Study: Le Bon Marché, Paris
Inside the historic Le Bon Marché department store in Paris, they regularly invite artists and designers to create installations in the central atrium of the store. A stunning installation by Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota suspended 150 sculptural boats from the ceiling, figuratively ‘sailing’ across the space. Drawn from typologies found across a range of cultures and communities, the hollowed out metal hulls –seemingly etched with a pencil – hang from the store’s central glass roof, surrounding visitors in an all-white abyss. They also added a skate ramp encased within a reflective silver cube. Intended to function as both a stage and a sculpture, the elevated full-pipe hosted live skate performances several times a week. Its reflective surface also meant that, when the cube was not in use, shoppers walking along the balconies that wrap Le Bon Marché’s atrium could catch their own reflection and take photos. Top image: Installation by artist Chiharu Shiota, photo Gabriel de la Chapelle. Above: Le Cube, photo courtesy of MANA Architects

Photo: Courtesy of Lululemon

Lifestyle hubs

The 20,000 sq-ft Chicago Lululemon store acts as a fitness centre, hospitality venue and event location. Providing a lifestyle hub that allows visitors to access all the components for an active and healthy existence, all in one place. Beyond their traditional merchandising mix, which is their largest assortment ever, the store is home to three studios for yoga, meditation and HIIT training. Customers can book individual sessions or ‘packs’ at a discounted rate and whilst they workout, they’re invited to wear Lululemon gear, free of charge, before making a purchase. After a sweat session and a trip to the beautifully fitted changing rooms, customers can visit “Fuel”, the in-house restaurant that sells “power bowls”, burgers and smoothies to finish off their experience. The store has a really unique customer journey that taps into all of the important facets of ‘clean living’, gently encouraging their customers to look after themselves in a really supportive way.

Cultural conversations 

The intersection of art, music, fashion and culture provides a wealth of inspiration for everyone and thought-provoking brand experiences, geared towards sparking cultural conversations and debate, are on the rise. Progressive brands are appealing to people’s growing desire for knowledge and education by hosting talks, workshops and symposiums and facilitating networks that are designed to stretch our thinking and champion innovation and change. These events offer learning and advancement and naturally create a community of kindred spirits; connecting people with others who share their passions, values and beliefs. The value of this kind of meaningful human connection goes far deeper than anything they could buy, prompting a genuine connection with the brand that is memorable and enduring. This approach is particularly relevant in the world of luxury, where the whole concept of ‘experience’ is evolving. 

Case Study: Prada Mode, Paris
In tandem with the launch of Paris Haute Couture week, Prada held the fourth instalment of its travelling private club, ‘Prada Mode’. The event took place in the city‘s famous Maxim’s, where the 19th-century restaurant immersed members in an exhibit themed around data collection and identity creation as well as featured live performances and talks, plus fine dining. Prada Mode Paris was designed to give invited members a unique way to experience a particular theme or facet within contemporary creative culture, as well as connect in real life over an ephemeral, unrepeatable experience.

Cover image and above: Courtesy of Uniqlo

Parks and Recreation

'Our Yokohama Bayside store functions as a park,' Takahiro Kinoshita, group executive vice president at Uniqlo, shares. 'While many Uniqlo stores are located in the commercial centres of large cities or in residential areas for easy access, we positioned the Yokohama Bayside outlet as a ‘destination store’. Situated in front of Tokyo Bay, it’s conceived as a place for families to go to relax and have fun for an entire day, rather than somewhere solely for shopping.'

This article is an excerpt from Design for Better, a report by The Future Collective examining the radical shifts in consumer sentiment that are driving generational change. Acting as a sourcebook, it's filled with actionable insights and thought starters.