How will ecommerce and traditional retail work together in the future?


By Davide Padoa, CEO of Design International.

People have been predicting the slow death of the high street at the hands of the almighty internet for over a decade now. Although the internet has developed into its own massive shopping empire and has claimed some high profile victims on the high street such as Woolworth’s and Blockbusters, all in all, bricks and mortar stores have so far persistently refused to die. The literature written on this phenomenon by now fills whole libraries but at the heart of this discourse is a fairly obvious reality: shopping is not a simple necessity, but a rather complex human behaviour involving a variety of senses which the online experience cannot satisfy alone.

To touch and feel is an essential part of shopping, especially for the things most personal to us such as clothing, food or body care; online experience cannot replace that. As a result, it seems that what was once seen as two competing worlds is increasingly turning into a common playground whereby the online shopping world complements the bricks-and-mortar and vice versa. Well into the second decade of the new century, the different channels of online and offline not only co-exist, but they are offering an integrated experience of ‘omni-channel’ retailing.

Before we dig into the subject matter, let me be clear about one thing: there is no question that the online world is a big challenge for traditional retailers and there will continue to be casualties. In Britain, up to 35 stores are closing each week, while online shopping increased by 15% in 2013. This trend has obviously been fuelled in part by the recession over the last few years, but to attribute it to that alone would be to ignore a development that will not only revolutionise retail, but also its architecture.

Far from disappearing, stores will, in fact, take on an even more important role in our lives. However, we will quite possibly not call them stores any more because they will be more like trendy art galleries. As an architect, the prospect is hugely exciting as it will open up whole new dimensions for the design of these spaces.

Take the example of Ruth and Tom Chapman who started their ‘Matches’ retail empire with a single store in Wimbledon in 1990. Today, they have 14 high-end bricks-and-mortar stores in some of London’s most upmarket locations. For Ruth and Tom, their beautifully decorated boutiques are not shops, but rather showrooms for a thriving online business that ships their goods to 120 countries. Online and offline are truly integrated here, with large screens on site that link to their internet store and shop assistants that carry iPads. Customers not only browse the goods in the store, but also the online offer of more than 250 brands. The story of ‘Matches’ clearly illustrates that stores won’t vanish from the high street, but their presence will continue to be downsized with separate warehouses  located in less prominent and therefore cheaper locations that will be holding stock for online sales. The high street store, as the visible face of the brand, becomes “emotional places”, as the Chapmans put it, where customers can be assisted and helped to shop online.

In other words, the days of shops as crowded and unattractive places overloaded with merchandise and cluttered displays will soon be a thing of the past. Instead, the ‘Matches’ stores set an example of this new type of shopping experience, which are in the same league as sleek and trendy exhibition spaces and art galleries.

However, while this approach surely works for small and innovative labels and brands, the story for larger retailers is more complicated. People might enjoy an art gallery experience when shopping for clothes, but can the same approach work for buying toothpaste, and, more importantly, does it matter if I buy my toothpaste online or offline? The answer to this is most likely to be ‘certainly not’, but this doesn’t mean the end of large scale bricks-and-mortar shopping. People will always like the experience of shopping, and that brings us to shopping centres as shopping today is a social activity and thoughtfully-designed shopping centres are the perfect place for this.

If shops are turning into art galleries, then contemporary shopping centres are places of entertainment, culture and increasingly, education. The architecture plays a central role in this development as shopping centres provide communities with landmark buildings and meeting places in the same way that museums such as Tate Modern or the Guggenheim Museum in New York do. They are places where people go to be entertained, to learn, to meet other people or to simply relax in inspiring environments.

In Bill Grimsey’s book ‘Sold Out’, he speaks of these kinds of places as ‘super malls’ of the future.“Tomorrow’s consumer is going to spend full days in these places for entertainment, to socialise and to go shopping and in the meantime, they will supplement that day by shopping online”. He says.

To add a dose of science fiction into the mix, he envisions that in just 20 years’ time shops will contain virtual booths where holograms will display clothes. Who knows? Perhaps in another 20 years, we may be able to send holograms of ourselves to the virtual booths for us, but for the near future, I believe the “click and brick” experience should be enough to satisfy the shopper’s need for leisure, culture and convenience.


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