Designing an Experience

Immersive Retail Offers a Glimpse into the Future of Shopping

What is the purpose of a store? In a marketplace increasingly controlled by e-commerce, it’s a question worth considering. Do you visit Williams-Sonoma just to check if there are any new dining room tables on display? Probably not—you can scroll through its website. Do you visit a Foot Locker only to try on a new pair of running shoes? Maybe, but wouldn’t it be easier to just purchase two pairs online and then mail back the pair that doesn’t fit? Do you visit your local antique shop just to browse? That sounds wonderful in theory, but what if the store is closed by the time you’re off work? And what if you’d rather spend your free time hiking your favorite trail?

These are the sorts of questions that retail strategists like Melissa Gonzalez spend their days contemplating. Gonzalez, founder of the Lion’esque Group and author of the book The Pop-Up Paradigm: How Brands Build Human Connections in a Digital Age, believes that physical stores still have an important role to play in the shopping experience. She referred to this role as “bridging the touch-and-feel gap.” However, traditional brick-and-mortar storefronts can no longer rely on old methods to bridge that gap—an “Everything Must Go” banner doesn’t guarantee business, and hosting in-store demonstrations doesn’t necessarily translate into customers testing your product.

The key to creating an immersive retail experience lies in answering this simple but complex question: What is your brand’s story?

Now imagine an appliance showroom where you can actually cook on a stove or test the shower. Imagine an activewear store that offers in-store fitness consultations. That is how you bridge the “touch-and-feel gap.” It’s called immersive retail, and it’s the next wave of shopping.

Telling Your Story

The essential ingredient in creating an immersive retail experience lies in answering this easy-to-understand but hard-to-answer question: What is your brand’s story? This question is pivotal because, as Gonzalez said, immersive retail “adds a tangible aspect to the story a brand is telling.” But first you need a story to tell.

Take the luxury kitchen and bath distributor Pirch for example. Last May, Pirch debuted a new showroom in New York City, to much fanfare. The 32,000-square-foot, three-floor space features working ovens and grills, private steam showers, and complimentary cooking classes and demonstrations. Visitors are granted access to a complete sensory experience that simulates what working with brands like Bertazzoni, La Cornue, and Thermador would feel like if you gave into Pirch’s temptation.

Pirch, courtesy of Mark Steele
Photo by Mark Steele, courtesy of Pirch.

And that sensory experience doesn’t stop with the appliances—the organization of the Pirch showroom mimics the desirability of the products. All of the fully functional vignettes feature surfaces from Cosentino, a highly wanted designer of quartz and natural-stone surfaces. The displays themselves don’t resemble those found in a conventional store—they look more like museum pieces, or images from your wildest design dreams. And that dreaminess was entirely intentional. FITCH, one of the world’s most sought-after brand and retail consultants, designed the Pirch showroom. Joanne Putka, FITCH’s design director, explained that the showroom is designed “to put the customer first and allow them to dream and explore in real-to-life vignettes, including fully furnished and activated kitchens, bathrooms, and outdoor patio areas.”

Pirch is experiential and interactive, two of the hallmarks of immersive retail. However, none of this glamorous fun would resonate if the experience didn’t fit into Pirch’s brand story. Putka said that “Pirch not only showcases places where customers can experience the products firsthand but where they learn about the products and live with them in their home to continue to make incredible memories.”

Pirch - Photo by Mark Steele
Photo by Mark Steele, courtesy of Pirch.

Putka also explained that “the showroom is a living, breathing showcase of how the right product can transform a space into an expression of a customer’s lifestyle.” Notice how the focus is on the product and the customer, not Pirch. This also provides a window into the thinking behind the lack of price tags in the showroom. Putka added, “The focus was taken off the transaction and put on the experience of learning and experiencing.”

Pirch’s brand story is really a story of the relationship between quality products and the design-savvy consumer. What better way to highlight that relationship than to create a a place where consumers can control their interactions with products? What Pirch created with FITCH’s help wasn’t a stunt; instead, it was a sincere expression of the company’s values. And that’s not only how you create a successful immersive retail experience, but it’s also how you convince today’s high-tech shoppers that your store is worth visiting.

A Can’t-Miss Event

Another variation of immersive retail is the experiential pop-up store, the sort of project in which Gonzalez’s Lion’esque Group specializes. This past summer, Lion’esque created a pop-up for the activewear brand Carbon38 in Bridgehampton, on New York’s Long Island. The pop-up lasted only for the month of August, and limited-time shopping events, much like live sporting events, are harder for consumers to ignore. To add to this sense of exclusivity, Carbon38 offered shoppers offerings from stylish activewear brands, like Michi and Free People, that were uniquely tailored to the Hamptons.

Photo by Carbon38
Photo provided by Carbon38.

Like Pirch, the space for the Carbon38 pop-up reflected the brand’s story—a brand created for “powerful women” that is selling activewear in space that appears meant for activity. The merchandising inside the space—the white lane markers on the cement floor, the track lighting in the high ceiling—was reminiscent of a Brooklyn CrossFit gym or a very hardcore tennis club.

Pop-ups work especially well for up-and-coming brands like Carbon38, which was begun by two Harvard graduates in 2013. As Gonzalez said, “Pop-ups aren’t just about merchandising—they’re about data collection.” For a startup like Carbon38, the email addresses, the newsletter sign-ups, the personal responses to its products are beyond helpful. Carbon38 also had plenty of iPads available for customers to view the company’s full line, and those metrics—which running tights were the most popular, which running socks no one looked at—are key components of expanding a business. The Hamptons pop-up also serves as a focus group, a place to test Carbon38’s brand messages and strategies before they are released to a larger market already crowded with boutique activewear.

Photo by Carbon38
Photo provided by Carbon38.

What really got people’s attention, however, was the immersive aspect of the pop-up. The location in Bridgehampton featured in-store sessions with instructors from SoulCycle and other local fitness studios, as well as après-beach champagne and other exclusive in-store events. What the Lion’esque Group created was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that consumers simply couldn’t find anywhere else, at any other time, and the fear of being left out is an emotion e-commerce can’t duplicate.

Sharing the Fun

As enticing as all of these immersive retail spaces may be, the fact remains that a large majority of shoppers will never actually experience them first-hand. So why are brands as diverse as Burberry and YouTube spending so much time creating once-in-a-lifetime experiences? Pick up your phone, open any channel on social media, and you’ll find the answer—because these moments are shareable. If one person visits the futuristic flagship store that Burberry built near Piccadilly Circus, in London, so will all of their contacts on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Andy Warfel, who has designed experiential spaces for companies such as Vera Bradley, keeps shareable moments in mind when working on a project. To make that space translate over social media, he is careful to use strong lighting and easily - noticed type, as well as cool music to add ambience to an Instagram video. In the age of social media, it doesn’t matter how sophisticated an immersive retail experience is if it can’t be readily shared.

Warfel also brought up the fact that if certain people whom he deems “influencers”—celebrities, icons, heroes—are the ones doing the sharing, the impact of an immersive retail experience will be amplified. As he said, “If an environment fosters and enables sharing, then roll out the red carpet for influencers!”

There’s a reason, for example, that Pirch invited celebrities such as Nate Berkus and Padma Lakshmi to the opening night of its showroom—if any of these design and food stars share a photo from the evening, the immersive experience will grow across a social media ecosystem already primed with interest in their products.

“In a retail space, we champion the human factor and believe that warm interactions create a sense of community and belonging.”

FITCH very much considered this notion when designing the Pirch space. As Joanne Putka said, “We believe retail is continuous and that wherever you interact with the brand, be it social media, online, or in the store, the experience should be engaging and memorable. In a retail space, we champion the human factor and believe that warm interactions create a sense of community and belonging.”

And that “human factor” is what modern retail has to strive for if it hopes to grow in the world of e-commerce. Amazon can provide bargain prices and cheap delivery, but what it can’t provide is what still matters most to consumers: community and belonging.