It started as a year in which digital looked set to sweep everything before it. Now the year is winding up as one in which European consumers are expressing their desire to use handheld devices for shopping, but they want to do so in physical stores.
A prime example is Burberry, which has dispensed with large amounts of customer-facing tech in its Regent Street, London, global flagship. Instead, it effectively asked shoppers to use their smartphones to interact with the brand while shopping.
Tech has, in fact, been making a somewhat ignominious exit from store interiors this side of the pond, as retailers such as nationwide grocer The Coop, in the U.K., and Carrefour (Boulogne-Billancourt, France), in a number of locations across the continent, have been busy beefing up their apps, making them shopping resources as much as informational tools.
It hasn’t all been about smartphones, however. Indeed, some of the best new stores, like Irish discount fashion retailer Primark’s new outposts in Toulouse, France, and Berlin, are about good old-fashioned visual merchandising. Both of the Primark stores are housed in buildings that help to seal the shopper deal – the Toulouse store being in a beautiful piece of Haussmann-era architecture, while the Berlin branch is a winsome piece of modern brutalism.
The other remarkable phenomenon has been the enduring popularity of the temporary. Pop-ups from the likes of Amazon with its Amazon Fashion store, which traded in London for just five days in October, and which staged a series of in-store events, have proved that the evanescent has an appeal that endures long after the shop itself has disappeared (if press coverage is anything to go by).
And it has been the digital merchants that have been among the most active when it comes to making a pop-up mark. Currently, Not on the High Street (notonthehighstreet.com), an online gifts retailer, is doing good business with a physical store at the Westfield London mall, but it will close by Christmas. The point perhaps is that scarcity breeds excitement and demand.
All of which means that in Europe, at least, what began as a year in which many were predicting the demise of the store has proved to be something else. Tech remains, but has disappeared from view. Stores remain, but may have shorter lives than previously. Simple shop keeping is the key to success.
Bring on 2019.
John Ryan is a journalist covering the retail sector, a role he has fulfilled for more than a decade. As well as being the European Editor of VMSD magazine, he writes for a broad range of publications in the U.K., the U.S. and Germany with a focus on in-store marketing, display and layout, as well as the business of store architecture and design. In a previous life, he was a buyer for C&A, based in London and then Düsseldorf, Germany. He lives and works in London.