As we welcomed in the new year, I found myself on the road yet again. No, it wasn't a journey to escape the drama and struggles of 2016, but rather, an upbeat jaunt to herald in the new. While packing, jumping in taxis, passing through security and flying seems to be a recurring theme, and almost routine for me these days, it appears that we are all on a journey to new discoveries. The past year was replete with political upheaval, social tensions, international intrigue and heartbreak, and a long list of lost beloved icons who helped shape our culture. The world is changing.
As the new year ushers in the next wave of exponential change, it’s clearly the relentless march of technology that is shaping the stunning evolution of our culture. After all, a blizzard of tweets from left and right helped pull the lever in voting booths across the nation, while social media, digital communication, and online purchasing helped drive consumer decision-making in local communities, and in fact, across the world. Technology influences everything that we do … well, almost everything.
We’re living in a fast-paced world; the rate of change is mind boggling. So what’s driving this change, what’s faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive? Forgive the Superman reference, but we’re living in an age of super power. And the power we find at our fingertips is being generated by the ongoing development of the microchip
Celebrated author Thomas L. Friedman tells us in his latest book, “Thank You for Being Late,” that we have entered an age of unbridled acceleration. Change is occurring faster now than at any other point in history. He notes that the exponential surge in computing power has provided climbers atop Mount Everest with crystal-clear cellphone service, while self-driving cars begin to navigate our roads.
While all of this seems positive in a “Jetsons” kind of way, the side effect of our incredible growth and connectivity is an increase in social disconnection. Social media may be the new norm, but it isn't very social at all. The glow you see emanating from restaurants these days isn't coming from ambient light sources, but rather from smartphones as diners are spiritually and physically glued to their Facebook and Instagram accounts, and all at the expense of conversation with those around the dinner table. And clearly, though this age of information is positive, we must examine both the opportunities and challenges it presents. The opportunities are seemingly endless, but the biggest challenge is isolation. Friedman notes that while medical science continues its quest to cure heart disease, cancer and diabetes, the most debilitating ailment facing society today is isolation and social disconnection.
Historically, retail has been a reflection of our society, and today, retail is becoming “desktop to doorstep,” with shoppers never having to leave the comfort of their homes. The only interaction is with the delivery man who will soon be replaced by delivery drones.
Last week, I visited a high-end sushi restaurant and ordered my dragon roll with an iPad positioned smartly at the dinner table. I never had the opportunity to speak to a waiter and say, “easy on the wasabi.” But the sting of the chef’s heavy handed approach to the wasabi notwithstanding, the transaction was quick, efficient and tasty. But where was the human touch? Somehow saying arigatō (thank you) to a computer simply wasn't the same.
So herein lies the opportunity for sushi chefs and retail executives alike across the industry: Think global, think experiential, think human interaction.
As I travel internationally, I see a mad scramble by all to get on board the “techno-train.” And perhaps this is the one great unifier in this maddening world. That, and a continued love of shopping. While we may be ensconced in an age of connectivity, we are also culturally absorbed in an age of consumerism. People want stuff, but their path to purchase is no longer linear. Rather, it’s an open-ended, multi-channel path. With that said, however, the physical store remains the most important touchstone of the brand and the compass on the roadmap to success.
From Fifth Avenue to Regent Street, Via Monte Napoleone, The Champs-Élysées and Causeway Bay, to the less obvious Augusta Street in São Paulo, Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki, Hawaii, and even The Strip in Vegas: Great retail corridors are still highlighted by brick-and-mortar emporiums standing as standard bearers to the great retail brands of the world. All filled with tourists as well as locals, these bastions of consumerism provide one thing that the Internet cannot: an experience. And like any successful restaurant, sushi or otherwise, when crossing the threshold you should be taken to another place, or perhaps another time or even another culture. Any successful retailer must provide the same transformative experience.
Although the doom-and-gloomers insist, stores are not going away. As retail continues on its grand evolutionary path, it’s interesting to note that Amazon, Warby Parker and Bonobos, leading e-commerce retailers, are all considering brick-and-mortar stores as part of their ongoing strategies. Warby Parker executives foresee a possible roster of 800 to 1000 physical locations, while Bonobos envisions 100 physical stores by 2020. Amazon has already opened two bookstores and has three on the drawing board. All three online giants recognize that brick-and-mortar environments will support online sales
Almost 92 percent of all retail sales are still being transacted in physical environments. While we are now fully engaged in an omnichannel retail structure, the store remains the most important stepping stone on the path to purchase. Any master plan designed to foster retail growth must leverage existing and new technology, not only as a portal for customer engagement, but also as a vehicle to enhance the in-store experience. It must be noted that sales per square foot is no longer the measuring rod of success. Today p-o-s, point of sale, has more than one face, while p-o-e – point of experience – is the visage of the brand.
Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience. He served as corporate director of visual merchandising for Stern’s Department Store, a division of Federated Department Stores, from 1986 to 1995. After Stern’s, he assumed the position of director of visual merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, an architectural design firm in New York City. Feigenbaum was also an adjunct professor of Store Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and formerly served as the chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College (New York) from 2000 to 2015. In addition to being the Editorial Advisor/New York Editor of VMSD magazine, Eric is also a founding member of PAVE (A Partnership for Planning and Visual Education). Currently, he is also president and director of creative services for his own retail design company, Embrace Design.