Changes in Consumer Behavior are Transforming the In-Store Experience
Even though e-commerce enables brands to sell directly to consumers, brick-and-mortar stores won’t disappear anytime soon. Instead, technology and changes in shopping behaviors are driving major changes in the role of the in-store customer experience and how it is designed.
As retailers use data to better understand their customers’ paths-to-purchase, store owners may use fewer short-term promotional graphics and seek more help with customized fixtures, permanent displays, environmental graphics, and digital signage. Their goal is to create multi-sensory in-store experiences that make a memorable impact.
For producers of those retail graphics, knowing the trends and how to apply them will be critical to earning and retaining the business of this still massive vertical segment.
All About Customer Experience
Store branding today is more about creating a unique experience than stimulating a sales transaction. Now that consumers can purchase everything from apparel and groceries, to furniture and automobiles online, many brick-and-mortar stores are becoming more like showrooms or physical, immersive representations of the brand.
According to Todd Maute, partner at the CBX brand strategy and design agency in New York, there has been a fundamental shift away from designing stores around product placement, merchandising strategies, sales per square foot, and layouts for displaying multiple SKUs. Now it’s all about understanding the customer experience and tailoring stores to the way people want to shop today.
Many retailers are looking for ways to maintain a relationship with customers who don’t want to come into the store as much as they used to.
“My parents would look at printed circulars, see what’s on sale, clip coupons, and go to a store with a list,” Maute says. “Today, young shoppers are researching products on their phones. The younger generation doesn’t want to go to the store, and if they do, they want to get in and get out.”
People who shop online expect physical stores to offer similar levels of convenience and personalized experiences to what they get on their devices. To meet that demand, many retailers are beginning to experiment with revamped store services, such as allowing customers to have in-store purchases delivered to their homes or skipping the checkout lines. Redesigned store layouts make it easier for customers to pick up or return online orders, get expert advice, or try out products.
Environmental graphics, décor, music, scents, digital signage, personalized mobile messages, and face-to-face customer service can be combined in different ways to communicate brand values and make visitors feel good about being in the store.
Rick Barrick, of the experience design agency Adrenaline, headquartered in Atlanta, believes there are five key elements of retail brand strategy: zones of experience, staff as brand ambassadors, digital signage, a sensorial strategy, and smart technology deployment.
In addition to using brand colors within the environment, he urges retailers to consider using music or other sensory elements to influence how people feel in the store. “The more senses you can reach in retail, the more staying power your brand will have in the mind of the consumer,” he notes.
However, technology shouldn’t be adopted simply because it’s new and different. “In-store technology should be based squarely around enhancing the customer experience,” Barrick says. Retailers should know what customer challenge they are trying to solve, then look for an effective solution, which could either be cutting-edge high-tech or old-school low-tech.
Building Brand Awareness
Even digital brands (including Amazon) want physical retail spaces in which they build brand awareness and customer loyalty. The ultimate goal is to provide seamless, consistent brand experiences across all digital and physical retailing channels, including stores, websites, events, pop-up stores, and brand activations. Speakers at the 2020 Future Stores conference in Miami believe designers are creating a new “harmonized retail” form of omnichannel marketing.
Speaking at the 2020 National Retail Federation Conference, Taz Zvi Nathanel, co-founder and CEO of Showfields said, “We are on a mission to allow every brand in the world to have a physical retail touchpoint.” The Showfields staff help digital retailers overcome some of the headaches of designing and launching their first retail store.
Showfields’ four-story brick-and-mortar retail space in New York’s NoHo neighborhood houses a rotating selection of up-and-coming digital brands. Each brand is invited to stay for a four-month trial period, with the option of extending to six months. Showfields facilitates deeper offline connections between brands and consumers by hosting a revolving array of food, drink, and community programming at their retail space.
Don’t Discount Digital Signage
For those with already-established brands that don’t need third-party exposure, but want to deepen the customer relationship, designers are discovering the effective uses of digital signage. Barrick believes digital signage is a powerful tool for retailers; on the exterior facades of stores in high-traffic urban areas, for example, it can serve as attention-getting billboards that build brand awareness even when the store is closed.
Once a customer enters the store, digital signage can present stories and messages tailored to the audience composition and the amount of dwell time customers spend in checkout lines or waiting areas with comfy couches.
Adrenaline’s in-house digital signage support team develops and manages content and networks for retailers. They also ensure the visuals in the digital signage align with all other brand elements, including print graphics, wayfinding, and in-store collateral. This approach is something every signage printer should take note of. Shops that offer digital signage alongside printed elements, and can seamlessly tie the two together, will likely find it increasingly easier to capture and retain retail business.
The Data Dilemma
Data drives design decisions. In the past, retailers relied primarily on transaction data to measure the performance of each store. Today, they can combine online and in-store customer data to a get a clearer picture of how and where customers make purchasing decisions. Who captures that data, and how it is managed and used, can be a strong point of connection, catapulting a print shop from a simple vendor to a full-fledged partner.
One way to gain additional data that can be tied back into online and other sources is beacon technology, which can track the number of people who enter the store on a daily and hourly basis, and measure shopper dwell time in certain areas of the store. Geofencing technology is another option, which can use smartphone data to determine the age group, heritage, interests, and credit scores of people within each store’s location.
The retail experience designers at the Adrenaline agency use data to get a holistic view of the customer journey, then develop strategies to create the type of emotion the brand wants to convey. They incorporate different combinations of physical and digital tools in different sizes and locations, and ensure that the overall brand strategy can be readily adapted for pop-up stores or stores-on-wheels at big events.
“Data analytics is absolutely fundamental in being able to nuance your brand story in different locations, and to bring forward solutions that might proactively help people,” Barrick says.
For example, one project Adrenaline works on helps banks change the look and feel of their branches. Because mobile banking apps empowered consumers to perform many transactions online, banking facilities are being transformed to provide financial planning services. While waiting to meet with a financial advisor, bank customers in lower-income branch locations may see digital signs with stories about basic budgeting tools. Visitors in higher-income areas may see content about estate planning.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Not every store will get the same level of investment in design, décor, and technology. Retailing is a huge, diverse market. The branding objectives of a grocery store are far different from those of an apparel store, auto dealership, or drug store. For a wide-format printer looking to grow the business in this segment, understanding not just the brand, but the specific audience that brand is trying to target, is a key element of success.
It is also important to understand if a brand is looking for concepts it can roll out to every location, or if it is looking to test new ideas. Experiments with new technologies such as smart mirrors are typically conducted in concept stores, while destination flagship stores feature exciting and educational in-store experiences. Stores in small towns and rural locations are more likely to include a cost-effective combination of printed and digital brand visuals.
Pulling it All Together
Successful retail solutions providers offer more than printing. Many retailers feel overwhelmed by the rapid changes in technology and customer behavior. In addition to analyzing where the customer’s path to purchase starts, they must learn to integrate fast-changing technologies into their operations, merchandising, and branding.
Print service providers who understand the scope and complexity of these challenges are finding ways to make the store designer’s job easier. Image Options, in Foothills Ranch, Calif., offers a range of visual communications services to help retailers with environments, exhibits, and events.
In some markets, “we are experiencing a decline in the amount of traditional retail print such as window clings, banners, posters, POP, etc.,” says Image Options CEO Brian Hite. “These traditional programs are being replaced or augmented by more permanent technology applications or higher-end displays in-store.”
Image Options not only produces and installs a wide range of printed graphics, but also fabricates custom fixtures, displays, and 3D brand visualizations. To keep complex, collaborative multi-store retail projects running smoothly and on budget, Image Options offer sophisticated cloud-based project management tools. With Image Options’ cloud-based 3D visualization tool, retail designers at multiple sites can quickly see how their creative concepts and ideas will look when executed.
MillerZell, a company that originally used screen printing presses to create wide-format graphics and POS displays for retailers, now develops and implements end-to-end retail solutions. In addition to designing, printing, and installing graphics, it helps clients with retail strategy, store design, and cost-effective store rollouts.
Experiential design experts agree that well-designed printed graphics can help prevent a sense of digital overload as stores incorporate more technologies. “There’s a strong need for physical graphics and fixtures that create the right ambiance and environment,” Maute says. But he believes printed graphics will be used more for master-brand décor around the perimeter of the store than for product promotions: “In the actual shopping areas of the store, you’ll see more digital activations.”
Barrick agrees that printed graphics and décor will be used for evergreen visuals about the brand’s core values, meaning in-store graphics might not be changed as frequently as they have been in the past.
“The attention span of today’s consumers limits opportunity to create an in-store sale,” Hite says. “The sales process must continually evolve and adapt.”
Growing sales today requires expanding the reach and effectiveness of brand exposure, and developing emotional connections with customers. Many retailers and brands are striving to find the right mix of online marketing, in-store customer experiences, out-of-home advertising, digital signage, mobile messaging, social media, events, pop-up stores, off-site brand activations, trade show exhibits, and other brand-building tools. Companies that specialize in wide-format graphics, signmaking, exhibit fabrication, and visual communications are well-positioned to help.