How In-Person Retail is Changing
By looking at recent economic data, or by reviewing business-section headlines touting news of recent, sizable store closings, it’s easy to see that a shift is taking place in the retail space. As the U.S. has moved into the “post-COVID” world,” shoppers have been streaming back into stores, even amid inflation and economic uncertainty. In the graphics and sign segment, where many companies serve, in big and small ways, the visual needs of retail spaces' overall retail contraction means more competition for less work. Recent changes in shopping behavior, however, including digital content and online ordering, have shaken up the way retail works. Knowing how to serve the segment means knowing where retail is today.
How Retail is Changing
According to Carol Spieckerman, president of Spiekerman Retail — an industry focused consultancy — recent store closings are occurring for a few reasons. “For Bed Bath & Beyond,” she says, “it’s a distress signal. They’re paring back, trying to survive.” For Macy’s, she says the company is continually evaluating its leases and keeping its resources in high-performing stores. Finally, she says Walmart, which has also announced closings, has massive scale and great data, and may choose to serve some geographic areas digitally. On that note, she said retailers realize, “that store closures can compromise digital business.” Physical stores can keep a company “top-of-mind.”
The retail floor space now dedicated to BOPIS (buy online pickup in store) is not going away, Spieckerman says, noting, “Old habits die hard, and shoppers have gotten used to using it.” She says the retail segment has become an “all of the above world,” so retailers are now offering a variety of ways to shop.
Spieckerman says that in the retail space, “Print isn’t dead, it’s just different.” While she sees a shift toward digital content and in-store experiences — a “digital rethinking of physical retail” — she says it in no way means print is out of the picture. In fact, she sees printed elements within retail displays as being somewhat of a constant, while digital elements will increase, providing new and novel shopping experiences.
While she says the retail segment is in its early stages using augmented reality, Spieckerman says the technology will contribute to “a new version of brick-and-mortar.” She says this development will be driven by large players in the retail space, such as Amazon and Walmart, but also by prominent tech platforms, including Meta and Microsoft. “This will speed adoption for new hardware that will facilitate immersive experiences,” she says. She adds that third-party solutions providers are also jumping into this space, offering “specific and compelling niche capabilities.”
For graphics producers seeking to forge stronger partnerships with retailers, Spieckerman says it is essential they do the right kind of research. “It’s not about how many stores and how much volume,” she says, “but instead looking through press releases, earnings, and new contacts.” She says retailers are generally forthcoming about their initiatives and goals, and that graphics producers should tailor their sales efforts to meet them where they are. Instead of being a solution in search of an assumed problem, she says, producers should seek to help retailers realize what they can’t do themselves.
For a view of the zeitgeist of retail display elements and technologies, Spieckerman recommends taking a look at the beauty segment. “It’s gone from a sleepy staple to becoming an innovator.” She says some of these companies are taking the metaverse seriously, and that the standards required by the segment are quite high. She says graphics companies who have served the beauty segment successfully should, “name it and claim it” and parlay that into other categories. In the luxury retail category, she says, flagship stores “are on the leading edge.”
How Graphics are Received
Having served in key marketing and merchandising positions for companies including Intermix, Saint Laurent, and Bonobos, and as the host of the RETAIL IN AMERICA podcast, Ron Thurston says wall coverings have become the most exciting and interesting part of printed retail display. They have evolved, he says, “as a tool to communicate trends, social consciousness, and places to use for ‘Insta moments.’” They offer, he says, a way to engage with the product, tell needed stories, and provide a bridge between a company’s online identity and its in-person experience.
In-store signage, Thurston says, is not as common as it once was. “It used to be everything had a sign on it, but customers didn’t interact with them.” He says the use of hangtags has become much more common. “Less is more,” is the current mode for in-store signage, which he sees as “almost a backlash phase from the overabundance of signage during 2020.”
Thurston says that in-person shopping is back to 2020 levels, and that customers “want to come back and spend time in stores.” He says customers today want a human experience because they are tired of shopping online. “They’re craving it,” he says. What shoppers will see in those stores — often, in his experience, through wall murals — are images promoting products and connection. A TikTok feel. People of all shapes and sizes. Diversity. Socially impactful moments. Some printed signage elements, he says, have shifted to digital: perhaps a tablet computer that allows the shopper to explore a different way. “The customer is comfortable using an iPad or viewing a video stream.” Digital components, he says, are more economical, and can be updated every day. He adds that printed signage is, “expensive to print, produce, and ship. Brands are aware of what that cost is.”
Asked what it takes for in-person shopping to meet the needs of customers who are well-aware of their online shopping options, Thurston says showrooming — where a customer sees the product in-store but orders their specific size, for example, online — is not a strong solution. He says that while consumers have an increased willingness to order online, “to touch it, choose it, and not be able to buy it is frustrating.” This frustration, he says, “is [partly] why online shopping has flatlined a bit.”
The ability for retailers to connect with the customer through every channel they choose, says Thurston, is the most recent development in the in-person retail shopping experience. Today, he says, luxury brands are using customer relationship management (CRM) tools and other data to monitor and tailor the retail experience. The question, he says, is, “How do we enhance the digital experience; bring the website to life?” Effective use of in-store elements, be they printed or digital, “can lead to a dramatic rise in conversion rates." And, in so doing, Thurston says “humanity comes back to the website,” deals can be closed, loyalty and trust are built.
Retail Graphics, Contained
Brian Morrison, vice president of visual merchandising at The Container Store, says printed elements are a key visual medium in its retail locations, “to story-tell around our products, campaigns and services, conveying informative messaging, and inspirational imagery.” The company’s in-store graphics, he says, are used to highlight specific products and to evoke emotion. They are designed with a combination of images, he says, that inspire “complete solutions while touting individual product features and benefits.”
Morrison says that while the use of graphics and other print media has always been part of the in-person experience at The Container Store, the company has “increased the use of imagery showcasing complete solutions and the emotional connections to a well-organized space.” He says the mix of graphic elements used, “has stayed relatively the same — with a heavy focus on printed graphics.” That said, the company has “started incorporating screens within some departments to make content changes easier and more timely, and to showcase more engaging content like video and slideshows of inspirational images.”
He says printed graphics have evolved to sit within product frames to help highlight specific product collections. These elements, he says, include the use of a large-scale SEG lightbox displays to showcase products throughout the year, “without the necessity and cost associated with changing in-store displays.”
While Morrison says there is no doubt customers appreciate the convenience of online shopping, “there will always be a need for the physical store.” He says The Container Store is known by its customers as a solutions-based retailer, and that the coupling of service and selection brings a heightened experience in its stores, driven by expertise. BOPIS, he says, has become a necessity that presents logistical challenges, but also challenges the company to ensure its online and in-store elements “work together to provide a seamless, whole-brained customer experience.”
Morrison says that in the post-COVID world, the in-store experience is more important than ever: Online engagements should mimic the in-store experience, and the in-store experience should now be an extension of the online experience. “While online engagement can capture the attention of a customer and provide them immediacy,” he says, “the in-store experience can capitalize on that by providing a deeper connection to the brand. The two should be seen as a complementary, mutually beneficial experience to