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Op-Ed | It's Not Retail That's Dying. It's Our Imagination.

Retail executives can learn a lot from Disneyland and the world's largest fish market, argues Shilpa Shah.
Source: Shutterstock
By
  • Shilpa Shah

NEW YORK, United States — I've always loved Disneyland. Hundreds of people navigating through so many different spaces, crafting their own journey, and not a rock out of place or an adult that wasn't in some kind of character. As a kid I wanted so badly to be a part of it that I actually tried out for a role as Goofy in the Main Street Parade (it was the only character where my height and lankiness worked to my advantage).

I didn't get the job, but many years later I finally landed a role I was more suited for: designing the digital version of the magical journey through Disney’s parks. One of the perks was I got to go to Disneyland whenever I wanted. So one day, I brought my mom with me. And the same woman who all those years ago had frantically chased us kids around the park went into a trance. I literally had to pry her away from watching the princess parading toward her castle. In a strange reversal of roles, it was her bolting into the gift shop searching for something she could take home with her. She was asking for the exact same thing I had wanted all those years — a way to prolong the magic. To extend the feeling she had, by bringing back an artefact that could transport her.

A retail space gives the opportunity to curate an immersive, emotional experience.

I still think about the power of that moment today. As shopping trends and consumers continue to change and evolve, how do we create an experience where people can ​feel?​ ​Now that customers can pick out any product in any size and colour online, a retail space gives the opportunity to curate an immersive, emotional experience. A chance to let people see, touch and feel their way through their own experience. To discover a brand, one tiny, thoughtfully curated moment at a time.

When I hear people say "retail is dead," I think to myself: it's not retail that's dying, it's our imagination. That same lack of creativity now crowds retail spaces with juice bars and coffee shops, or as I like to call it, the "insert beverage here" strategy.

Who actually goes out for a cup of coffee and comes home with a couch? If that happened to you, you probably wouldn't go back to that coffee shop very often. But it's as though the digital goals of maximising impressions and time on-site are spilling onto the retail floor.

There are countless other ways that a tech-blinded mindset is distorting retail. My other favourite strategy, "insert iPad here," has people putting sensors, beacons and technology where it doesn't belong, or is just plain creepy. Like, why are some stores collecting data every time a customer moves a product on a rack? What ever happened to someone just going over and starting a conversation?

When I used to consult with companies about designing digital solutions, the first thing I wanted to know was: what problem are you trying to solve? This helps us shift from thinking about products to thinking about people. You want to create a really personalised experience? Map out a customer's journey, then figure out what they need at every step along the way.

On a recent trip to Japan, I stopped by Tsujiki, the world's largest fish market, looking to buy one of the famed Japanese steel knives. My experience belied the market's impersonal size. A craftsman taught my family and me about the regions of Japan and their history of blade making. We tried out various knives and hand-selected the one we would eventually take home. We picked the handle and watched as they moulded the knife, sharpened the blade and hammered our family’s initials into the handle before it was presented to us with a ceremonial hand platter.

With an overcrowded retail space, consumers respond to an intimate journey​. People want to feel the way I felt after meeting that knife maker, or how my mom felt when she got to see Disneyland as an adult. But to create that feeling, many brands are leaning into the idea of crafting “experiential retail.”

Map out a customer's journey, then figure out what they need at every step along the way.

However, I don’t believe there is such a thing as experiential retail. If you design for it, you’re solving the wrong problem. The real solution is to design an authentic experience for your customers and experiential retail will happen organically.

Each brand has key moments that are unique to their identity. Experiences, which in essence are a compilation of moments, are created by designing touchpoints centred around these key identity elements. Strung together, these elements create an intimate retail experience. It’s similar to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books from our youth.

By focusing on intentional and unique brand details, brands can craft a retail roadmap where any customer can wander into the store and and experience the brand in a their own personal way. Thoughtful details create an immersive experience, which allows consumers to feel like the store was made just for them.

The details are what distinguish the real thing from cheap imitation. In an age of manufacturing ​en masse​ and copycat e-commerce, the feeling of true connection is one thing that can't be knocked off. It comes from within your brand, from celebrating what makes you who you are. Retail's not dead. You just have to remember to feel for your own pulse when you try to reimagine its future.

Shilpa Shah is the co-founder and chief experience officer of Cuyana.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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