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Comment: Will stores become insight labs for Chameleon retailers ask James Breaks of RPA:Group

In a world obsessed with separation - think Donald Trump’s “great, great Wall” and the UK’s impending separation from the EU – it’s refreshing that retail at least supports an ecosystem fueled by inclusivity and interaction.

I am of course referring to omnichannel. Here, borders cannot be closed, evolution cannot be halted and output should signpost the desires of future generations. But do retailers understand how to fully exploit this dynamic ecosystem?

The answer appears to be no. Many retailers are embracing omnichannel in a token way. All too often the mindset is bricks and mortar + online + the brand, frequently the missing ingredient of ‘us’ the consumer.

Retailers should act more like one of nature’s triumphs: the Chameleon. This fascinating animal is seamlessly and constantly responsive to its local environment and adapts to external factors in an incredibly agile way. It is one of nature’s most flexible and responsive creatures.

Omnichannel requires a more flexible and Chameleon-like response to the consumer and the crucible for this interaction is the store space itself.

The physical shop should be every bit as flexible as its digital counterpart and both should be mutually relevant to the consumer. Brands need to understand the relationship between physical and digital experience better and allow themselves time to experiment, innovate and find what is right within their own ecosystem so they can be flexible and responsive.

Apple demonstrated this in 2001. The brand introduced collaborative side-by-side selling with passionate, knowledgeable staff who could respond to the new immediacy in the retail process. The brand promoted knowledge sharing and brand expertise (via the Genius Bar feature) and introduced open product displays, encouraging interaction with the product. In essence the brand had created its own customer laboratory, a test bed where the customer’s experience could be placed under the microscope.

Since then we’ve seen most other retail sectors adopt the same key concepts. In a word, to be more Chameleon-like. But how many retailers have a store that allows for speedy reconfiguration in response to what shoppers actually want in that particular country, city or specific locality?

Some have used a kit of parts approach whereby a new look store can ‘pop up’ through clever used of graphics and modular elements. Foot Locker’s Sidestep brand, for example, is agile, collaborative, and happy to bury its ego. At the same time, it is able to reflect its core message, react with authenticity and evolve naturally within a unique brand ecosystem.

Sidestep has created an engaging environment using storytelling, an ancient and universal form of immersion, as a base concept. The ‘style editor’ staff form an integral part of the experience by garnering feedback. This has allowed Foot Locker to experiment with content, adding and subtracting collateral and gaining feedback from the fiercely loyal customer base before committing to permanent stores.

True brand immersion relies on authentic storytelling, skillful editing and the sharing of brand essence. It can be used both to reinforce the brand and to evolve it. If you get the formula right it can be just as powerful in a Pop-up as a flagship. The only caveat is that the message has to be genuine.

Acres of prime real-estate are not necessary to perpetuate great interactions. Existing environments can benefit from a bit of Chameleon thinking too, and adapt in response to customer influences and clear brand direction.

Pro:Direct Soccer is a great example of commitment. An online performance soccer equipment retailer with an emphasis on technical specification, its website reflects a clean, punchy brand.

So rather than try to reinvent this brand experience in bricks and mortar, it has transformed its store in London’s Carnaby Street into an out-and-out gallery; a joyful unabashed interactive circus, an evolution of its existing digital presence. Fun and impactful it uses its existing digital presence to offer choice, range and fulfillment, allowing product density in-store to remain light and creating focus around hero products. It retains an authentic brand experience, and disrupts expectations in a high-rent space that would normally be packed with product.

So, some are getting it right and have understood the Chameleon concept totally, while others’ lack of adaptability and customer sensitivity makes them stick out like a sore thumb.

Wherever you find yourself, the end goal should be to use your store as a learning environment, to reflect  your customer’s thinking and desires and, most importantly, to be flexible and responsive with the knowledge you have gained.

Being a Chameleon doesn’t mean losing sight of your brand truths. It means being able to reflect the thinking of your customers in the appearance and funcionality of your store. 

James Breaks is head of design at RPA:Group

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