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From the Editor’s Desk: Are Experience Centers the Future of Retail?

INSIGHTS


Why are retailers refurbishing their brick-and-mortar showrooms into soft-selling

customer experience centers?


By Nolan Lewis

7 Dec 2023


World of Volvo in Gothenburg, designed by Henning Larsen | Image Courtesy Volvo


According to the British Retail Consortium (BRC), retail footfall in the UK decreased by

17.1% following the pandemic, and High Street footfall dropped by 24.2%. Several studies across the world analyzing consumer trends reported similar fates.


In the years following the COVID-19 pandemic, there seems to have been a massive shift in how shoppers perceive and engage with retail outlets and showrooms. Many big businesses across the globe have had to pull down the shutters to outlets that displayed merchandise in a cut-and-dried fashion, which points to an inability to influence the post- pandemic consumers' purchasing decisions with conventional, hard-sell marketing tactics.


The Rise of Customer Experience (CX) Design

A 2019 study by global architecture firm Gensler indicated that even before the pandemic an overarching majority of companies were looking to improve Customer Experience (CX), and that there was growing interest in experience design — an avenue for brand engagement and business value. More recently, a study published by global management consultancy McKinsey details the evolution of Customer Experience (CX) as a design journey defining the customer's end-to-end experience in retail.


Fixing the situation are architects and interior designers across the world, as well as Chief Design Officers of corporate giants who are increasingly using CX to shape retail aesthetics, strategy, and operations. Enter Customer Experience Centers (CECs) — physical environments that allow brands to put their best image forward. In layperson's terms, this means offering breathing space to the consumer rather than following transactional retail models. For instance, creating spaces filled with live demos, themed events, and innovative technology subtly intertwined with a brand's ethos.


Bescom Experience Center in Bengaluru, designed by Rubenius | Image Courtesy Rubenius


There is such a significant need for traditional brick-and-mortar spaces to translate into CECs that many interior design firms, such as the Bengaluru-based Rubenius, now

specialize in designing experience centers. Its portfolio includes the design of an 800-

square-foot immersive and adaptable experience center for Kewaunee, one of the biggest lab manufacturers in the world. The design is modeled on the idea of a labyrinth, with every corner offering the visitors a unique technology-enabled encounter. The firm has also created a highly interactive space for Bengaluru's electricity supplier Bescom that allows visitors to monitor electricity transmission in the grid, train personnel in critical thinking, and simulate scenarios for the public.


The Commercialisation of Empathy

In his 2007 book Thoughts on Interaction Design, author and design strategist Jon Kolko highlighted the importance of creating a holistic dialogue between a person and a product, system, or service. “This dialogue is both physical and emotional in nature,” he wrote, “and is manifested in the interplay between form, function, and technology as experienced over time.”


By offering a curated environment designed around empathetic conversations and tailored experiences, a business is more likely to make its audiences feel seen, heard, and receptive and, ultimately, build brand loyalty in the long run.



Apple Union Square in San Francisco, designed by Foster + Partners | Image Courtesy Apple


Over the years, on the website of American tech giant Apple, the names of its flagship

stores have evolved — from "Apple Store, Valley Fair" to "Apple Valley Fair" and similarly for "Apple The Grove" and "Apple Union Square" "We are reinventing the role our stores and employees play in the community,"Apple's former Senior Vice President, Angela Ahrendts, stated to Fortune magazine in 2016. "We want to be more like a town square, where the best of Apple comes together, and everyone is welcome."

Today, many of the company’s experience centers worldwide hold smartphone

photography classes and coding classes for kids. Local artists are invited to host design workshops and there are boardrooms for entrepreneurs to discuss ideas. The result? Many people drop in for entertainment and inevitably purchase an Apple product.


Retail With a Purpose

When Kohler’s 10,000-square-foot experience center opened in West Hollywood in late 2017 with what it called “Experience Rooms,” it seemed like a gimmick. But it worked.


The center allows people to schedule a free, one-hour reservation for an elegantly

designed master-bath suite where one can try out the soaking tub, a smart toilet that raises its lid upon approach, and a shower that emulates raindrops and the patterns of a warm summer storm, complete with a deluge cycle.


"It's a differentiator," notes David Kohler, the company’s CEO, of the experiential space. "People talk about the future of brick-and-mortar [shopping], well, you need to give people a purpose to go there. And if you're just doing and selling the same thing online, there's no purpose to go."



World of Volvo in Gothenburg, designed by Henning Larsen | Image Courtesy Henning Larsen


Brands across the globe are learning from such examples. In 2022, Danish architectural

firm Henning Larsen unveiled the design for World of Volvo, a 22,000-sqm experience

center for the luxury car maker in Gothenburg. Designed around the Swedish concept of Allemansrätten (denoting the fundamental right that all citizens share to nature) the circular form of the building encompasses both care of nature and consideration for people, encouraging visitors to make their own experience both inside and outside.


Once it opens in April next year, “the World of Volvo will be a venue where there’s always something going on, from permanent and temporary vehicle exhibitions to performances, experiences and meetings,” says the company. “A vibrant, gestalt-shifting place where people meet, create, experience and get inspired.”


And perhaps that is what it will take for retail to head successfully into the next half

century.


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