Experiential stores are rethinking strategies — with virtual pop-ups, sanitised shops on wheels, and experiments with augmented reality

“I’ve really been grateful for lockdown; it has been my most amazing six months,” says Raul Rai, co-founder of lifestyle brand Nicobar. The pandemic may have pressed the reset button for many of us, but for several retail outfits it has been a time to revisit the consumer experience. “The only word that came to mind back then was ‘reimagine’,” says Rai, adding that for Nicobar, it meant ramping up training for its staff — helping them better understand the products so they can pivot as customers’ needs change. Why? “Ultimately that affects the in-store consumer experience.”

Elsewhere, brands have been pulling out all the stops — from using augmented reality to throw open entire inventories to replacing sales consultants with QR codes, they are exploring both ends of the retail spectrum.

Vivo’s new flagship store

The lure of offline

Until just a few months ago, experiential retail ‘built relationships’ with customers through various experiments. Think Stefano Ricci’s VIP clubs with its own restaurants and cigar lounges, or Good Earth’s Paro, with a library, therapy rooms and customised playlists. But the pandemic, with social distancing protocols, threw a spanner in the works. Now, as physical stores once again welcome customers, change is the new constant. A few months ago, Amazon opened its first AI-powered grocery store in Seattle, while last month, e-commerce giant Alibaba wooed Paris with a pop-up store — complete with fashion, accessories and live ‘shoppertainment’ video streaming.

Brands are packing in as much ‘experience’ as they can. Vivo’s new flagship store in Mumbai has zones dedicated to accessories, gaming, and virtual reality. “There will be some areas where the online space might get more traction, but that doesn’t mean an epitaph for offline retail,” asserts Nipun Marya, Director – Brand Strategy. Vivo India is planning to open 20 other flagships within the next six months.

The lockdown has also resulted in different categories of customers, says Kavitha Rao, Country Commercial Manager of Ikea India — from exclusive online shoppers to those who like the best of both worlds. The retail veteran, known for its flat pack furniture, has introduced Click and Collect at its Hyderabad store (order a product online, pick it up, and design your space with the help of an Ikea staff through a remote planning feature). QR codes also help customers watch information videos on their phones. And going forward, the Swedish company is looking to open smaller stores in metros. “The world is looking at smaller format now; perhaps people want brands to be closer to them,” says Rao.

The Stage3 bus

The Stage3 bus

Shop at your doorstep

While some are reinventing the retail experience, others are taking it to the source. New Delhi-based fashion rental service, Stage3 — which had launched its flagship store last October, designed to mimic a walk-in closet — took to the road earlier this year. It revamped the back of a bus to “convert it into a sanitised store on wheels. Everyone in the van [including an in-house stylist and tailor] wears a PPE kit, and we admit one customer at a time,” says co-founder Sanchit Baweja.

Levi’s also put its pedal to the metal. “With lockdown, there was an increased demand for apparel suitable for video calls,” says Sanjeev Mohanty, Managing Director (South Asia, Middle East & North Africa), so they took it to their clients. Levi’s on Wheels, currently operating in Delhi and Gurugram, offers tops, shorts and lightweight denim-led ‘work from home’ collections. And most recently, the India vertical of Xiaomi launched their Mi Store on Wheels, with the intent of bringing their products to customers in non-metros.

StyleDotMe’s AR to enable virtual try-ons

StyleDotMe’s AR to enable virtual try-ons

Reimagining the physical

Meanwhile, technology is stepping in to fill in the gaps. Aneeth Arora, for instance, launched péro’s (the Indian brand with a strong European market) latest disco-themed collection in a virtual reality store at Ogaan’s Delhi outlet. The 3D space attempts to recreate an in-store experience and allows buyers to walk through, browse, zoom and click on each piece for more details.

Gaurav Baid, founder of Bengaluru-based digital marketing company Avataar.Me, says that augmented reality, artificial intelligence and virtual reality are finding more takers now. Business inquiries post-Covid have grown three times in the last quarter, with major traction from segments like home decor, consumer electronics, automobile and FMCG. Avataar.Me has several projects underway, including a two-way video calling technology, where a customer can tour multiple stores in a virtual 360-degree format (reminiscent of the digital boutique Swiss watchmaker Hublot created, enabling customers to connect with sales managers in real time).

Though people are slow to adapt to such advances, Meghna Saraogi, co-founder at fashion tech start-up StyleDotMe — which uses AR to enable virtual try-ons in physical stores and online platforms — is positive they will embrace new shopping experiences. The company is now looking to expand to watches and eyewear, along with developing the technology to include 3D try-ons in the coming month.

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