May 28, 2020

Store of The Now: A Shift in the Way We Buy

By Tobias Harris W., Patrick Benasillo, Ellen Maloney

When we say the word “store,” what comes to mind? We are now accustomed to shopping at online stores. Their convenience and the easy experience keeps us away from traditional brick and mortar shops that often feel dull and impersonal. However, with a new breed of stores opening up, there are newer and better reasons to return to in-person stores. Beyond buying our wants and needs, exchanging and returning products, and socializing, now we go to stores to do yoga, get tips and services, experience product features, experience new technologies, or combine a new sneaker launch social party with an art exhibition. Interesting!

Online shopping technology has shaped retail into an experiential engagement that stocks the personal and social essentials for our modern life. Tech has made the store contextually different in almost every conversation. It satisfies the needs of our busy daily activity and often satisfies our craving for social engagement and entertainment. So what defines a physical store in today's retail system, and what should we consider while curating and designing the store experience that fits our current life?

The Approach: Understanding the Lay of the Land
To guide this conversation, we will structure a physical "store” as a series of touchpoints – the brand's points of customer contact – that curate the brand's physical, visual, and emotional engagement, or "customer journey."There are many customer journey models studied by marketers, designers, and visionaries; tools invented to organize customer touchpoints rationally. We will use two examples in this discussion and start with the familiar customer journey visualized in the chart below to describe the traditional physical store:

The brick and mortar store Attracts customers with signage and branded exterior elements. It differentiates the brand’s looks, touch, and feel, and visually expresses its brand positioning. "Attract" also functions as a conduit between the advertising/marketing/PR world that draws the consumer to the brand. "Inform" and "Educate" follow, to communicate the brand, and allow customers to learn about the brand and compare products. "Decide" seals the path to purchase. The store's experience will resume at "Reassure," to thank the customer and open the door to reengagement. This customer journey has proven to be effective in retail in general, including chain food service.

The complexity of current retail practice, both physical and virtual, has shifted the purpose of the physical store. There has been a change in expression, touch, and feel, and in the way it should be designed and curated. Technology has shifted the players' credentials and changed terminology and the problem-solving approach. Every retail term, from DTC, experiential retail, omnichannel, multi-channel, to recently emerging trends like mono-channel, has created a meaning of "store" that is quite distinctive. And as a new retail approach arises, a new "store" definition emerges at lightning speed.

For example, in DTC format, technology-based customer experience (UX) expertise and thinking patterns express the brand and how it showcases its product. DTC systems allow the customer to engage with the brand, the product, and services more deeply before they decide to purchase. They provide convenience and create a new, desirable shopping culture for most customers. Skyrocketing affinity costs drove DTC to find cost-saving alternatives by opening a physical store. It also provided human customer service interactivity, a more vibrant brand and product experience, and allowed post-sales impulse buys that only can be provided by the physical shopping experience.

"Store" Format of the Now
Since the physical "store" definition has shifted, the innovation approach has shaped a new and less linear customer journey. The speed of technological innovation and rapid customer behavioral change will not allow one customer journey model to fit all. Brands have to dictate the way they communicate with their customer, and how the physical store should be purposed.  With "brand narrative" sanctity, the technology-based retail process and terminology, as well as the online/offline retail fluidity premise in mind, we are adapting the popular 5E's customer journey model to explain this change. This model will help us explain the customer journey in a broader sense with the hope that we can maintain relevancy with the current customer base wants and needs in a new physical store design process.

The brand's online presence has allowed the customer to dwell in the brand's world virtually. It showcases what the brand has to offer, as deep or as shallow as they want it to be. Customers are attracted through crafted information presented as an experience (UX), allowing them to explore at their own comfort, in their own space and time. Technology advancement has folded social media presence into the experience strategy, making promotion, advertisement, and even discovery, part of the overall virtual experience.

Strong virtual engagement has changed traditional use of signage and exterior programs as an attraction and communication tool. Instead, it functions as a confirmation, welcoming, and assurance tool. The store welcomes the customers who have already decided to engage with the brand, understand how it will benefit them, have decided on product selection, and even purchased or owned the product. The brand and their followers will determine how they want the next engagement to proceed. This engagement will lead the customer to enter the physical store that has been designed to meet specific needs as part of the overall brand journey.

The store exterior was one of the connectors between advertising and marketing to the physical store environment. This task is no longer as necessary. The customer has already been attracted to the brand and has come prepared with a wealth of information about the brand, products, and services through mostly online/mobile presence. Although signage and exterior are still valid as a place differentiator, their current important tasks are to express brand-speak, a wow factor, surprise and delight, confirmation, and assurance. The brand promise should be expressed clearly and instantly to immediately comfort the restless customer.

Providing consistent overall brand communication content is the key to the success of entering engagement. Curating an emotional connection should lead the communication in-store sequence strategy to satisfy a specific brand goal. Therefore, changeability is the requirement to keep the store's appearance fresh and to fulfill a sense of delight and progression. Flexibility to feature seasonal expression, product highlights, and social events within the same brand framework will be beneficial to providing a great entrance experience. The interesting fact that the customer is already "invited" to the store opens an opportunity to have a non-traditional experience that involves no visible exterior presence, limited signage, or even no signage whatsoever.

In the new retail ecosystem, physical "store" is another engagement channel that provides moments of comfort, joy, and magic. The brand will dictate what engagement is needed to satisfy brand-to-customer affinity: from customer service, transactions, and post-sales experience (return/exchange), product testing and engagement, product launch, events, or even just to satisfy social media (brand/customer) engagement. The era of in-store big product assortments and high inventory is over, and technology insertion and customer expectation has changed. This concept leaves us with an area of the "store" for a flexible brand and/or product immersion that needs to be adaptable to provide an ongoing brand program that relies on service and a strong brand activation program.

One idea to accommodate "flexibility" to create ever-changing, memorable experiences is by creating a branded base "system" that allows creativity to emerge. The closest benchmark to this flexible system can be found in most museum exhibition settings. The experience is the star, while the system disappears as part of the architecture.

In traditional retail transactions, purchase, product handover, and thank you are the acts of “decide” and “reassure” that end the path to purchase with a hope that customer experience changes to loyalty. In current brick and mortar stores, this exiting experience where people need to spend their cash - lining up guarded by impulse items - is unavoidable. A gesture of respect and goodbye smile might help to ease the stress. It is a culture that we have already tolerated with different degrees of satisfaction.

With current shopping technology such as mobile scan RFID, geo location tracking, automat cubicles, for example, the uneventful queueing engagement is replaced by just a seamless "walk away" - no cash transaction needed, nor waiting in line to pay. The hassle of traditional transaction culture shifts to just a quick and touchless product transaction. It is quite logical. Who wants to line up to pay, often dealing with unpleasant in-person interactions, when technology gives you the opportunity to have a bowed box waiting in a beautiful shopping bag ready to grab, or even shipped to where you want with a Big Thank You.

Constant engagement is the name of the game of the new retail ecosystem. Technology has enabled the brand and their customer to extend and maintain connection like never before. Deep, personal virtual engagement has provided the brand with an opportunity to collect information/data/preferences allowing the brand to serve the customer at a personal level. Data analysis provides brand tools that create strategy, providing the targeted action to produce products, services, and extend the engagement that meet the exact wants and needs of the customer.

A great online – instore experience fluidity is the goal of the ‘Retail of the Now’ ecosystem. Creating an engagement to keep the brand fresh and relevant over time by providing a place where it can be activated physically, providing in person and social interaction, will satisfy this fluidity measure. It will provide the brand an opportunity to enhance the overall experience satisfaction beyond online engagement, and vice versa. Successful activation will create exceptional brand loyalty that will allow the customer to accept the invitation to be part of the brand ecosystem.

The new breed of "store" is created to satisfy the lack of human touch in retail's shift due to technology. True, that technology has solved many "retail" problems, especially from an efficiency POV: distribution, inventory management, and even human personal and social behavior. However, humans, as social beings, require more than virtual connection and efficiency. Touch, feel and exploration cannot be taken out of our human nature.   

As technology has become the industrial nature of our culture and COVID 19 has accelerated technology innovations, the customer also has behaved differently than, let’s say, ten years ago. That’s why the traditional "store" feels dull and lifeless for all of us, no matter how beautiful the design is, no matter how progressive the refresh program.

So how do we bring traditional brick and mortar to the ‘Store of The Now’? A Retail Revolution is the answer. For design visionaries, a multi-disciplinary approach, retail thinking as an ecosystem beyond design, open mindedness to technology insertion, and ultimately keeping up and re-imaging customer shopping behavior is most important. Leveraging the brand vision, mission statement and how the brand interacts with the customer should always be the starting point.

Tobias Design Collaborative (tdc.) and VGS understand the current retail state of mind. We seek every opportunity to be your partner in this retail revolution era with our wealth of knowledge of current, now, and future forecast of retail. We collectively have a multi-disciplinary team of strategists, designers, technologists, and marketers, along with a collaborative approach to challenge the brand to develop a “newness”. We believe the agility to act fast based on human to brand engagement data analysis is the key. Utilizing the findings and filtering it through your brand narrative will allow us to decide how we need to create experiences that will satisfy your customer. Because we believe it all starts with understanding humanity and human needs that are sometimes forgotten in the process.

About the writers

Tobias Harris
Chief Creative Officer, Tobias Design Collaborative (tdc.), LLC., NYC
Tobias’ 15+ years of leadership in Human to Environment Interaction design demonstrate his proven expertise in brand narrative curation, technology infusion and utilization, and experiential design for global brands. His unique approach to creating a memorable physical and emotional brand experience is based on his deep love of the art of living life, where aspiration is balanced with reality to achieve greatness.

His passion has led to success stories for major national and international companies and retailers such as Coca-Cola, Hilton Worldwide, Samsung, Serta, Target, 5/3 Bank, McDonald’s, KFC, Chick-Fil-A, Pizza Hut, Busch Worlds of Discovery-Dubai, and Hershey Chocolate World.

Tobias is a board member of RDI New York Chapter. His inspiring speaking engagement for Sim Varejo 2017 - Popai Brasil as well as the Food and Wine Classic mark his accomplishment as an industry leader, visionary expert, and trendsetter. He is currently the CCO of, an experience design and strategy firm in New York City.

Patrick Benasillo
Executive Vice President, VGS & President- Studio D Creative
Patrick Benasillo, is a co-founder and Executive Vice President of Visual Graphic Systems, Inc and serves as President/CCO of Studio D- their in house design and branding agency. He has spent his entire 35-year career in the business of designing and developing Environmental Graphics, Way Finding, Brand Development and Business Strategy methodologies across 12 vertical markets. Mr. Benasillo helps to over-see a NJ based domestic fabrication facility with over 115,000 sq. feet of manufacturing space comprised of state of the art machinery and the latest in technology and 100+ skilled multi discipline craftsmen and women versed in all means, methods and materials associated with Fixtures, Signage, Graphics and Displays.

Mr. Benasillo is involved in forging new market and business development strategies for the company and has successfully spearheaded the development of numerous branding and signage programs in the retailing and foodservice industries. Mr. Benasillo speaks at various conferences as an industry expert in the areas of branding, wayfinding, consumer and visual communication strategy.

His clients are widespread and across multiple vertical segments. Patrick is a marketing, branding and design strategist who is engaged in the science of brand communication, why people buy and the psychology of selling.

He holds a BBA in marketing and business law from Pace University.

Ellen Maloney
Strategic Thinker • Problem Solver • Retail • B2B • e-Commerce • Talent Developer • Collaborator • High EQ Versatile leader experienced in driving global growth for iconic retail, fashion and luxury brands. Accomplished strategist with expertise in brand development as well as the business of brands. Adept at complex problem solving and comprehensive project management.

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