The Most High-Tech Shoe Stores of Tomorrow

What will the future of retail look like? According to top designers, architects and

technology experts, the stores that will stand out in 2020 and beyond will deliver convenient, technologically customized, one-of-a-kind shopping experiences — events, really.

Sure, five years is a long way away in design terms, said Jason Goldberg, group VP for commerce strategy at digital-marketing agency Razorfish. But he expects stores to look “dramatically different” by then due in large part to the evolving transparency of data and the related prospects for interconnectivity. And even though stores are expected to be smaller, thanks to technology, retailers will be able to offer even more curated and stronger product assortments to make the shopping experience richer, according to Goldberg, who is known on Twitter as @retailgeek.

“Anything that’s knowable about you and what you like and what works for you, salespeople are going to know,” Goldberg said. That will make going to stores to pick out items less of a priority, so shoppers will be looking for experiences — and that will change the visual appearance of stores.

First, the growing popularity of mobile checkout should reduce the need for traditional

cash-wrap areas. But stores will still need distinct customer service areas as an anchor for service and hospitality, noted Monica Gerhardt, VP of client services at FRCH Design Worldwide’s specialty retail-design group.

Instead, the utility provided by the traditional cash wrap will likely become more modular and spread around stores — possibly even hidden from view. For checkout, “it’s really about giving customers choice. The retailers that are going to get it right are going to give them choice,” said Cristina Ferrari, associate director of brand strategy in specialty retail design at FRCH.

For a Hush Puppies store prototype FRCH worked on recently, visual merchandising took priority. The cash wrap was replaced with several spots where customers can check out via mobile devices. And a “social rail” provides tablets for customers for an “endless aisle” experience.

But even the idea of endless aisles — where mobile devices like iPads let customers shop for different sizes and colors while in the store — may not be as important by 2020 since customers will know in advance of heading out whether a particular item comes in certain variations, Goldberg said. So in-store experiences will become the priority, something he calls “retail theatre.” Goldberg expects this concept to replace what is now known as “a store with the cash register.”

Here’s one example of retail theatre that’s specific to footwear-shopping five years out, as envisioned by Goldberg: “It’s going to be easier to know exactly how a shoe fits you,” he predicted. “You have a favorite pair of shoes that fit you perfectly. With big data and digital displays in the stores, it’s possible to say that those Cole Haan 6.5 pumps are the most comfortable shoes you know of, and now you want running shoes. A 3-D scan of all the shoes in the store will show that the New Balance size 7 is most

similar to the footwell of those favorite Cole Haan pumps.”

Looking at store design, consumers will respond to “residential and inspirational environments,” said MJ Munsell, senior principal and design leader for retail studio MulvannyG2 Architecture. That means comfortable couches and inviting, warm spaces to try on shoes. Enough space, especially in footwear retail, is “critical to a customer wanting to feel physically comfortable. They need space with the salesperson, the customer and the boxes.”

Retailers also are likely to pay a premium for flexible, more open floor plans to accommodate better in-store experiences. These designs will be more appealing to shoppers and make future remodels easier.

Munsell envisions “a highly flexible environment that doesn’t look flexible. I see easy ways a store can move things around, but where not everything is on casters. Retailers can build into their structures flexible spaces for events or special products.” That’s important since typical remodel times average five years, with some as long as 10 years.

Munsell noted that pop-up areas in stores will help create zones where customers can

expect to see or experience something special, such as customization portals. “That’s a great way to create change and attract customers — and it’s fun,” she said. “Even if you’re not customizing your own shoe, it’s fun to see other people doing it.”

Customization is expected to evolve to where shoppers may be able to get shoes they either design or customize themselves in as little as 10 minutes to two days. Faster and cheaper rapid prototyping via 3-D technology will likely make customization easier than ever, which at first may mean shoppers will get to see a prototype of a product before they order, said Gerhardt. Brands such as Converse, Nike ID, Vans, New Balance and Timberland have already proven that customers want to create their own products.

Even if customized orders can’t ship in two days, many shoppers will still be happy to wait for such special merchandise, said Ron Singler, a principal at architecture firm Callison. He noted that other customers may prefer to pick up pre-selected, pre-researched and pre-reserved shoes, per the so-called omnichannel initiatives retailers also need to embrace now.

“It’s not going to be all or nothing. It’s going to be a blend of everything. Even Millennials want things that are hand-crafted. The future might be great for the grab-and- go guy who wants to drive up to a vending machine, swipe his card and pull out a pair of shoes, but [it’s also bright] for [the shopper who wants] super-personalized, hand-crafted items,” Singler said.

Elsewhere on the technology front, Goldberg thinks price tags will be replaced by digital “fact tags” that could include live ratings and reviews, which he calls “social proof-enabled” technology.

Better in-store displays that help customers decide what they want will make sense as well, he added. Tech advancements might even show an item on a person via virtual reality. “I could see [virtual reality] in the shoe business,” said Michael Gatti, senior associate and retail-studio director for global design firm Gensler. “[A shopper could

think], ‘These dress shoes aren’t for jeans. I want to see this [shoe with] dress slacks.’ It could happen in the mirror. Technology has gotten to a point where it’s better and better with things like that.”

With amazing customer service as the hallmark of effective retailing, store spaces in five years will thrive on faster, more targeted communications with shoppers. Imagine widespread use of iBeacon, a Bluetooth-enabled technology that can push coupons

to mobile phones and watches. That’s in addition to tracking a customer’s moves in the store and even helping them navigate to the location of a specific product in the store, Gerhardt said.

Finally, localization and sustainability will remain important to thoughtful retailers down

the line. Singler said this refers not only to locally sourced goods becoming a larger part of stores’ offerings, but also the use of locally sourced, sustainable materials, such as existing wood, in the physical space. Reusing materials that are already in stores by repainting or reimagining how they’re used will become part of mainstream thinking.

Sustainability also is expected at this point, allowing customers to bond with a brand over shared values and authenticity.

Above all, retailers need to embrace experimentation with store sizes, concepts, designs and technology. “Really good retailers are patient. They understand that a little bit of testing has to happen to get to the right formula,” Gatti said. Monica Gerhardt, VP of client services at FRCH Design Worldwide’s specialty retail-design group.

Instead, the utility provided by the traditional cash wrap will likely become more modular and spread around stores — possibly even hidden from view. For checkout, “it’s really about giving customers choice. The retailers that are going to get it right are going to give them choice,” said Cristina Ferrari, associate director of brand strategy in specialty retail design at FRCH.

For a Hush Puppies store prototype FRCH worked on recently, visual merchandising took priority. The cash wrap was replaced with several spots where customers can check out via mobile devices. And a “social rail” provides tablets for customers for an “endless aisle” experience.

But even the idea of endless aisles — where mobile devices like iPads let customers shop for different sizes and colors while in the store — may not be as important by 2020 since customers will know in advance of heading out whether a particular item comes in certain variations, Goldberg said. So in-store experiences will become the priority, something he calls “retail theatre.” Goldberg expects this concept to replace what is now known as “a store with the cash register.”

Here’s one example of retail theatre that’s specific to footwear-shopping five years out, as envisioned by Goldberg: “It’s going to be easier to know exactly how a shoe fits you,” he predicted. “You have a favorite pair of shoes that fit you perfectly. With big data and digital displays in the stores, it’s possible to say that those Cole Haan 6.5 pumps are the most comfortable shoes you know of, and now you want running shoes. A 3-D scan of all the shoes in the store will show that the New Balance size 7 is most

similar to the footwell of those favorite Cole Haan pumps.”

Looking at store design, consumers will respond to “residential and inspirational environments,” said MJ Munsell, senior principal and design leader for retail studio MulvannyG2 Architecture. That means comfortable couches and inviting, warm spaces to try on shoes. Enough space, especially in footwear retail, is “critical to a customer wanting to feel physically comfortable. They need space with the salesperson, the customer and the boxes.”

Retailers also are likely to pay a premium for flexible, more open floor plans to accommodate better in-store experiences. These designs will be more appealing to shoppers and make future remodels easier.

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