In retail spaces, consumer attention has shifted away from goods on racks and shelves, and toward smartphones and apps instead. In response, retailers face a growing need for elevated in-store experiences that seamlessly mesh with online platforms and web stores. The resulting retail model looks a lot less like previous notions of conspicuous consumption and a lot more like visual culture. Customers no longer kick the tires or shop till they drop. Instead they cultivate virtual feeds and inspiration boards.
Thanks to smartphones, apps, and social-media platforms like Instagram, a broader public has developed a visual vocabulary and aesthetic sensibility. Retailers, particularly in fashion, have overhauled marketing and branding strategies to promote their individual labels among broader audiences. But they also face a new challenge: how to adapt retail design to sell pictures on social-media profiles as much as, or more than, they sell garments for real bodies.
To bridge the gap between virtual and physical retail operations, behind-the-scenes organizational shifts have occurred. The professionals who actually select the merchandise for sale in retail stores once had stiff, corporate job titles like global procurement manager or internal buyer. They have since transformed into tech-savvy art directors and independent-minded brand ambassadors. These individuals focus on marketing more than goods, telling customers which brands and products are worthy of hashtags, geotags, and reposts. Likewise, the antiquated roles of store clerk and retail customer have also evolved: Shopworkers now have titles like brand specialist, and buyers have given way to “influencers” who remix shopping into a new kind of job.
Two categories of retailers have emerged from this shift. The first consists of existing companies that have overhauled their retail stores to incorporate physical and technological experiences. Nordstrom is one such example, with their Pop-In series by Olivia Kim, the company’s vice president of creative projects. The second includes web-based start-ups that are nimble with apps and social-media platforms, such as Glossier, a “people-powered beauty ecosystem” founded by Emily Weiss. Both types of retailers focus on building strong marketing narratives and immersive online experiences. Among those are “pop-up” stores, displays, or events—nomadic retail spaces that arrive and depart again within weeks or days.
You may have experienced one of these pop-ups yourself, perhaps at a smaller scale while cutting through a department store to enter a mall. Comprised of only a few racks, the display is like a store within a store. Inside, a pulsing soundtrack might drown out the surrounding Muzak, while customized lighting illuminates the specialty mannequins and displays. At a larger scale, pop-ups can become huge undertakings. The Nike+ Run Club pop-up events allow you to test-run a 5K in their newest, knit shoes—while sipping pressed juice during a live DJ set before customizing your own pair on an iPad, next to an irresistibly Instagrammable neon-light Nike swoosh. In cases like this, retailers foreground experiences worthy of capturing on a smartphone, pressing customers to share them on social media. That sharing produces both immaterial value for the individual and brand exposure for the retailer.