Physical stores are the new frontier for innovation

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If you talk about innovation today, especially in retail, the conversation moves very quickly to digital: AR, VR, contactless, the metaverse etc. This is to be expected, digital is a vastly untapped resource and it is evolving quickly to create new opportunities which companies must seize and exploit.

But, as always, tunnel vision is a dangerous thing. The strong return of in-person sales and in-store results for leading brands shows that physical stores are as relevant to the market as ever. If not more so.

These are spaces where brands can bring their story to life and create something truly unique and – most importantly – tangible for shoppers. But to do this, they need to be creative and innovative about how they use the space. The truth is that innovation has been sorely lacking in parts of travel retail for a while and there is no excuse for it.

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Just a quick glance outside our market shows that physical outlets are not just a space with the potential to create something truly special – there are many examples of brands already doing it. In fact, right now, the potential for innovation and excitement in the physical space is almost as high as the digital space.

Take a look around the market today. Balenciaga’s new brutalist store in Bond Street is a showcase of doing something different with a space to create buzz and attention, with a stripped-back feel that is more reminiscent of a disused warehouse than a luxury outlet. In fact, the Spanish brand is among those leading the way in the physical space at the moment; to mark the launch of a new collection, Balenciaga wrapped its Mount Street store in faux pink fur – a great example of how simple eye-catching innovation can be.

Moncler’s Genius stores are another easy example of creating true experience and immersion in a physical space. The shopper is not just in a shopping space but truly steps into the Moncler world. This is what shoppers want when they enter a store; they do not want to see a basic space covered in the trappings of a brand, they want to feel like they have stepped into a piece of the brand itself.

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Some are already doing this in travel retail. Highsnobiety and Heinemann’s GateZero concept feels like nothing else in the market and that is why it stands out.

Now, I know it is easy to talk about innovating physical stores and I appreciate it is hard to totally modify a space you do not own, but the travel retail industry must begin to think outside the box.

The ‘gallery’ approach is a good example. Givenchy’s TK-360 display at Antonioli in Milan is an excellent example of creating a striking display that transports shoppers outside of simple retail and into the realm of experience and excitement. The Viale di Lusso which opened at Hamad International Airport in Qatar shows that travel retail can do something like this.

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But a novel approach to using space is also needed. Take Louis Vuitton’s Fashion Valley installation for LV Set, which featured an AR experience on a tennis court installation complete with giant tennis balls. This is an eye-catching design which can be put in otherwise wasted space. It generates its own buzz and creates entertainment and engagement. Most importantly, it gives the shoppers a moment.

We must all keep our eye on the next evolution of digital and what we can do with it, but we must never lose sight of the fact that there is great potential still to be realised in the physical space too. We have not yet reached the pinnacle of physical retail. Not even close.