Article by Neil Ginty and Steven Lovell, WDA

Creativity tends to thrive in times of crisis. It needs to. Right now, we are seeing accelerated innovation across society, not least in retail, where some of the changes may well become permanent.

Online shopping has obviously emerged as a serious competitor, but 99% of consumers still shop in physical stores, according to pre-COVID research by the Harris Poll. Ease, immediacy, and experience were the main draws and will likely continue to be despite the continued need for social distancing restrictions.

The crisis, then, presents an opportunity for innovative interventions that could re-energize the sector into the long-term future. As part of that effort, our retail team at WDA got together to discuss ideas the future of shopping and which of the social distancing responses could have value as permanent solutions.




The focus on cleanliness and space required by the pandemic restrictions could well lend to a showroom model. A shift towards a smaller footprint was already a rising trend. These smaller stores could effectively become showrooms with inventory stored in larger back-of-house areas or even off-site at a nearby “last-mile” facility, which would likely be more secure too.

Online retailer Bonobos has pointed the way for this model and invested significantly in physical “Guideshops” where shoppers can try on clothes to help them decide what to buy. Nike operates similarly with their specialized Nike+ Trial Zones that focus on individual sports such as basketball, running, and soccer. They describe these specialized showrooms as “immersive experiences” with the opportunity, for example, to test a pair of soccer cleats on a real turf field in the store.




The idea of a retail experience being more than just shopping isn’t new. Bookstores with coffee shops inside has long been popular but the idea of partnering with some other service is something many other types of stores could look to embrace. Gyms often sell activewear, but WDA retail-design specialist Chris Telles believes that idea could be flipped by bringing the gym into the retail space.

Adding a service component to stores is really interesting; it could be another way to get your clientele to come in,” he says. “Lululemon already has a yoga studio component. Coupling that added service with a tech-partnership such as Mirror’s ‘nearly invisible home gym’ innovation could take it to the next level.”




Much of this creativity is about establishing personal engagement and exclusivity. The Harris Poll survey found that 50% of consumers said they would be willing to pay more to get personalized assistance or advice from an in-store sales associate.

Nordstrom Local stores in New York and California use personal shoppers to deliver a new kind of shopping experience. The New York Times described the environment as “a kind of neighborhood hub, where customers can get manicures, have a shirt altered, pick up parcels purchased online or sip rosé from the well-stocked bar. They do not come to shop — at least not in the traditional sense.”




Amazon Go’s cashier-less innovation likely has an added appeal in our new normal, but a wide range of technology could serve to promote the retail experience as a destination.

“There could be possibilities with augmented reality technology,” said WDA founder, William Duff, AIA, LEED AP. “There are eyeglasses stores, such as Ditto which we worked on, where you can try on any type of glasses digitally in the store. You could start to do the same with clothes and reduce the space required for dressing rooms and stock.”

Bespoke by Westfield San Francisco has a retail-centric co-working pop-up facility that connects the physical and virtual worlds. Online retail companies can connect their digital brand to the physical world by testing their product in real time with consumers and use the co-working facility to immediately continue development.

Shopping center stakeholders, generally, are looking for ways to create different experiences to supplement the shopping amenity. Westfield San Francisco has also added virtual reality attraction, the Void, where shoppers can immerse themselves in top action movies such as Avengers or Star Wars. Meanwhile, Brookfield Properties are imagining their redesign of the Stonestown Galleria to achieve something similar. “By considering outdoor space, adding housing, creating better ways to move around the site and providing new experiences,” Brookfield Properties senior vice president, Jack Sylvan, told the San Francisco Examiner, “it can be a mixed-use community gathering space and a destination.”




Just as after the 1918 flu pandemic came the Roaring Twenties, the human instinct for social interaction will again see people return to what they love doing, including shopping. It will be exciting to discover what creative experiences will have sprung up by the time we get there.

Interested in learning more, or have a project you’d like to collaborate on? We’re happy to help bring your project to life! Contact us to start the conversation.

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