From a career as a self-employed carpenter to a creative designer working with some of the World’s most respected brands, Robin Aarons gives us his take on what is happening in retail, the continued evolution of experience and the pockets of opportunity that are emerging for brands.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in retail thanks to the pandemic?

The rise of QR codes. When this technology was first launched it was a huge challenge to get people to interact with them. The pandemic and social distancing pushed this and now everyone knows how to use them, they’re way more commonplace. Especially in hospitality where you can order and pay with more ease and minimal interaction. We’ve seen this shift affect retail too, people are more comfortable and actually use them. They can be a great tool to generate more engagement with people in-store and link social platforms to the space.

Which brand is doing things well?

All Birds has just done a collaboration with adidas that focuses on super sustainable footwear – they’re like the tesla of shoes, sustainable but not that good looking. And yet somehow they have this allure that celebrities and the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley love. The IPO took off because they were one of the first direct-to-consumer brands to go public. The difference between All Birds and other DTC brands that have failed is that they transcended fashion and became a lifestyle brand which increases relatability.

When it comes to change, where you put your money as a consumer is a vote in that direction. Those that purchased electric cars early on pushed the industry forward faster. The same with sustainable products and lifestyle brands. This is an area that is only set to grow as more people become invested in the brands themselves.

Can you give us an example of an amazing experience you’ve had recently?

Two of the best experiences I’ve had were at Manchester Science Museum. One was a mirror room with a projector wall that simulated going into a black hole. It was the trippiest thing – five minutes of complete immersion. The other was a wall made of fog – the name of the exhibition escapes me – you could speak into a box and it wrote it in the fog. It was really interesting because the fog felt so natural, when in reality it was completely the opposite and highly technical.

There’s definitely room to bring more of this into retail experiences. Creating those massively experiential moments would go a really long way in setting brands apart.

What trends are you seeing now that will be big in the next year?

Positivity is definitely a huge trend. We’re seeing more clients and brands in general creating upbeat narratives that push optimism and positive values. Perhaps in reaction to the last couple of years and everything that’s happened. It’s the antithesis of fear and dread.

Sustainability will continue to be a big focus. It’s coming through in every client brief – not only just to be sustainable but to tell that story to customers. In the past when we pushed for the more sustainable option there would often be reservations due to cost. Now, it’s expected. Anything that isn’t will likely not be considered. 

Which sector is the most disruptive when it comes to physical retail?

Car companies are definitely creating a paradigm shift in the way that products are being sold. The most innovative are moving away from traditional dealerships and into experiential spaces where people can experience the brand, rather than the specific car.

I’ve been to visit quite a few recently and Ford is an example of an older company that is experimenting with this new approach. The new Mustang can only be purchased online and not in dealerships, which is the same model that Polestar and Tesla use. Interestingly the guy at the dealership was adamant that this wasn’t the right way to go and that they would sell better through dealerships. Whereas the general narrative from Polestar and Tesla is that this approach is the future – that is, experiencing the brand in designated brand spaces before making your personalised order online. It will be interesting to see how this evolves and what disparities arise.

Which sector needs to up its game?

Fast fashion is definitely starting to show its age. People are wising up to the implications that come with cheap merchandise. Pair this with an unenjoyable shopping experience and the hype starts to die.

Chain coffee shops is another one. Everyone’s familiar with the big names on the high street and are stuck with this ‘impression’ but in reality the experience is dated. It’s a huge contrast to the independent coffee scene where they offer much more to the community than a drink.

Generally speaking, mainstream chain brands are slow to adapt meaning that the future for independent brands is optimistic. It would be amazing to see more independent clothing shops coming through. 

Where are the opportunities for disruption in retail? 

The experiential side of shopping is only just starting. People don’t have a handle yet on what this will look like. A lot of traditional retailers started with a market mentality – the more you show to the customer, the more chance they will see something that they like and make a purchase. Sometimes, the problem with this approach is that people get to see the product but not experience the brand.

People can be intimidated and overwhelmed by choice. A brand’s job is to make the consumer’s life easier. When it comes to fashion, it’s natural for people to look to social media for inspiration – what products to buy, how and where to wear them. A retailer that can provide that added layer of personalisation in-store will be a game changer. It’s much more effective to showcase a tailored solution that will resonate with people rather than throwing everything at them. There is an opportunity for brand’s to get better at providing 1-1 service that makes the customer feel like the most important person in the room. The challenge is making this affordable – this is where technology comes in, augmented reality and virtual reality can fill a gap.

We will see more online retailers launching experiential spaces. Encouraging people to be part of a brand identity, while experiencing the product rather than just looking at it.  It doesn’t matter where you buy it – whether it’s at the store or online once you get home. In our ‘shareable’ world, these points of interaction are much more important for building brand recognition and loyalty. It’s all about the connection and the longer term payoff that this will have on product sales and brand engagement.

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