Retail Is Not Dead: Storytelling Through the Physical Environment

Industry observers continue to sound the death knell for retail, citing increasing growth in online sales, the shuttering of many a bricks-and-mortar chain, and changing consumer shopping behaviors. They've got it all wrong, though: retail and online operations are not at all at odds with each other. In fact, the digital and physical spaces can and should augment each other.

There is an opportunity in retail today that is largely unrealized: that of telling powerful stories through the retail environment and reinforcing them in the virtual one. Smart companies are recognizing this opportunity to elevate how consumers experience the brand. These organizations are leveraging meaningful experiences to make authentic connections with customers – ones that spark an awakening, memory or desire.  They're doing so with rich interactions that start in the physical environment and are amplified in the virtual one.  Social media has allowed for everyday influencers to broadcast their own reality shows, and powerful brand experiences in the physical world provide a great set and backdrop for storytelling in the virtual world.

Storytelling in the physical world is about bringing your brand to life. For a performance brand, that might mean leveraging a story behind the technology used, such as the fibers in a jacket. A lifestyle brand might bring emotive experiences to life in the physical world.

Nike, for example, paired the physical and digital in its #RISEABOVE truck tour, which consisted of a custom truck that allowed youths -- many of whom were of a generation that had never seen Michael Jordan play -- to test out new Jordan performance footwear. The truck featured a digital vertical leap test (a tie-in to Jordan's legendary four-foot vertical leap), with players sharing their results on a nationwide competition tracked on social media.

Storytelling can be done anywhere your customers are. Zappos leveraged the physical with its #ImNotaBox campaign, which used the company's only guaranteed touchpoint with its customers – the shoebox. During the campaign, each pair of shoes was shipped in a box full of hours of fun, family-friendly activities. The campaign tapped into the digital realm with a video and expanded into a competition linked to social media, with consumers required to tweet a creation made from any box, not just Zappos', to enter.

The physical world offers a powerful storytelling experience because it appeals to each of the five senses. Consumers physically feel the brand story – feeling the softness of a sweater or inhaling the new-leather smell of a jacket. The best of the best take it a step further, connecting that story by hitting on different emotions. The #RISEABOVE tour did that by targeting inner-city communities that were rarely the focus of large brand marketing efforts, prompting impromptu block parties as families rallied around the truck to try on shoes and talk to Nike's brand ambassadors. The #ImNotaBox campaign also appealed to consumers' emotions with a moving video of a young boy building a homeless man a home with a Zappos box.

The best storytellers bring the digital into the physical in a meaningful way that reinforces the story and adds value to a customer's experience. Rather than simply replicating ad materials or a website on in-store flat screens, for example, the display might change based on how the consumer interacts with the product in the physical world – for instance, with a sensor that triggers content about cushioning and tread when the customer examines the sole of a shoe.

In London, Burberry ran a campaign inspired by its monogrammed scarves that allowed passers-by to create a customized scarf on their smartphones and broadcast it (and change the direction it was flying in) across the famous curved screen in Piccadilly Circus.  Consumers then shared the experience they had via their social channels, fueling a campaign that went far beyond the experience itself.

This tactic taps into consumer behavior itself. When something is special, people tend to want to share it.  Millennials, for example, are a socially driven generation that has grown up with and expect high-quality experiences. Shopping for this group, which has surpassed the Baby Boomers as the largest living generation, is more socially connected than ever. That's why 81 percent of Millennials' dollars are still spent in stores, not online, according to NPD Group. Baby Boomers, on the other hand, are looking to share experiences with their family and friends, and some brands are tapping into that by creating events that bring the whole family together.  Brands that tell stories, invite interaction, and encourage sharing can attract and convert consumers into purchasers.

A major challenge, however, is that storytelling through the physical environment requires a shift in thinking. A handful of brands do it really well – Kith, Burberry, Warby Parker, Nike and Under Armour are a few. A company solely focused on direct ROI, however, will find it hard to embrace spending its entire budget for a campaign on a single store in New York City, or a handful of stores in key markets. The campaign isn't likely to drive a lot of sales at those locations, although the impact of real-world events on purchasing is trending up. Rather, they are going to realize a massive return through influencers who experience the brand and tell others about it.

Experience is everything. Big brick-and-mortar retailers had a tough year in 2016, with an ongoing shift to online and mobile spending as evidenced by hundreds of store closures and high-profile bankruptcies. Connecting with consumers on a deeper, more personal level through physical storytelling can help brands differentiate themselves from the increasingly commoditized shopping experience offered by Amazon and other digital marketplaces – and bring their brands to life.

Bryan Laing is vice president of client services at IDL Worldwide and has more than a dozen years of experience helping leading global brands, including Nike, Jordan, Converse, Foot Locker, and many others, bring their brands to life in the physical world. He works closely with IDL's key clients to help them create environments that get people feeling, talking and sharing, and that allow them to connect meaningfully with their fans in real time.