Designing an Experience

Immersive Retail Offers a Glimpse into the Future of Shopping

What role do brick-and-mortar shops still play? In a landscape increasingly driven by e-commerce, it’s a question worth considering. Do you go into Arhaus just to check if there are any new arm chairs on display? Probably not—you can scroll through its website. Do you go into a Finish Line only to try on a new pair of running shoes? Maybe, but wouldn’t it be easier to just purchase two pairs online and then mail back the pair that doesn’t fit? Do you visit your local antique shop just to browse? That sounds wonderful in theory, but what if the store is closed by the time you’re off work? And what if you’d rather spend your day off at the beach?

These are the sorts of problems that retail strategists like Melissa Gonzalez spend their days pondering. Gonzalez, founder of the Lion’esque Group and author of the book The Pop-Up Paradigm: How Brands Build Human Connections in a Digital Age, believes that physical stores still have an unique role to play in the shopping experience. She referred to this role as “bridging the touch-and-feel gap.” However, traditional brick-and-mortar storefronts can no longer rely on stale tactics to bridge that gap—an “Everything Must Go” banner doesn’t guarantee business, and hosting in-store demonstrations doesn’t necessarily translate into customers testing your product.

The key to creating an immersive retail experience lies in answering this simple but complex question: What is your brand’s story?

Now imagine an appliance showroom where you can actually try out an oven or turn on a faucet. Imagine an activewear store that is staffed with your local SoulCycle instructor. That is how you bridge the “touch-and-feel gap.” It’s called immersive retail, and it’s the next big thing in shopping.

Telling Your Story

The key to creating an immersive retail experience lies in answering this clear and yet confusing question: What is your brand’s story? This question is important because, as Gonzalez said, immersive retail “adds a tangible aspect to the story a brand is telling.” But first you need a story to tell.

Take the luxury kitchen and bath distributor Pirch as a case study. Last May, Pirch debuted a new showroom in New York City, much to the design and fashion world’s delight. The 32,000-square-foot, three-floor space features working ovens and grills, private steam showers, and complimentary cooking classes and demonstrations. Visitors are treated to a complete sensory experience that simulates what living with brands like Bertazzoni, La Cornue, and Thermador would feel like if you succumbed to Pirch’s temptation.

Pirch, courtesy of Mark Steele
Photo by Mark Steele, courtesy of Pirch.

And that sensory experience isn’t limited to the appliances—the organization of the Pirch showroom mimics the desirability of the products. All of the fully functional vignettes feature surfaces from Cosentino, a famous designer of quartz and natural-stone surfaces. The displays themselves don’t even appear commercial—they look more like museum pieces, or images from your wildest design dreams. And that aspirational quality was entirely intentional. FITCH, one of the world’s most sought-after brand and retail consultants, designed the Pirch showroom. Joanne Putka, FITCH’s design director, explained that the showroom is designed “to put the customer first and allow them to dream and explore in real-to-life vignettes, including fully furnished and activated kitchens, bathrooms, and outdoor patio areas.”

Pirch is experiential and interactive, two of the key elements of immersive retail. However, none of this high-class show and tell would resonate if the experience didn’t fit into Pirch’s brand story. Putka said that “Pirch not only showcases places where customers can experience the products firsthand but where they learn about the products and live with them in their home to continue to make incredible memories.”

Pirch - Photo by Mark Steele
Photo by Mark Steele, courtesy of Pirch.

Putka also noted that “the showroom is a living, breathing showcase of how the right product can transform a space into an expression of a customer’s lifestyle.” Notice how the focus is on the product and the customer, not Pirch. This also explains the lack of price tags in the showroom. Putka added, “The focus was taken off the transaction and put on the experience of learning and experiencing.”

Pirch’s brand story is really a story of how high-quality appliances can positively impact the lives of Pirch’s consumers. What better way to illustrate that relationship than to create a space that invites, and almost forces, the two to interact? What Pirch created with FITCH’s help wasn’t a stunt; instead, it was a sincere expression of the company’s values. And that’s not only how you create a successful immersive retail experience, but it’s also how you get consumers off the internet and into your store.

A Can’t-Miss Event

Another side of immersive retail is the experiential pop-up store, the sort of project in which Gonzalez’s Lion’esque Group specializes. This past summer, Lion’esque constructed a pop-up for the activewear brand Carbon38 in Bridgehampton, on New York’s Long Island. The pop-up lasted only for the month of August, and limited-time shopping events, much like live sporting events, demand customers’ attention. To add to this sense of exclusivity, Carbon38 offered shoppers collections from hot activewear brands, like Michi and Free People, that were uniquely tailored to the Hamptons.

Photo by Carbon38
Photo provided by Carbon38.

Like Pirch, the space for the Carbon38 pop-up reflected the brand’s story—a brand created for “powerful women” that is selling workout clothes in a sparse, almost industrial space. The styling inside the space—the white lane markers on the cement floor, the track lighting in the high ceiling—was reminiscent of a hip CrossFit gym or a tough squash court.

Pop-ups work especially well for newer brands like Carbon38, which was started by two Harvard graduates in 2013. As Gonzalez said, “Pop-ups aren’t just about merchandising—they’re about data collection.” For a startup like Carbon38, the email addresses, the newsletter sign-ups, the personal responses to its products are central to guiding the company's future. Carbon38 also had plenty of iPads available for customers to check out the company’s full line, and those metrics—which tank tops were viewed the most, which shorts were viewed the least—are key components of expanding a business. The Hamptons pop-up also serves as a focus group, a place to test Carbon38’s brand messages and strategies before they are released to a commercial environment already crowded with boutique activewear.

Photo by Carbon38
Photo provided by Carbon38.

What really created headlines for Carbon38, however, was the immersive aspect of the pop-up. The location in Bridgehampton featured in-store meetings with instructors from SoulCycle and other local fitness studios, as well as après-beach champagne and other exclusive in-store events. What the Lion’esque Group created was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that consumers simply couldn’t find anywhere else, at any other time, and the fear of being left out is a feeling e-commerce can’t duplicate.

Sharing the Fun

As alluring as all of these immersive retail spaces may be, the fact remains that a big percentage of shoppers will never actually step foot in any of them. So why are brands as diverse as Burberry and YouTube committing so many resources to creating once-in-a-lifetime experiences? Pick up your phone, open any channel on social media, and you’ll find the answer—because these moments are shareable. If one person visits the visionary flagship store that Burberry built near Piccadilly Circus, in London, so will all of their followers on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Andy Warfel, who has designed experiential spaces for companies such as Vera Bradley, always considers shareability when working on a project. To make that space translate over social media, he is careful to use good lighting and large and dark type, as well as cool music to add ambience to an Instagram video. In the age of social media, it doesn’t matter how sophisticated an immersive retail experience is if it can’t be easily shared.

Warfel also mentioned that if certain people whom he deems “influencers”—celebrities, icons, heroes—are the ones doing the sharing, the impact of an immersive retail experience will be amplified. As he said, “If an environment fosters and enables sharing, then roll out the red carpet for influencers!”

There’s a reason, for example, that Pirch invited celebrities such as Nate Berkus and Padma Lakshmi to the debut of its showroom—if any of these design and food celebrities share a photo of their night, the immersive experience will proliferate across a social media ecosystem already primed with interest in their products.

“In a retail space, we champion the human factor and believe that warm interactions create a sense of community and belonging.”

FITCH very much had this idea in mind when designing the Pirch space. As Joanne Putka said, “We believe retail is continuous and that wherever you interact with the brand, be it social media, online, or in the store, the experience should be engaging and memorable. In a retail space, we champion the human factor and believe that warm interactions create a sense of community and belonging.”

And that “human factor” is what modern retail has to strive for if it hopes to prosper in the world of e-commerce. Amazon can provide bargain prices and cheap delivery, but what it can’t provide is what still matters most to consumers: community and belonging.