Back to Blog

Looking East - Retail as an Experience

Published under Retail
Written by Josh Brinkers

The high street’s having a hard time. For many it can’t compete with online shopping when it comes to convenience, since the latter essentially reduces the transactional element down to its most basic components. Therefore, it’s becoming more important for the high street to offer more than just a transaction; customers need an experience. The high street needs to be something that will tempt shoppers away from the comfortable ease of online ordering and free returns, and make the trip into town worth it once again.

In this industry we spend a decent amount time asking shoppers what they’d like to do differently when visiting a store, with the intention of understanding what the future of retail’s going to look like. In doing so we’re always testing new ideas, and recently I’ve been wondering if it’s worth looking abroad for inspiration. I’ve just come back from Japan (I assure you that this post has a point and isn’t just me reminiscing about a really cool trip) and came away thinking they really knew how to make mundane tasks into something a bit more entertaining.

The funny thing is that I don’t think retail itself is the place to look in Japan. City centres are overlooked by enormous TV screens which blast out constant ads at full volume (think of that pill-popping Geisha projected onto the sides of buildings in Blade Runner and you’ll know what I mean), and most retail chains have a theme song that’s played on a loop in-store (Yodobashi Camera’s is a kitschy jazz-pop rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic… no, I don’t know why either). Japan’s retail scene is perhaps more intrusive and over-stimulating than British shoppers might accept.

I do think, however, that retailers in the UK could learn a thing or two from Japanese fast-casual dining chains. Ordering and serving systems are consistently innovative, efficient, and above-all experiential. At Ichiran Ramen for example, food is ordered through a vending machine and served through bamboo hatches directly into your booth. If you want more noodles, you place a metal counter onto a sensor built into the table – a tune plays, and noodles appear as if from nowhere. At Uobei you’re given a tablet on which you can order individual sushi plates, which are then delivered on a cable-driven tray about a minute later. You take your dishes, press a button and the tray shoots back into the kitchens. If this all sounds fun that’s because it is, but crucially none of these examples represent a revolutionary shift in how things are already done. At the end of the day food is still ordered and it’s still delivered to a table. The way it’s done, however, makes having a meal far more engaging – these places don’t just give you dinner, they give you a show as well.

I’m not suggesting that we start carting clothes around stores on trays and replacing store staff with vending machines. However, what I am suggesting is physical locations don’t necessarily need significant changes to significantly change. It’s up to the high street to make online shopping seem like the boring option. Maybe it’s time to add a little theatre.