The future of retail – High Street Bladerunners and Apple in Wonderland

AT&T Flagship Chicago

AT&T’s flagship Chicago store

I was going to write this week on the manifesto from MANTOWNHUMAN – subtitled “TOWARDS A NEW HUMANISM IN ARCHITECTURE” but frankly the dystopian visions it conjured up drove such a bulldozer through any human sensibility as to prove thoroughly depressing. You can find it here if you’re that way inclined. I’d be interested in your views. Instead I’m following up on a faintly hagiographic article in Adweek which recently hailed a new frontier in physical retail spaces, building on the success of Apple’s uber-cool high street playgrounds for bored teenagers and husbands. The store in question and an example of what many are hailing as the future of retail is AT&T’s new flagship on the self-styled Magnificent Mile in Chicago.

You can read the full article here  and see Fast Company’s tour of the store here but the essence of the design is that it’s like being enveloped physically in a website, with all the interactivity and gamification you can shake a stick at. And while we’re on the subject, given its ubiquity in business and technological circles, why does my spell checker not recognise the term “gamification”? On the face of it there are similarities here to provoke the kind of response that left me disturbed by the MANTOWNHUMAN manifesto.

And yet, if one can get beyond the notion of shopping whilst a soundtrack of “innovation sounds” (which is admittedly an improvement on high-volume rap dance music, as anyone who has been to buy shoes recently will attest) plays, there seems much to commend this re-imagining of retail space for the post-HMV and Woolworths world. Footfall is certainly impressive, with up to 30,000 people visiting each month. I couldn’t find any sales figures for the store but Adweek does quote Razorfish as saying that sales of Audi models at Audi City (a similarly interactive space created in Piccadilly ahead of the 2012 London Olympics) were up 70% over mainline dealers with 90% of visitors being new to the brand. Even Amazon, cited as one of the factors in the demise of traditional high street music and book retailers, is considering a physical presence.

It’s a cheering signal of hope for the future of our high streets and for the future of the design of public retail space. However, what is even more heartening is the human element in all of this. These are thoughtfully curated spaces which put personal contact with staff at the heart of the experience. Sure, they have a product to shift but seamless blending of the branded online environment with the real world physical one is reassuring and reinforcing and the care with which staff deal with technologically-challenged customers is paramount to retaining trust in that brand.

What still matters to most, if not all of us is a personal touch and the opportunity to interact with others who are, in turn, enthusiastic about being present for others. These new outlets represent a huge investment and it remains to be seen how sustainable the returns will be. But if, or when, that investment pays off and our communities are revitalised, we might just be hailing these technological behemoths as saviours and the future of retail rather than vilifying them for destroying the fabric of our societies through lost jobs and gap-toothed shopping centres.

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Simon HeathSimon Heath is a freelance illustrator and commentator on workplace and facilities management issues and was formerly Head of Operations, Global Workplace Strategies at CBRE. For more of Simon’s worldly, wise and witty writing on all things work and workplace, visit his blog https://workmusing.wordpress.com.

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