• Transform magazine
  • August 18, 2022

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Why all brands must create community experiences in the post-lockdown era

Dan Whetstone Headshot

Dan Whetstone, associate director at retail design specialists Lumsden, argues that, as the world emerges from the Covid-19 lockdowns, everyday brands need to provide meaningful in-store experiences to create communities and loyal fans.

Many businesses felt that the pandemic had sounded the death knell for physical shopping. In the UK alone, more than 8,700 chain stores closed in the first half of 2021. Yet it’s not all doom and gloom for retail. While it’s possible to buy anything without leaving your sofa, lockdowns showed how important experiences and interaction are for most people - and high street shops and everyday brands can tap into that.

Nike continues to open more of its Unite stores, designed to “serve and celebrate the people in each local community”. They connect local people to sport and hire locally, with product ranges that reflect sports of interest to the community.

Similarly, House of Vans – located in London and Chicago – combines skate parks, music venues, food and beverage and retail in one space. They are places that celebrate Vans products and the cultures surrounding them. By creating a destination beyond retail, the brand is able to attract a much broader audience.

Nike, Vans and others like them recognise the need to offer more than just a practical transaction to get customers to keep coming back. They find what their customers – or fans – want from them, and this shouldn’t be the preserve of premium brands.

This is undoubtedly more of a challenge for functional brands that don’t necessarily inspire adoration or fandom. Yet, there are always opportunities for them to tap into what people enjoy or appreciate about them and amplify a retail experience around that. This is especially true where there is a crossover between online and offline shopping.

Bring your brand to life

There are brands that have long recognised the need to blend commerce with experience and community, translating that into loyalty. Ikea products are well priced and look good, but the stores tap into the shopper’s subconscious: guiding them through a home-like set-up, creating familiarity along with discovery. Their pop-ups and small format stores bring them closer to customers, making them an even more ‘everyday’ proposition. It’s helped people develop a love for the brand and brought it huge success. People will visit just to eat their meatballs.

It’s essential that physical experiences represent the ethos of the brand. Successful retailers are clear about what sits at the heart of their offer, the story they want to tell, and what they stand for.

Understanding why people do – or could – love a brand is key to designing experiential retail. The shop and café spaces at The Making of Harry Potter reflect everything that fans truly love about the franchise. They are a seamless extension of the studio tour experience, not a bolt on. Visitors are encouraged to interact with the staff (who are all superfans themselves) throughout the tour. The spaces feel authentic and exemplify the richness of the Harry Potter universe, which brings visitors joy.

Make it genuine

The retail experience must honestly reflect the spirit of the brand: customers know what’s genuine and what’s a gimmick. The key for us is to find what’s unique to the museum, brand, their customers (and fans) and then amplify that in the shop.

The M+ Shop in Hong Kong is attached to the M+ Museum of Contemporary Culture, but the goal was to design a store that made people want to return just to shop. The design takes inspiration from the local area, the architecture, and is a place to interact with local artists. The retail architecture enables masterclasses, demonstrations, artist installations, concessions, gift wrapping and events. This approach creates a connection with customers that extends beyond the gallery.

In a similar way, the scent of Lush stores envelopes customers from the moment they set foot in store. Customers learn where the products were made and who made them, while staff proactively engage with customers, helping them make the right choices through testing. The stores represent everything that the Lush brand stands for and are a physical manifestation of their strong ethical positioning. 

A place to find community

If people feel they’re acknowledged, that they are recognised and the place they’re visiting is meaningful to their lives in the long term, they are more likely to feel loyalty to that brand.

During lockdowns, with people restricted to their immediate area, they forged much closer connections with their local shops, enhancing community engagement and building loyalty – and that’s something mainstream brands can tap into. Rapha does a really good job of this. Its clubhouses are a store, coffee shop, place to watch live bike races and a meeting point for organised club rides. Customers buy the product, but the clubhouses are the heart of the community.

Putting interaction and service at the heart of the shopping experience fosters a sense of belonging, be that at the local butcher or in an international chain. A beautifully designed space is irrelevant if the service is not up to scratch – a poor interaction will stick with customers long after they have left the store.

Experiential doesn’t have to mean complicated. Functional brands can still make their stores more engaging for customers by getting the basics right: don’t overcomplicate the shopping journey,  listen to your customers, be helpful.   

Any good shopping experience should be easy - even if that’s as basic as being able to find what you want, pay and leave with minimal fuss - and you don’t need to be a premium brand with an enthusiastic fan base to make that happen.