Retail revolution

Renu Chopra considers the impact of social media on retail property.

Today we are seeing a noticeable shift in how people engage with buildings. As Winston Churchill once said: “First we influence building, then they influence us.”

Occupants want more from buildings than merely a place to sit at a desk or to buy the latest consumer goods. Buildings are places where occupants want to be inspired or amazed. Shoppers are seeking out retail spaces that offer unique experiences and building owners want to provide just that. This shift in engagement is particularly prevalent in the retail environment.

It is no news that high-street stores are struggling to hold their ground with customers. House of Fraser and Debenhams are just some of the stores set to close their doors on the high-street this year. Important factors causing this include the increase in online shopping, the influence of social media, Brexit and increases in rental costs.

In the modern world everything is becoming more and more convenient, so who can blame us for finding it more comfortable to shop from the comfort of our homes? We are also increasingly influenced by what we see online.

Market research has revealed that the increase of social media users to 3.484 billion people has influenced retailers to use online platforms to target potential customers. Statistics show that 78% of small businesses attract new customers and engage existing ones through social media (WP Form Ultimate business statistics). Around 85% of online orders are estimated to come from Facebook; and 60% of Instagram users use the app to discover new products. The growth of social media bloggers is also influencing what we chose to buy and ‘need’, reducing the requirement to ask in-store sales advisors for help.

However, I believe, we are not entirely anti-social potatoes, yet. North London’s Brent Cross Store has recently set out plans to expand to double its size over the next few years. Primark has also launched its biggest store in the world in Birmingham. It spans 160,000sq ft and includes a Disney-inspired café and food outlets as well as five floors of affordable clothing. The store saw over 5,000 people flock to the store on the day it opened, causing sales to surge.

Retailers are recognising that consumers now desire the experiences that come with leaving the house and going to the shops. The shift towards social media-centric lives has influenced this, as Snapchatters, Instagramers and Facebook users are actively scouting new experiences to share on their profiles.

As retail stores change, they are becoming places to be and to be seen. They provide the opportunity to share posts to our social media feeds, which also helps to promote the high street. Consumers are, therefore, becoming prosumers by instantly promoting the places where they are spending to their followers.

The Selfie Factory is an example of this. It harnesses the influence of social media by creating an interactive selfie experience for shoppers. Ball pits, a doughnut-filled wall and a confetti cove, are just some of the Instagram inspired studios popping up in shopping malls like Bluewater and stores such as Superdrug. As self-obsessed as the idea sounds, sharing their experiences and locations on social media can influence their followers and friends to want to do the same. Unique experiences like this, which utilises the social media craze, helps to attract people back to the high-street.

For building designers, there is a challenge and an opportunity here. Cafes and restaurants have been part of the retail landscape for a while. But we can expect a lot more of this - with all the additional attendant services design and maintenance required. However, the opportunity is that rather than closing down, retail is entering a phase of refurbishment and updating. And that has to be good news all-round.

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