Unplugged: Angel Carra, Retail Reinventor

Apr 25 2017

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Now that anyone can buy any and everything online, brick and mortar retail stores are staying relevant by transforming the simple act of shopping into a must-have experience. A good name for this trend is “experiential retail”.

I met with Angel Carra, Senior Vice President of Sparks Retail. She talked about all the ways traditional brick and mortar is being reinvented, and how retailers can find fresh ways to turn in-store shopping into rich and immersive experiences:

How are retail strategies changing?

Carra: Two of the biggest ways retail strategies are changing relate to personalized customer experiences and in-store technology use.

Both of these shifts stem from e-commerce. Online’s frictionless price comparison, superior personalized customer service and free two-day shipping has set the bar for what consumers now expect to enjoy in-store.

To reinvent retail into an immersive experience, enterprising retailers are now creating personalized customer service elements that can only happen in-store. For instance, Verizon Destination Stores offer concierge-like technical specialists to assist with new equipment set-up – something that can’t be offered online. Unique customer service like this is what customers will remember – and keep them coming back to the store for more.

Emerging technologies are changing in-store experiences too. For example, retailers are using beacons to push notifications and special offers to passersby to drive traffic into the store. Heat mapping technologies are helping retailers better understand how shoppers move around the store. The data collected shapes decisions about inventory, fixture needs, product placement and more.

How are you designing retail spaces to make them more engaging to customers?

Carra: This is where “experiential retail” comes in. We’re designing spaces to let consumers drive where and how they spend their time in-store. It’s all about creating opportunities for them to touch and feel products in action.

Mini-vignettes are just one example of a retail design approach we’re using. Instead of displaying each kind of mobile device by manufacturer, multiple products – like a mobile phone, home security system and a smart scale—are grouped together in a “smart home” vignette. These kinds of set-ups encourage hands-on play and stimulate cross-selling too.  

In one sentence, how would you describe what makes the best retail experience?

Carra: The best retail experience is one where I feel like the product was made just for me – the way it’s presented, customized and sold is exactly what I was looking for.

How do you see the trend of pop-up shops evolving?

Carra: What’s fascinating about pop-up shops is that they give brands the opportunity to create buzz or try a new concept without a long-term commitment. They’re especially relevant for new brands trying to get their name out in the marketplace.

But stand-alone pop-ups aren’t for every brand. You likely won’t see a premium brand like Michael Kors with a freestanding pop-up. Instead, brands like these are investing in flagships in highly desirable locations and placing fully-branded pop-ups not alone, but within existing department stores like Macy’s and Bon Ton. These areas are completely customized to reflect the Michael Kors brand, with their own distinct fixtures, lighting, merchandise and even their own sales associates.

Pop-ups like these are a great way to reinvent the retail experience for audiences who may not frequent a flagship while also increasing brand awareness.

What’s the next big thing in retail design?

Carra: Unfortunately, a lot of stores look dated – dark, cramped spaces with overhead fluorescent lighting and traditional fixtures. And that kind of experience can be a big turn-off to shoppers.

We’re seeing more refreshed retail design. Clients are moving toward subdued lighting, natural materials and softer colors that serve up a warm welcome. Lighting in particular goes a long way to change-up the overall ambience. For example, subtle accent lighting integrated into display fixtures puts the spotlight on products and makes the overall experience feel more like a visit to a high-end showroom instead of a traditional store.

This softer design approach isn’t just more inviting, it’s also a more authentic way to differentiate your brand presence.

Advice for clients who are expanding their retail presence?

Carra: It’s all about consistency. No matter if you’re expanding locally or coast-to-coast, shoppers want their shopping experience to embody a consistent look and feel regardless of where they go. But of course it’s a big undertaking to rollout a large scale upgrade.

When a client is expanding their presence, we develop a tiered strategy based on market needs. For instance, instead of a complete store rehab in smaller markets, we might re-engineer existing fixtures for a cost-effective face-lift that builds consistency with the brand’s presence in larger markets or flagship stores.

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