At the Oakley headquarters in Foothill Ranch, Calif., a goggled, transparent skull with a 15-foot wingspan and glowing blue brain looms over the entrance of the retail area.
The performance activewear and accessories company erected the interactive display, which stands 9 feet tall, in all Oakley store windows in November to showcase the new Airwave snow goggles.
“It’s meant to stop people in their tracks,” said R.J. Abbott, Oakley’s director of global visual merchandising, who came up with the concept. “We’re trying to be 10 steps ahead, and disruptive by design. If it doesn’t hit customers on that visceral level, we move on.”
Oakley’s investment in its window displays is part of an overall effort to enhance the in-store brand experience, and an example of how retailers are adapting in a world where brick-and-mortar shops must be more than a place to buy products.
“There’s a lot of evolution going on in consumer behavior that retail is going to have to embrace,” said Bill Martin, founder of analytics firm ShopperTrak, which tracks metrics like in-store foot traffic. “The number of people going to the mall hasn’t declined, but store traffic has declined because people are visiting fewer stores.”
In 2007, shoppers visited five stores on average during every trip to the mall. Now it’s closer to three stores, because an estimated 70 percent of those consumers are researching purchases online, narrowing the opportunity for browsing and impulse buys.
“Retailers are going to have to get a little more creative to draw people in, but traffic numbers will return if they do,” Martin said.
To grab attention, retailers are showcasing works by famous artists, investing in music playlists that enhance a brand’s ambiance, and installing customized flooring, dramatic lighting and even design-oriented fixtures that can display products to their best advantage.
“Brick-and-mortar stores function like a store’s business card, and the focus is trending toward storytelling more than featuring products,” said Davide Cremese, director of North American operations of retail design agency Alu. His firm hosts cutting-edge retail design show ROAD and has partnered with companies such as Bloomingdale’s, Chanel, General Motors and Bank of America.
Oakley’s strategy doesn’t stop after visitors cross the threshold. Stores are designed with an “interior window” in the first 10 to 15 feet for customers to engage with featured products, often involving interactive video and digital screens.
“Otherwise you’ve brought them in and lost them,” Abbott said. “Online is an incredible sales tool, but the store still holds a key part in the whole brand identity where customers can engage with the brand on a different level than they would with the website.”
Integrating technology is a key component of these new strategies – though Apple pioneered the tech-retail fusion experience years before other retailers caught on. Tablet computers are becoming more common as shopping, advertising and checkout resources at boutiques and even big-box stores. Brands like Eddie Bauer, for instance, have introduced in-store online displays specifically so customers can pull up orders researched at home and get help from associates in person.
In May, Verizon Wireless began a mission to transform all 1,700 of its retail locations by 2015 into technology lifestyle centers.
Two new Smart Stores in southern California, which opened this month after months of renovations, are the latest examples of the carrier’s next-gen retail makeover. The stores boast open layouts, slick self-serve kiosks for checkout and bill payment, and about a thousand gadgets and tech accessories divided into interactive “Smart Zones.” Customers can try on Beats by Dre headphones; play with robotic Sphero balls; and peruse a colorful range of Fitbit fitness trackers and smart-home products, like automated WeMo light switches and the Nest learning thermostat.
In addition to adding a deep lineup of smart accessories – traditional stores carry just half the inventory – Verizon has added an experiential and educational component as well. Product demos are set up for immediate and easy use, eliminating the need for attention from staff. “Experience specialists” host free in-store classes in a dedicated workshop area.
“It’s awesome. I love personal instruction. It’s 10 times faster than to learn any other way,” said customer Lori Walvoord of Mission Viejo, Calif., who attended a lesson on how to operate her new Android phone at one of the new stores.
The goal is to create a better customer experience, said Ken Muche, Verizon’s southern California public relations manager. “People think Verizon is a cellphone company, but when they walk into these stores, they sense we’re a technology company.”
Innovations like these lead ShopperTrak’s Martin to say that despite the rise of online shopping, retail stores are here to stay.
“More than 90 percent of transactions still take place in brick-and-mortar settings. For a long time, retail stores are still going to serve an instant gratification element. People like to feel the merchandise and the social aspect of shopping, a lot of which can’t be accomplished online,” he said.
Indeed, even traditionally Web-only tech companies are experimenting with physical stores. Popular startup Warby Parker, once exclusively an online eyewear retailer, opened five physical stores last year. During the holidays, eBay set up digital storefronts at a San Francisco mall for shoppers to browse giant touch screens, pick up the ordered items in a store elsewhere in the mall, or schedule free home delivery.
Google recently revealed preliminary plans for “floating retail stores” on three barges it owns. The tech behemoth also opened pop-up stores around the country to give customers hands-on experience with Chrome products.
“It’s a changing world, but retailers have been around for a long time. They’ll figure it out,” Martin said.