At the turn of the century Harry Gordon Selfridge set a new standard of retail, making the act of shopping into an experience.  From coining the phrase “the customer is always right” to turning a necessity into an adventure, Selfridge’s department store concept put the act of browsing through a carefully-arranged assortment front and centre.

The sacred space of the shopping mall that Selfridge created was more than a large, multi-brand shop: it was an illusion. A fantasy world, where people could escape, learn about and touch new products, and attend events.  And all of this happened in a physical space that was then continuously adapted to the changing culture and wider events that shaped people’s lives.  The department store grew as the world outside grew.

Today, the physical space part of that equation is no longer necessary, and as real-world malls and department stores are approaching the brink of bankruptcy, digital malls offer a way to recreate that sense of experience and constant evolution online. 

These digital spaces are going to blur the lines between the virtual and the physical – providing infinite room for customer engagement, and enough intimacy for new personal services and other opportunities.  Unlike ordering from an online storefront, which is often a detached experience, a digital department store could be designed to replicate the touch and feel of buying in person.  And it could also help to overcome some of the loneliness everyone feels at the moment.

Imagine having the whole of 5th Avenue or the Rue St. Honoré available to walk down, any time, in virtual reality – without having to leave your house.  On a lazy Sunday afternoon at home, you could dress your avatar in designer gear and walk through the doors of a digital store pre-populated with an assortment picked out just for you.

This future scenario is not too far away.  We have already seen the first steps in new digital retail concepts emerging in the real world, where a vending machine can mix makeup on-demand to match the tone you just tried on in a virtual mirror, and similar experiences were already approaching online. Of course COVID-19 has catapulted us in the direction of a new era even faster: overnight even deeply traditional business were suddenly forced to expand their services online, starting with an e-commerce channel, to compensate the loss in revenue that lockdowns have caused.

On-demand offerings and unique experiences

KYC – know your customers – has already become essential to all brands and retailers, as the relationship between customer and retailer has evolved towards ongoing engagement.  And its importance will increase in a digital mall, where delivering personalised assortments and experiences is likely to become the “secret sauce”.

The data the customer contributes by interacting with the digital mall will enable the entire industry to provide sustainable solutions to the customer, at the same time as benefiting the entire value chain.  That customer data will underpin the future of Selfridge’s vision for a place where “the customer is always right” – only this time in a more instant, seamless way.  From virtual try-ons to individualised recommendations, the digital mall can be tailored to each consumer, rather than being made to appeal to an average.

The digital mall is going to be enabled through new technology – from augmented reality services that provide product information or gamified content, to production in-store and on demand.  After all, the major appeal of shopping in a physical department store is being able to leave with your products then and there, but if a 3D printer or knitting machine can produce them and digital last-mile delivery can get them to the customer’s home in a couple of hours, the experience could be just as good.

This is all assuming, of course, that what the customer wants from a digital mall is a recreation of a physical one.  But when we go digital, there’s no need to continue conforming to reality.  From a simple improvement that wouldn’t be possible in a physical department store – such as having a dedicated concierge for everyone – to gamified experiences, tours, and treasure hunts.  The possibilities to tailor each visit in a way that surprises and delights the customer is endless.

A digital mall provides services beyond imagination, blurring the lines between on- and offline, and letting brands and stores engage with the customer in a continuous way. It’s multidimensional and enabled through technology. The digital mall adapts to our world seamlessly, online and offline. In the digital mall customers become actors, directors, designers and adventurers.

In essence, it’s taking Harry Gordon Selfridges idea of a tailored assortment to the next level. Consumers decide and build what and how they want the assortment to be; they set guidelines for how they want to be consulted, serviced and supplied. Everything is interconnected and everything flexible. Whether you take your stuff with you or whether it’s shipped to your car, delivered to your doorstep at home or wrapped and delivered as a gift to your loved-ones. If you pay online, offline or exchange, all to your likes and wants.  Everything is possible.

Fashion, experience, act

The internet of things and blockchain technology, provides the invisible net, on which we navigate our world and enables to create new processes. A digital mall is the ideal space to start introducing new technology and thereby accelerate in rewiring the fashion system.

In a digital mall the customer becomes a designer, a curator and a buyer. In a digital mall the customer reinvents shopping and thereby the focus from manufacturer all the way to the closet. He has a say on what he likes to see next season as technology is the glue between customer and the industry. In other worlds fashion is no longer a consumer product, but contributes to culture, experience and invites the customer to act. Technology enables the process, but there is far more to it, if we take the best out of all worlds and make it truly human-centric by providing hyper-contextualized shopping adapted to the world we live in.

The digital mall is a portal to a world that expands beyond a physical space or a digital platform – it reinvents roles in the shopping process and empowers the customer individually, simply, it’s the next level following Harry Gordon Selfridge’s vision: The customer is always right!