With the UK’s final COVID lockdown easing now postponed for another month, The Interline spent some time with Rebecca Morter, Founder & CEO of multi-channel retailer and community Lone Design Club, to talk about what the future might hold when people eventually begin to move freely again, and what retailers can do to create new experiences to bring shoppers back into physical stores.

The Interline: In your experience, what do shoppers actually want from retail today? Obviously COVID put a forced halt to things, and very few physical stores are operating at full capacity even now, but that also provided an opportunity to think about what experience retail should be providing when restrictions on movement finally come to an end. Should we be looking at the store as a concept, a channel, a community – or a hybrid of them all?

Rebecca Morter: I think the future of physical retail is going to be about discovery, not distribution. Pre-COVID stepping into a big retailer’s store was very much a transactional experience, but today I don’t believe that’s what the customer wants any more. Instead, I see there being three pillars that effective, post-pandemic physical retail needs to be built on: experience, community, and storytelling.  These are all things that a physical space can do in a unique way, and they are all different priorities from the primary reasons shoppers go online: convenience and efficiency.

What we’re seeing is that physical stores represent a unique opportunity to bring consumers into the brand lifestyle, to build a narrative, and to provide personal service.  That combination of service and storytelling is what I believe is going to separate physical and online retail, because there’s a difference between buying an item once – in a transactional experience – and becoming a loyal, returning customer.

That being said, though, a genuinely modern retail strategy is one that embraces what physical and online do best, and weaves them into a seamless whole.  The brands and retailers that get this blend right, with digital channels providing the distribution and physical stores providing discovery, are going to be the ones that win out.

The Interline: When you say personal service, there’s a level of customer knowledge and familiarity that’s required to build personalised experiences, and that’s something that could be harder to do in person than it is online.  On an eCommerce site, for example, the retailer can track personal behaviours such as products being put into a cart and then subsequently taken out, which is very difficult to do in a physical store. How are retailers expected to deliver higher standards of personalised services offline, without the data they would get access to online?

Rebecca Morter: This is where an omni-channel strategy is crucial.  There are still a lot of retailers that have been too reliant on physical only, and others that have bet everything on digital, when I think the only way to deliver the experience that customers expect is to have a consistent journey across multiple channels.

Pre-COVID, around 10% of our customers would begin their journeys by shopping online, and then coming into the store.  And those people have gone on to become some of our best VIP customers, because they continue to use both channels and value both the convenience of browsing inventory online, and being able to build up relationships with sales associates in-store.  I think that’s something we’re going to see a lot more of post-COVID, as shoppers who have only been able to interact with retailers in a transactional way start becoming more attached to company values, physical experience, and that sense of community.  But telling the right story to those shoppers is going to need to straddle physical and digital.

The other element to consider is where and when customers want curation, and where they want to simply be able to discover and experience things for themselves.  There’s been a lot of pressure recently about how algorithms and data are being used to curate what customers see online, and the retail industry is trying extremely hard to apply technology to the problem of trying to predict what customers want.  In my experience, though, a lot of this digital technology is still in its infancy, and I think it’s going to take time for both customers and retailers to evolve together to where we figure out what works and what doesn’t for the different channels.  Which is why I firmly believe the best approach today is to allow each channel to do what it does best, and to concentrate on making sure that the customer journey can flow seamlessly between them.

The Interline: Discoverability is perhaps an even deeper problem for ethically-led and sustainable brands, since they have to compete against larger organisations not just on product, but on mission.  LDC clearly does a lot to emphasise the sustainability and ethical credentials of the brands and designers you showcase, but what does it mean to slot into that role, bringing together shoppers who want more sustainable clothing and brands that make it. And how does that role change between channels?

Rebecca Morter: Retail has been democratised, but only in the transactional sense.  Today it’s easier than it’s ever been to create an eCommerce store and to sell online, but there’s still an inbuilt advantage for more established retailers, because emerging brands are having to fight that much harder, without the brand recognition to rely on, to get eyeballs onto their eCommerce sites.

We’re faced with a world today where trust is in short supply, and when it comes to shopping online, customers tend to trust the names they know, which is why big retailers and marketplaces have been able to monopolise the market.  That makes it hard for any new brand to break into the mainstream – especially one that prides itself on sustainability rather than convenience – and that’s why we’re seeing so many different niches being created, with customers finding new brands they believe in, and sticking with them.  That’s where having the right platform, whether it’s online or offline, for discovery is such a powerful tool for ethically-led brands – because once they connect with a customer, that connection tends to last.

It’s important to remember, too, that smaller brands have an edge over larger retailers when it comes to making sustainability commitments that they can actually substantiate.  For a brand with only a small selection of products, and only a few different materials, it’s much easier to have total confidence in the provenance of those materials and in the labour that went into making those finished products.  Unlike big retailers, smaller businesses can be communicating with their factories directly, every few days, which puts them so much closer to their products, and allows them to communicate with shoppers and create narratives that are based on truth.  And if those smaller businesses can keep those sustainability policies consistent as they grow, they have a better chance of achieving long-term sustainability goals than multinational retailers do.

The Interline: Focusing in a little bit closer on technology, tell us about the work you’ve done on 3D and immersive shopping, and how customers responded to that.

Rebecca Morter: We partnered with Thrill Digital to build out a 3D digital store this February, to coincide with the second digital fashion week, and while the UK was still in full lockdown.  The digital store was based on how our physical space looked last September, and shoppers could navigate the space, check out looks, learn more about the brands behind the products and the materials they were made of, and generally interact with the space.  This was something we’d wanted to do for a while to see how customers would react, and we positioned it very much as a marketing initiative – a way for us to learn what parts of the physical shopping experience can be replicated well digitally.

We found that people loved navigating the space, and when we did community-focused initiatives such as screening a film in the digital cinema space we’d created, people really engaged with that.  Those sorts of experiences, it turns out, really resonate online – which is not something I expected, because there’s nothing fundamentally different about watching a film that way versus watching it on another streaming service.  When you think about it a little deeper, though, the interaction is what’s changed: people who were stuck at home felt as though they were actually going somewhere, and joining in a communal experience, rather than just being sent a link to a video.

What we found in terms of actual shopping was more mixed, and a lot of those interactions led back to our usual eCommerce site. We did some investigation into why that was, and customers told us that while they were happy visualising the clothes in 3D, they had no way to try those 3D garments on to understand how they’d look.  So from that point of view, the shoppability of virtual commerce is still at an early stage, but that’s something that could be improved if we had the ability to give customers size-accurate digital avatars.

The Interline: Taking that slightly mixed experience into account, where do you see technology having the most value in aiding a new model of retail? And how can the industry – upstream and downstream – deploy technology in a way that actually translates into adoption among both retail teams and customers?

Rebecca Morter: I’ve always been a sceptic of in-store technology, and frankly I find a lot of it to be quite gimmicky in the sense that it does very little to actually aid the experience of discovering and purchasing products.  But at the same time, I do think there are some interesting applications of technology that could have important roles, post-COVID, in helping us to create that feeling that the customer is king.  If technology can make the customer’s life easier, and if it can inspire and excite them at the same time, then that’s a really valid area for a retailer to be focusing on. If it makes things harder, or adds a layer of abstraction between the customer and the retail experience, then it’s not fulfilling its aim.

As an example, we often run competitions in-store, because those present a great way to capture email addresses and useful customer information.  We’ll ask questions about the customer’s preferences, how much they value sustainability, whether they’re interested in community events like workshops and so on, and we use that as a jumping-off point to build a deeper relationship with that customer.

When this was done on a simple paper form, we’d get hundreds and hundreds – sometimes thousands – of people signing up. Six months before COVID, we replaced that paper form with an iPad and we ended up getting a quarter of the sign-ups we used to get.  We thought a lot about why that was, and we arrived at the conclusion that what we were doing was making life easier for us (we no longer needed to enter the customer’s details into a database manually) but making it harder for the customer, by adding an extra step to the process that they just did not want to take.

That’s also why live streaming has been so successful: it takes steps out of the process rather than adding them in, and at the same time it creates new and unique experiences.  The customer no longer needs to go into a store to see someone holding the physical garment, and they’re also able to have a live conversation with a brand personality.  And what’s really interesting is what this offers to designers – people who would previously say “I’m too busy to come into the store for an event,” can now interact directly with their audiences and break down barriers in a way that isn’t feasible at the same scale with a physical event.

Finally, there’s also a lot happening in organic search and discovery for retailers.  We get a lot of hits from Google My Business, and we’re looking into using a service called Near Street that taps into those location-based searches and bridges what customers are looking for with what’s available at each of your individual locations.  That melding of online data and physical interaction could potentially do a lot to remove the hassle of a customer heading to a store only to find out that their size isn’t in stock. 

That’s a prime example of how technology can make both the retailer and the customer’s lives easier.  And in my opinion that’s where a lot of technology’s value lies for retail in the near term: backend applications that have huge benefits for both parties.  It’s the frontend experiences that customers just don’t seem to be ready for just yet.

The Interline: Beyond technology, what are your thoughts on where retail goes from here? We’re at something of a tipping point for a lot of industries, but nobody’s quite certain just yet how much is going to change.

Rebecca Morter: The big question for me is what retail is really going to look like post-pandemic.  Are we actually going to have this big reckoning that we’re all talking about, and that a lot of people are pushing for, or are there just too many retailers and brands attached to traditions for things to really change?

From an insider’s point of view, it’s easy to say that fashion is still behind other industries in so many areas, and that COVID has exposed the cracks in the ways the industry operates.  In practice, though, it’s going to be consumer demand that drives the next stage of retail’s development. If shoppers want change, then retailers will need to deliver it.

Fashion can be so much better, and fashion retail can be so much more engaging and useful, but to get there a lot of things need to evolve. Digital has obviously been a big influence on that evolution already, but it’s going to be interesting to see where the balance between online and physical lands.