The decline of the High Street has been the focus of much media attention in 2018, with commentators focusing on the impact of online shopping and rising overheads. Many shops, pubs and music venues have closed their doors for good since the financial crisis. Person-to-person communication seems at risk, despite a landscape of ultra-connectivity that purports to make it easier.
Brands have already taken an experiential approach to compete in the digital era. The House of Vans in London offers a cinema, café, live music venue and art gallery in its 30,000 square foot building. The concrete skate & BMX ramps in the basement are free for use, encouraging young people to shop and spontaneously socialise, the experience positioning the brand within its cultural backstory.
But what if technological advancement also acted as a conduit to reinvigorate the High Street?
Ralph Lauren has introduced interactive touch-screen mirrors in their flagship New York store. In the fitting room, shoppers can browse through a real-time story inventory and request different colours and sizes through the touch-screen. Customers can alter the lighting, whilst the mirror suggests items to complete the look, providing a good opportunity for cross-selling. Adobe's prototype "Store of the Future" in Las Vegas uses chip-enabled shopping bags. After you add-to-cart in the online app, you can then visit the store to try for sizing where you are handed a smart-bag containing the item, whilst the bag updates the app as you add further items instore, blurring the lines between the physical and digital space. Hunter's Tokyo store sees customers enter an imaginary forest equipped with trunks that pierce the first floor. The ceiling is a digital lightbox that emulates a cloudy sky, whilst display loops show branded content and broadcasts of live events from around the world. As customers browse for their wellies, they take in the evocative sound of heavy rain and thunderstorms.
Missguided's store at Bluewater places social interaction as its core theme. The store-front is window and barrier-free, with customers encouraged to be in ongoing conversations with each other, and the brand, as floor-to-ceiling screens play customer-generated content and encourage social-media sharing. Samsung's flagship store in New York is based on the premise that consumers desire interactions, not transactions. The 'digital playground' encourages patrons to connect with everything from a state-of-the-art smart-kitchen, a virtual reality tunnel where you can meet your digital alter-ego, through to discovering new artists at an instore concert.
The leisure sector has also seen the growth of social, team-based experiences. The escape room phenomenon that started in Japan, where participants solve puzzles and riddles against the clock, has spread rapidly around the world. The number of rooms across the UK soared to around 1,200 in 2018, a growth of 40% since 2017. In 2013 there were just 7. Furthermore exciting new developments in augmented and virtual reality are likely to further drive growth. Headsets such as the HTC Vive have been put to wide use in the creative arena. The Somnai 'lucid dreaming' experience located over two floors of a warehouse in central London raised more than £3 million from investors to blend the technology with immersive theatre, and even featured augmented reality drink mats. A large unlet high street retail space could be adapted to host just such a leisure experience as the market grows.
Even on smaller scale premises, such as VR cafes, the technology will allow customers to experience virtual travel to visit diverse locations, from the Grand Canyon to the moon. New opportunities for merged reality experiences are likely to develop across the leisure sector, with the UK currently estimated to have over 1,000 immersive specialist companies. Immersive experiences could be about to realise the dreams of science-fiction writers and futurists, transforming how we shop and play.