Should retailers dream of electric sheep?

The Spark

26th May 2017

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This year traditional shops are shutting down in droves as a result of a global retail crisis. Last year, the Black Friday frenzy saw high street shops deserted as shoppers chose to spend their money online from the comfort of their home. The latest Christmas shopping trend, Cyber Saturday, is more civilised but has failed to stop retailers worrying about the future. For high street brands, the picture is worrying.

However one bold French brand, Sephora, is bucking the trend. With several store openings across the globe – and ongoing rumours that there will be concessions popping up in UK department stores this year – it’s taking a fresh approach to physical retail. Using technology and innovation to pimp its store concepts, making them seem more Bladerunner than Boots, the beauty challenger grew sales in the US by 6 per cent to £12.25bn in the last 12 months.

Its success lies in its commitment to innovation. Sephora has worked relentlessly to incorporate technology into its offer and embrace social media marketing. YouTube beauty gurus have replaced the lady at the counter. Augmented reality (AR) is available in store to virtually try fifty different shades of lipsticks via an app. Digital workstations use ‘Color IQ’ to help customers find their perfect foundation shades. And ‘Smell-O-Vision’ is a real thing: touch screens and fans combine to let visitors smell the scents included in most fragrances.

To embrace this ‘phygital (a blend of physical and digital stores) strategy, in 2015 Sephora opened its innovation lab in San Francisco to find new ways to combine mobile apps and in-store shopping for a more integrated shopping experience.

Has the French brand taken inspiration from the Chinese word ‘crisis’, which is often interchangeable with ‘opportunity’? There are many examples of innovating your way out of a crisis, turning tough challenges into optimistic opportunities. With traditional bricks and mortar in crisis mode, could Sephor’s ‘phygital’ approach help inspire a high street turnaround for other brands? With e-commerce giants like Amazon experimenting with physical stores, for example its Amazon Go shop which opened in Seattle in December, retailers who ‘dream of electric sheep‘ – who dream big technologically – could inject growth back into the real world.


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