Just as the retail industry has changed almost beyond recognition in the past 30 years, so have the roles of flagships.
Formerly the pride and glory of any retailer, the classic flagship store attributes of being big, brash and with endless stockroom space have given way to high-spec concept stores ready to chop and change with the trends of years to come.
This means shopper behaviour is changing drastically, too. Instead of heading to a flagship store to shop the full range, in 2018 and beyond, customers are likely to be flagship-bound for entirely different reasons.
To analyse what the future has in store, the Retail Gazette put the question to various experts to see how the new flagships will operate without their usual amount of stock, and which high street icons are shifting their strategy with the bricks and mortar resources they already have.
“If anything, digital has done physical a great big favour by making it shape up to not just a place to flog products but a space to engage as brands,” Siegel + Gale EMEA president Philip Davies told Retail Gazette.
“Next year you can step in to Nike’s Fifth Avenue store and there’ll be nothing on the shelves.
“Actually, there’ll be no shelves at all. But there’ll be an exceptional level of service and access to unique products, experiences and customisation opportunities, like appointments with an expert for personal shopping and advice.
“Customers will then presumably run home, get online and place their orders.”
According to Davies, brands that combine both the physical and virtual games are winning.
“Shoppers want experience and expertise in every sense,” he said.
“Shoppers do their shopping before they step in to a shop, researching products online – they’re well informed. This then requires more from sales staff – it’s less about selling and more about guiding and inspiring.”
Davies believes one of the future roles of flagships are as hangout spaces with relevant entertainment at their core.
This entertainment hook is a key way of appealing to shoppers in their teens and 20s. The success of Topshop’s virtual reality waterslide and Virgin Megastore’s stage performance and have-a-go DJ booths are shining examples of this.
“Brands that offer something beyond digital to artisanal really score,” Davies said.
“Timberland have long helped retread boots, David Clulow opticians fix glasses for free when you’ve sat on them and Hermès have colour specialists offering free dry cleaning and dyeing service for owners of silk scarves. And Nike (yes, them again), now have trainer dry-cleaning in store.”
Davies added that all these offers support the same principles of the successful flagship.
“If your brand has a physical space, there are three should do’s: Inspirational guidance. Relevant entertainment. Reason to return,” he said.
It’s certainly a strategy John Lewis have adapted for their newly revamped fashion department within their Oxford Street flagship in London.
As a re-commitment to the flagship form, the new 40,000sq ft womenswear floor includes a 12-strong personal styling studio and a 1100sq ft shoe boutique.
Customers can head here for an expanded range, as is the traditional appeal of a flagship, but also for the expertise of stylists, and the one-to-one customer service that still can’t be replicated online.
It’s something EE kept in mind when designing their new showcase stores.
BT’s commercial and retail managing director Ettienne Brandt told Retail Gazette that EE designed their new stores as a destination.
“Customers can speak to real experts face-to-face to solve problems, or just have some fun while immersing themselves in the latest gadgets,” he explained.
“There’s no substitute for getting help from an expert in person and we’re mixing technology with a personal touch to make customers feel as supported as possible.”
Brandt also explained that the showcase stores were revamped to focus on personal and immersive experiences.
“These new stores offer a variety of new features, including dedicated customer help hubs, in-store video calling technology for on-the-spot resolution and experiential zones giving customers the chance to get a hands-on experience with the latest tech,” he said.
“As part of this, customers can make use of our video calling capabilities, sitting with store staff, while speaking to a specialist service expert online who can diagnose and fix complex issues live.”
And why the personal priority?
“Getting to speak to a real expert face-to-face to solve any problem, and having the chance to get a hands-on experience with the latest tech, is essential to the personal experience that our customers want and need, and is something that cannot be replicated outside of the physical retail space,” Brandt said.
As for the flagships of years to come, Retail Gazette asked WGSN senior editor Petah Marian about what kind of space retailers should look to create.
Instead of the current ideas of creating a retail destination and retail theatre, Marian argues the flagships of tomorrow will work with looser confinements, aiming instead to build “an engaging place that elevates a brand in the customer’s mind”.
Marian also stated that flagships are about place making and “collaborating with other operators in an area to create a broader destination for people to go to and service can also play a key role”.
“For instance, the implementation of style advisors at John Lewis has lead to 20 per cent of womenswear sales being delivered by six colleagues,” Marian said.
For emerging trends, Marian said experience zones will “help people become the best versions of themselves”, in-store customisation will become a focus, while aftercare will “help people make the most of the items they buy”.
Marian also suggested things will become increasingly automated, thanks to improving links between offline and online experiences, such as click and collect being automated.
Of course, there’s also an argument for doing away with the idea of a flagship altogether.
“Using the term ‘flagship’ demonstrates outdated thinking,” Start Design head of strategy Dave Blendis told Retail Gazette.
“The analogy suggests a ‘fleet’ of retail destinations, led by a single, enormous vessel that literally flies the flag, representing anything and everything that brand stands for.
“This is not the future of retail. Every brand should have its own strategy, based on the specific needs of its unique audience, that’s part of a wider ecosystem of connected experiences, crossing multiple channels.
“Physical retail may not even play a part in that. But if it does, there’s no reason why the brand would automatically be best served by a huge store,” Blendis added.
“Perhaps the flagship is a series of connected smaller format stores. Perhaps it’s a pop-up. It could be a digital space, or maybe even a virtual one.
“The question that brands should ask themselves, therefore, is not, ‘What should our flagship retailer look like?’, but ‘How can we best demonstrate our brand through a customer experience?’”
No matter what we call them, the flagship format is here to stay. Retail is lithe by nature and as any seasoned retailer will know, there are few aspects of the industry that are set in stone.
However, having a champion showcase store to show off your product in at its very finest will never be out of date.
By all accounts, the flagship store format has evolved beyond its traditional use into something open to interpretation by each retailer and brand. Now is the time for their imagination to take hold.