This season, brands and retailers from across the Atlantic are finding innovative and interactive ways of luring in the Christmas crowds in an increasingly tricky retail climate. In the foyer of london’s Bankside 2, a group of carollers are singing for a curious crowd of office worker who peer down from the floors above. But they’re not just any carollers — they’re Harvey’s Angels — sent from Harvey Nichols dressed in Roland Mouret, Peter Pilotto and Rejina Pyo. Their outfits can be purchased on-the-spot through shoppable posts on the retailer’s Instagram account - with a percent of proceeds going towards the women’s charity Smart Works.
In New York, British luxury brand Mulberry has just installed a vending machine in their Spring Street store, where customers can win gifts if they post on Instagram with the hashtag #MulberryLights, inspired by the brand’s recent campaign and light installation. Visit Bloomingdales and you’ll find that an ice rink has been erected in the Ralph Lauren concession of the Manhattan department store.
A recent Adobe report forecast that this holiday season, online sales in the US will grow by 14.8 percent (to $124 billion) while offline retail is set to increase by only 2.7 percent. In retaliation, retailers are going all in with tech integration, experience-driven promotions, and turbocharged Christmas windows.
“To draw the foot traffic this Christmas and create a magical reason to brave the crowds, it has really been all about the immersive experiences, personalised services and exclusives,” explains Sandy Hernandez, who leads the Futr Immersive division at the Futr Group — a retail, marketing and commerce firm based in London — which recently ran tours of innovative customer experiences around the city’s major retail districts. “After all, anyone can buy anything online – what customers buy into and what differentiates you as a retailer is your experience.”
“Anyone can buy anything online – what customers buy into and what differentiates you as a retailer is your experience.”
Over at Harrods in Knightsbridge, an illustrator from Max Mara has been sketching customers in their new Christmas outfits, while Selfridges’ Rock’n’Roll themed events include a cabaret club and weekly rockstar workshops. Barneys New York has taken the philanthropic route with their “Make Change” Christmas campaign, in partnership with Save The Children, driven by the message that small change can have a big impact — the retailer will donate money to the charity for every social media mention during December. Saks Fifth Avenue, too, partnered with the non profit Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS to unveil their “Theatre of Dreams” with a live performance, featuring over 100 Broadway dancers.
“It’s more about the human connection and less about the tech,” Hernandez says. “We are seeing many high-tech companies and start-ups go low-tech when they go physical.” She cites MatchesFashion, which opened its Carlos Place brick-and-mortar space in September, as a prime example. “MatchesFashion.com has been very strategic about how it uses its physical space to create amazing experiences,” she explains. “They create a 1 on 1 connection with customers through bespoke styling, and if desired, you can have one of the stylists guide you through the 5 floor experience, which is ever-evolving and no one visit is the same.”
Tried and tested, the Christmas window is an enduring failsafe which becoming increasingly elaborate each year, as brick-and-mortar retailers compete with each other, rather than e-commerce, to up the ante. It’s a race to launch — this year Selfridges led the pack, unveiling their festive tableau almost 2 and a half months before December 25. “Holiday windows are really a never-ending enterprise, if you consider the conceptualisation,” explains David Hoey, senior director for visual presentation at Bergdorf Goodman.
“We work on these all year, while simultaneously turning out regular windows. I settle on a holiday theme by early February, in consultation with the fashion office and the marketing department,” he says. It’s clear that while retailers invest heavily in sophisticated technology and extravagant events in the lead up to Christmas, nothing beats the bells and whistles of a lavishly decorated window.
Technology is a double edged sword which can be both a enemy or an ally to retailers, who are experimentally weaving it throughout the in-store experience, while also competing with more agile online businesses. “Tech can be a threat if a more nimble digital-first player captures the heart of your customer, and has the business model to flex and adapt more profitably than you can,” says Hernandez. “But it can also be an ally if you are using it as a lever to enhance your overall value proposition – making shopping more convenient, using data to create more personalised experiences and building digital communities of passionate customers that can evangelise the brand.”
Never one to do things by halves, Bergdorf Goodman’s seasonal strategy (to draw customers into the sweet treats inspired “Bergdorf Goodies” Christmas campaign) is all encompassing. “When it comes to holidays, we take a 360 degree approach,” says Nicole Fein, vice president of marketing and communications. “While social media and e-commerce have increased in importance, we activate our holiday campaign across all platforms: digital, print and of course, in store.”
Of the balance between technology and physical retail, Hernandez agrees that an omni-channel approach is the best. “It should ideally be one connected, joined up experience, available to your customer in whatever way they want to engage and buy from you – be it in-store or online,” she says. Whatever the strategy, creativity is at the heart of the matter. “[It’s all about] keeping things fresh, exciting and constantly innovating,” she says. “Essentially, creating a reason to visit is the new norm.”