20 Creative Uses of Retail Stores to Boost Sales
The retail store is no longer the only channel for buying. But it remains one of the most integral parts of the retail industry when it comes to making sales.
Research from intu and Javelin Group suggests that £8 out of every £10 spent in the UK in 2025 will still be influenced by a physical store in some way. That doesn’t necessarily mean the sale will be made within the store, but that it has a part to play in inspiring or facilitating it. This can only work though if retailers are creative when thinking about their physical stores and what they can be used for.
Below we explore 20 creative uses of retail stores that demonstrate how physical spaces can boost sales in new ways.
- The store as an endless aisle
Square footage is the limiting factor of all physical retail stores. Even the largest megastore still only has a certain amount of space to work with and not all of it can be filled with products.
Retail stores have to accommodate the back offices and storage facilities, the checkouts, room for visual merchandising and displays, room for customers to walk around and so on. As a result, the actual shelf space available restricts the amount of products that can be displayed. For some retailers this can mean not carrying their full product range in-store – especially in smaller format spaces.
However, retailers don’t have to lose out on sales as a result. Many brands have incorporated ‘endless aisle’ technology into their physical spaces. This allows customers to browse the retailer’s entire product range digitally and to place an order for delivery to the store or their home.
Levi’s is offering just this in its new NextGen stores. The store may not carry the brand’s complete inventory, but customers can try on products in their size and then place an order for online delivery if their size or fit is unavailable. As a result, the store is able to sell far more products than it could ever fit in, including items that might be out of stock in-store and therefore usually result in a lost sale.
- The store as a livestream platform
There is no better stage for a brand than its retail store. These spaces have been carefully designed and curated in the retailer’s image to create a specific shopping experience. That experience can now also reach online shoppers via livestreaming technologies. One increasingly common approach is to connect in-store staff with ecommerce customers via livestreaming to answer questions, offer recommendations and show products in more detail. Companies like Hero are helping brands like Nike and Levi’s implement this.
ShopShops is using livestreaming to connect with customers in a different way online. Its livestreaming platform is often used by retailers as an after-hours shopping service. This sees hosts showing off products and answering questions in the store after hours. The viewers are often overseas customers who are unable to visit the store in person. As such, the retailer can tap into a new revenue stream as well as making use of the store space during hours that it would usually be closed.
- The store as a platform for other brands
It’s not uncommon for retailers to sell other brands within their spaces. Concessions are a well-established part of the industry after all. However, we’re now seeing retailers turning themselves into a true platform that other brands can tap into.
Showfields has created a modern department store model which sees brands pay for space within the store. But Showfields isn’t just selling them somewhere to put their products. The real value lies in the data that it can provide to its clients.
Smartech operates a very similar model for tech start-ups. In exchange for a fee, its clients can access detailed data about footfall in the store and dwell time, as well as time interacting with their specific products and other valuable indicators. It’s a far deeper and smarter approach to concessions that sees physical retailers leveraging the audiences that they’re able to attract, alongside their expertise in how to sell.
- The store as education
One of the best ways to sell something is to show the customer how the product or service can enhance their life. As such, smart retailers are increasingly introducing an educational element to their physical retail stores in the form of classes and events. Athleisure company Lululemon has embraced this approach to great effect by offering in-store fitness classes in many of its spaces.
Not only do the classes offer an additional income stream (if the retailer chooses to charge for them), but they also act as a relationship building opportunity. The more a customer engages with the brand, the more loyal they are likely to be. What’s more, the customer sees greater value in the brand because they are learning through them. By educating customers, the brand positions itself as an expert and therefore lends credibility to its products.
In the case of Lululemon, this idea is further reinforced through the instructors for each class wearing the brand’s own products.
- The store as a place to discover something new
There is always something new to buy online. Not only are the traditional brick-and-mortar retailers embracing ecommerce, but huge online marketplaces and the rapid growth in direct-to-consumer (D2C) and digital-only companies are also adding to the huge array of products on sale. Getting customers to discover them is still difficult though. Although social media and online ads are improving online discoverability, the reality of ecommerce is that you need a starting point – you need to have something you’re searching for.
As such, physical retail remains a powerful discovery category. Customers don’t have to know what they want to buy. Part of going into a store is to be inspired by what’s on offer.
One way for retailers to ensure that there is always something new for customers to discover is to introduce pop-ups into their stores. Topshop’s Oxford Street flagship in London has dedicated space to pop-ups for years, but they’re now increasingly common in many retail spaces. By their nature pop-ups are short-term, which means what’s on offer changes regularly without the retailer having to develop their own new product ranges. Pop-ups act also as a point of interest to bring customers into the store which can in turn increase sales.
- The store as a showroom
The concept of ‘showrooming’ – customers discovering and testing products in-store and then buying them online (often from another retailer) – was originally positioned as a problem for physical retailers. Now though some retailers are embracing the concept of the store as a showroom to support their other shopping channels. In some cases, showrooming has spawned new business models.
Walmart-owned menswear tailoring company Bonobos began life as an online-only retailer. It then branched out into physical retail in the form of Guideshops. These spaces don’t sell products but act as showrooms where customers can book an appointment to look through the different clothes on offer, try them on and be measured. If they want to buy something they can place and order in the store and the products will be delivered directly to their home.
In many product categories, such as fashion, customers like to be able to touch and try on and interact with products before they buy. Showrooming is a great way to offer this connection while reducing operational costs by not having to carry lots of stock in stores. This also means retailers can operate with smaller square footage which is another cost benefit.
- The store as a collection point
Click and collect services offer one of the best returns on investment when it comes to physical retail. The model of customers buying online and collecting from a physical store enables retailers to maximise their store investment by capitalising on online sales as well.
The current global pandemic has unsurprisingly increased click and collect order volumes as shoppers look for safe in-person buying options. Curbside collection – where customers buy online, drive to the store and have their order brought to their car – has also exploded. For retailers, these models offer considerable operational benefits. Earlier this year, Target reported that in-store pickup costs the company 90% less than shipping an online order to a customer’s home.
In addition, click and collect doesn’t just save retailers money, but can also drive higher sales. Target reported that three quarters of people who try its curbside service spend up to 25% more.
- The store made personal
More than ever customers are looking for a personal experience when shopping. BRP’s 2019 Unified Commerce survey reported that 87% of customers want a personalised and consistent experience across channels.
Physical retailers are responding to this desire via clever clienteling systems. The Sprucebot from Spruce Labs is a guest experience platform that helps store associates foster closer relationships with their customers. This includes allowing customers to save their payment details so they can leave the store and have the payment for their purchases made automatically. It also enables staff to make notes on customer interactions so they can tailor their conversations on each visit.
Luxury retailer Mulberry also uses clienteling software to capture a customer’s purchases – online and offline – so that recommendations can be personalised to them and their wardrobe. By pulling in all the information that a retailer knows about their customer, brands can make in-store visits individually personalised and ensure they’re showing customers the right products for them.
- The store as media
The retail store has always been a statement. It’s a powerful advertising channel that can amplify a retailer’s brand recognition among customers. Research by CACI reports that physical retail’s ‘halo effect’ sees online sales more than double in a store’s catchment area. As such, it’s no surprise that brands are increasingly viewing physical stores as a form of media, more than a sales channel.
Digital-first beauty brand Glossier is one such example. The company uses pop-ups to strengthen its reputation and to reach new customers. While customers can buy from the spaces, the main purpose of the pop-ups is to act like giant billboards that draw customers in and introduce the brand to them. By focusing on messaging and reach over sales, Glossier is converting customers in other ways such as getting them to visit its website or follow it on social media.
- The store as a warehouse
Retail often has a siloed way of thinking when it comes to stock. In the past, retailers didn’t have a unified view of all the stock they had across all their locations. In-store stock was thought about only in the context of the store it was physically in. Fulfilment centre stock was thought about for ecommerce orders only.
Increasingly though retail is coming around to a single view approach to inventory management that shows everything available throughout the business. This has also sparked a shift in usage for physical stores. Rather than solely selling in-store stock to customers who physically come into the space, retailers can use their stores as mini warehouses for fulfilling online orders. Ship from store enables a customer to buy online and have the product sent from the best location, which includes nearby stores.
This can help to get the product into the customer’s hands faster as stores are typically located closer to residential areas. Equally, Target noted that home delivery from one of its stores costs 60% of what it would to ship the product from a fulfilment centre.
- The store as an experience
Experiential retail may be less of a focus during the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, but it still has huge power. One of a retail store’s greatest strengths is the ability to physically interact with customers via their five senses. There is something much more immersive about walking through a space compared to scrolling on a website.
Some brands are taking this immersion to a higher level that sees customers seeking them out specifically to visit. South Korean eyewear brand Gentle Monster is an industry leader in experiential retail spaces that look and function more like art galleries than typical stores. Each space has its own unique design. The stores are filled with installations and sculptures for customers to explore, as well as their own individual scent and soundtrack. The important thing is that customers don’t feel like they are walking around a shop.
By creating an experience in the store, retailers give customers a reason to visit, even when they’re not sure if they want to buy at that time. Experiential retail turns the store into a stage for the brand to inspire and entertain, which can help build a relationship with the customer.
- The store as context
While experiences for the sake of entertainment and inspiration are powerful in one way, there is another way that physical retail is making use of in-person experiences.
A number of brands have created stores that provide context for the products that they sell and therefore give customers a compelling reason to buy them. One example is cycling lifestyle brand Rapha which operates a test space called The Vault within its East London store. Customers can try on Rapha gear and then test it on a static bike inside the climate-controlled Vault to see how it holds up in different temperatures and wind speeds.
Winter clothing company Canada Goose has launched Cold Rooms in several of its stores. Similarly to Rapha, customers can try on its products in a temperature-controlled snow-filled room. These spaces work by providing context for the products on sale. In the past, customers would have to go off reviews and specifications as to whether the clothing performs in real weather conditions. Now they can test it for themselves before they buy, which provides reassurance about their purchases.
- The store as a services hub
As already noted, physical retail doesn’t have to be about selling. Building a strong relationship with the customer can be one of the most important functions of a store. One way that retailers can achieve this is by giving customers reasons to interact with them outside of just buying. Related services are one growing area.
US department store Nordstrom took exactly this approach with its mini Nordstrom Local stores. As much smaller format spaces compared to the brand’s traditional stores, the Local spaces are about services rather than inventory.
Customers can use the spaces to collect orders and drop off returns, have clothing tailored and repaired, have gifts wrapped and book personal styling. In case of the latter, this includes the ability to have products shipped to the store to try on in an appointment with a personal stylist. The spaces are a fantastic mix of useful and nearby with the Local stores typically located in places where Nordstrom’s customers live and work. They are designed to be quick stop-in points that make being a customer of the brand easier than ever before.
- The store as a food destination
The in-store café or restaurant has become a common retail sight in recent years. Yet, it remains an effective one.
On opening its NYC flagship last year, Nordstrom tellingly revealed that one in four purchases within its stores are food or drink. That translates to 25% of its in-store business which is a significant proportion.
Creating an in-store food and drink offer is a clear bottom line booster but it’s also a way to bring customers into the store in the first place. Customers may not always be looking to buy something, so a café or restaurant gives them a different reason to visit. Once they’re in the store there’s a great opportunity for retailers to convert them into buying something they didn’t know they wanted.
- The store as a manufacturing site
The store is no longer just for selling. It can now also be used to manufacture the products in the first place.
When Korean eyewear company YUN opened its first physical store in Berlin, it built it around an in-store manufacturing lab. Customers could have glasses made to their exact prescription on the spot in as little as 20 minutes. A major benefit of using the store as a manufacturing site is the ability to offer this sort of personalised experience to customers. It also removes the typical wait times associated with ordering products.
Fast fashion retailer H&M has just unveiled a new machine at its Stockholm store that can turn a retailer’s unwanted clothes into a brand-new product in real-time (currently around five hours) for a fee. Shoppers can watch the machine in action as they browse the store which creates interest alongside another income stream.
- The store as customer support
While great advances have been made in digital communication tools such as chatbots, there are many occasions when customers want support from another human being. In this, the physical store has a great advantage. Whether it’s troubleshooting or support on picking the best product, face-to-face interaction with expert staff can make all the difference when it comes to a happy customer.
No-one knows this better than Apple. Customers can book appointments for its in-store Genius Bars to get support with hardware and software issues among other things. In the case of a physical product like a smartphone, the examination, diagnosis and repair of any problems has to be done physically. By putting this capability into its stores not only is Apple creating a relationship with the customer for the lifetime of their product, but it’s also making the most of the expertise of its staff.
- The store made local
Retailers with a portfolio of stores have always traditionally had a uniform approach to their spaces. Each one follows the same guidelines in terms of design and product assortment (space permitting). Increasingly though, brands are exploring tailoring their stores to their local area. Perhaps the most famous example of this approach is sportwear giant Nike’s LA store, Nike By Melrose. The store was specifically designed to cater to customers in the local vicinity based on data from nearby NikePlus members.
This tailoring includes part of the product assortment, as well as in-store services. The new MAC Innovation Lab in New York also takes a local approach displaying virtual looks based on what’s trending and popular nearby. The local approach makes sense in both cases even though they’re addressing different audiences. Nike by Melrose’s location means that it will typically be visited by those who live and work nearby so catering to them is a smart way to maximise sales.
In the case of MAC, it is likely that the customer base will also include tourists and visitors to the city who will be interested to see what is popular among the New York locals.
- The store as a stepping off point
Most customers now use more than one channel when shopping. As such, retailers need to think about how their store fits into all possible buying journeys. While it’s easy to see how journeys that start online can end with an in-store purchase, there’s also lots of potential the other way.
Digital-first furniture company MADE.com operates a number of showrooms for customers to explore its products in person. With the brand having recognised that furniture buying is rarely an immediate decision due to the need to check measurements and to potentially discuss with other household members, MADE has equipped its spaces with digital tags.
Customers can use the in-store tablets to tap the tags of products they are interested in and save them to a digital wish list. They can then email this to themselves to continue the buying journey at home.
MAC’s Innovation Lab also lets customers save digital make-up looks that they like to their phone so that they can refer back to them and make purchases later on from home. By creating seamless integration with digital channels, retailers can use their stores as a stepping off point for a customer purchase and keep them in the buying funnel even after they leave.
- The store made digital
There is an increasingly strong digital presence within physical retail stores. While this takes a variety of different formats, it’s interesting to see how digitalisation is enhancing the physical and, in some cases, removing elements of it. For example, self-checkout technologies are becoming more mainstream. In most cases, this requires the customer to download the retailer’s app in order to scan barcodes as they move through the store and pay before they leave.
Grocery retailer Sainsbury’s is now rolling its SmartShop mobile checkout technology to the majority of its stores. This in theory could mean a future reduction of traditional checkouts freeing up space in store for other purposes.
Meanwhile, Walmart is redesigning its in-store navigation to be more shopper-friendly. As well as changing signage within the space, the company is prompting customers to use the Walmart app which mirrors the store layout to help shoppers navigate to what they want. It’s a perfect marriage of the searchability of digital retail with the immediacy of the physical.
- The store as a new reality
Physical retail isn’t restricted to only what is inside a store’s four walls. Innovative digital technologies have created the opportunity for the store to offer additional realities to customers.
One example is premium beauty brand Charlotte Tilbury’s magic mirror. Customers can use augmented reality to virtually try on different make-up looks in real-time. The mirror can also adjust the look for day and night. Customers can even email themselves their favourite looks. The magic mirror enables customers to quickly try on lots of different looks without having to actually apply and take off the make-up each time. This can lead to them trying on looks they wouldn’t normally choose which could boost sales.
At its New York flagship, Italian furniture company Natuzzi uses virtual reality to enable customers to create a digital version of their home and try out Natuzzi furniture in it. With this being an impossibility in real life, the company uses the technology to create a different reality where customers can see what works for them. As with Charlotte Tilbury, it’s the ability to see how the products might look that gives customers the confidence to make a purchase.
The retail store is influencing sales in more ways than ever before. As such, its value as an asset to retailers is greater than ever.
The store is no longer just a place to display inventory and complete transactions. It is now a platform that retailers can use to engage with all sorts of customer journeys and needs.
This includes everything from providing context and confidence for customers looking to buy to using the store as a logistics and media space. It’s about making the space work harder across more journeys, which can only be a win for retailers.
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