Exploring the narrative of shopping

I try to shop locally, favouring smaller groceries, the butchers and fishmonger, fruit and veg markets, the independent bookstore and the few boutiques in my neighbourhood who support smaller designers. It involves a little more effort trekking from shop to shop and navigating crowded markets in the rain, but the experience is hugely rewarding. Each one of these establishments offers a very different experience, an unexpected find, fun conversation, a laugh, a cry… I come away with much more than a transaction of money for goods.

I’m not alone in actively wanting to return to the old culture of shopping – you know when you’d made a trip to the town market to buy the weekly groceries, did a little bartering, caught up with the politics of the day, learnt the latest gossip, married off your sons and daughters. Shopping was an event yet somewhere along the way we have lost that element of fun. Allowing for Amazon to decide on our reading list, Spotify to predict our listening and Ocado to deliver our food to me is soul destroying.

Earlier this week I caught up with the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, founder of the exciting practice OMA, who seems to share a similar belief. Recent political events, the ‘digital representations of reality’ as he rightfully says, should be a good wake-up call to pop the liberal bubble and make some fundamental changes. ‘There’s a lot of disruption going on in the world. These events demand that we have a rethink. Do we address consumption in the world?’

Koolhaas was talking at the Vision: Future Retail, a symposium in Amsterdam attended by various companies and creatives. In reality, it is time to reinvent the retail narrative not only from a nostalgic viewpoint, or political, but simply because the current model is no longer commercially working. We connect and consume products in a very different way than we used to. Access is replacing the physical – we are still buying products but for very different reasons. Experience is our new status symbol and it is having a profound impact on how we shop.

What this means is really rethinking the retail space to engage with the consumer, provide excitement, experiences, friendship and a sense of community, help share thoughts and ideology. This could involve experimental retail, spaces that are artistic, pop-ups and temporary structure in unusual locations purely for the purpose of brand awareness. Perhaps they don’t sell anything but brand experiences. It means more and more collaborations with artists and creatives who share a similar vision, and working with social and political causes that also identify with the company’s underlying principles. In the new age of retail, stores need to be become more glocal so the design of the shop floor is locally responsive even if the brand is global.

Although theoretically the digital age should have made shopping easier, more than ever consumers want to connect with the brand in order for a purchase to take place. They want to feel, smell, touch the object, but also bond with the brand itself be it ideologically or otherwise. The internet has become that last purchasing tool, the last click-and-pay.

Some brands are actively doing this. OMA’s Fondazione Prada in Milan is a cultural complex with huge gallery spaces replete with a cinema. More recently the firm has worked with KaDeWe in Berlin, Repossi and Boulevard Haussmann in Paris and the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice, a homage to the old market square. Collectively they are not only making strong architectural statements but are also expanding the customers’ retail experience into an urban architectural experience. They provide retail as part of your ‘city wonder’ says the firm.

Car companies are also reviewing how to sell cars going forward. On the one hand the collections are now so huge that no physical space, certainly none in congested city settings, can house the full range. Added to this the auto world is in a bit of a puzzle as the next generation refuses to connect emotionally with cars and even less with individual car ownership. Audi City in London, for instance, is a fully digital car salesroom built on the Apple model that hopes to connect with the millennials. In the same way, BMW says it will like to work closer with the likes of OMA to explore shopping as an experience.

Michele Fuhs, head of Premium Retail Experience believes that by 2020 the BMW Group will need to be the ‘point of experience. We cannot remain simply sales focused but address what is mobility in the future, what is car ownership. We are competing with the entertainment industry. For this we need partners. Our brand will be at the centre but it has to move forward.’

Koolhaas says we have been pampered and should be more ambitious and more interesting. ‘We are too placid and predictable’ and need to engage with choice, alternatives and reality and ‘discover pleasures outside the immediate comfort zone.’

In the future we will see more and more of a shift towards brands as media, ones that offer other services, that are inclusive, spaces that are more fluid and flexible in their delivery, and crucially companies need to offer a personal, bespoke experience. Perhaps the shop of the future will be a gallery of sorts, an interactive and exciting exhibition space, and maybe at the end of that experience, that city wonder, we click a button and make a purchase, much like we would a souvenir.

Nargess Banks

Design Talks | The Textile Building | 29a Chatham Place | London | E9 6FJ | UK
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