06 November 2018

Department Stores in the digital age: Benoy shows they can thrive, not simply survive

Through collaborations with some of the world’s most forward-thinking developers, Benoy is proving that today’s consumers can be enticed back into Department Stores if they’re offered more than simply the opportunity to transact.

The arrival of the department store in the 19th century transformed shopping habits, offering consumers everything from clothing to furniture under one roof. Now we have Amazon for that: e‑commerce gives you unprecedented choice at the tap of a finger. The convenience and value of online retail has led to an unprecedented global shift: last year, 10.2% of all retail sales took place online – a leap from 7.4% in 2015, and a figure that’s projected to escalate to 17.5% by 2021[1]. Meanwhile, high-street retailers have struggled to compete. In the US and UK, household names such as Macy’s, Sears, House of Fraser and BHS have floundered. The resulting spate of store closures has been dubbed a retail apocalypse”. 

But things are far from over for physical retail, says Jacqueline Beckingham, Benoy’s Global Creative Director. In fact, these changes open up the opportunity to challenge the way we think about department stores and shopping centres today. Things have changed; so be it,” says Beckingham. And it can be a great move for cities – making them richer and giving people better experiences than can be found online.”

Benoy is at the forefront of this drive to reshape the retail landscape – creating profitable, sustainable spaces that go beyond traditional expectations of the sector. Its projects for innovative clients such as South Korea’s Shinsegae and Australia’s David Jones demonstrate that intelligent architecture, design and programming can lure people off the internet and back in store. That’s exactly what we are trying to do,” says Beckingham. Creating a framework for retailers to engage directly and meaningfully with the people who still see value in the real world.” 

Rebooting reality

More experimental retailers are already exploiting the opportunity to entice customers by offering more than the dry digital experience. Eyeglasses maker Warby Parker and fashion label Bonobos are among the brands that started online, but now have physical stores – spaces that are more about lifestyle and ambience than a hard sell. Last year, Amazon made headlines when it took over organic supermarket Whole Foods. 

Beckingham explains: Has Amazon bought a distribution chain? No, it’s bought physical locations where people who care about the quality of their food enjoy shopping, which adds value and credibility to Amazon’s online food offer.” At a time when the mundane aspects of a transaction are best done online, a shop is an opportunity to showcase brands and products in a way that makes the most of the physical setting. 

Terence Seah, head of Benoy’s Singapore studio, says department store owners and developers need to think of stores as a third space” – a social environment between home and work that anchors community life, rather than simply an arena for commerce. Reimagining shopping centres in this way reflects the fact that the increasing digitisation of our lives has created a yearning for the tangible – Benoy’s research has established that consumers of all demographics cherish meaningful, real-life experiences centered around people. As such, the most successful retail environments today provide opportunities to learn about brands, interact with products and meet makers and designers. 

Food, says Beckingham, is a good example of something stores can present better than websites. You can have cooking demonstrations, wine tasting, nutritional advice – so much more in terms of experience is on offer. At a time when you may not spend money on a dress in a shop, choosing to buy online instead, you’ll still happily choose to dine out with friends.” At its Royalmount scheme in Montréal, Benoy has employed this principle to take the experience of shopping to the next level, with two large dining areas inspired more by the markets of Asia and Spain than the food courts in many north American malls. 

From transaction to experience

Benoy is demonstrating that it’s this shift – beyond the transaction to the experience – that’s key to making a success of retail today. At its Starfield Hanam complex serving the Greater Seoul area, a world-leading sports experiences centre and an aquatic club and spa sit alongside traditional boutiques – creating a unique destination where visitors can spend all day shopping, relaxing and socialising. Time Out described the scheme as a shopping theme park”.

Seah sees the ideal retail environment as more theatrical production than shopping centre. Our designs are veering towards the museum and gallery – a beautiful space to experience objects.” 

In its plans for a new retail complex in Dubai, for example, Benoy is pioneering a a new form of shop window” – an arena for customers to interact with products, as well as areas to stage performances, trials and launches. Meanwhile, the interior columns have been fitted with flat-screens to augment physical presence with online connectivity and interactivity, an example of how technology can improve the shopping experience, not just replace it.

Benoy’s innovative approach to display also breathed new life into Sydney’s iconic David Jones centre – visitors now encounter a striking shoe gallery” on the eight metre-high seventh floor. In an effort to enhance and animate the visitor experience, the architects brought natural light into the building and exposed its original architecture. It also reconfigured the store’s entrances in an effort to create a dialogue with the urban realm, recognising developments that blend seamlessly into the city have greater longevity and public appeal. 

This nod to context is also vital to the experience at Starfield Hanam, where the architects capitalised on the famous surrounding mountains and Han river. A connection with the outdoors helps put visitors at ease, which encourages dwell time and, by extension, purchases,” Beckingham says. We found every opportunity for people to look outside – terraces to enjoy views, a nature trail around the building and a spa on the roof.”

Turning attention to the customer experience doesn’t necessarily mean an expensive pay-off between transaction and display space, observes Jamie Webb, Benoy’s head of EMEA, pointing out that many stores maintain unnecessarily large storage areas. One British department store we’re working with occupies 40% of the building it’s in,” he says. We’re helping it maintain a high-street presence with a smaller footprint.” Others focus disproportionately on ground and first floor, even though upper and basement levels could host amenities that require less visible presence, for example co-working, music venues and gyms. 

It’s clear that the trend towards online shopping is not going to be reversed. Nor should it. Instead, Benoy is raising the bar for what consumers can expect from the real world. As Beckingham observes: Once you have the ease of buying online with the experience of shopping in store, that will be a powerful thing.”

[1] Source: Statista 2018

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