From interactive engagements to destination shopping, major retailers are doubling down on brick-and-mortar post pandemic.

The world is reopening. After more than a year of people trying to avoid crowds and maintain social distancing, retailers are betting that shoppers will shift to in-person experiences to make up for lost time and regain a sense of normalcy. But that normalcy won’t be what customers have always experienced. It’s changed. And for the better.

We’re already starting to see hints of the coming shift as major retailers like Dick’s Sporting Goods, Nike, REI, and others are incorporating unique experiences into their physical stores. With larger, more interactive engagements, retailers will inevitably need technology solutions to meet the new expectations consumers have after living in the “phygital” world for the last 16+ months.

Here’s how a few companies are preparing to become physical shopping destinations – a retail experience of the future – and what other stores can do to follow their lead.

An experience not to be discounted

Dick’s Sporting Goods

The sporting goods king has debuted a number of new store concepts in recent months, including its new off-price model dubbed Going, Going, Gone. This is in addition to two other discount store concepts, Overtime and Warehouse Sale, that are helping the retailer test new ways to reach a specific set of their customer base – the discount shopper. 

For the store experience, Dick’s recently announced the launch of the House of Sport concept, an experiential format that will include a climbing wall, a turf field and track, yoga, wellness services, and more. Upgrades to the company’s Golf Galaxy stores follow a similar path in bringing in golf lessons and hitting bays. They are also differentiating these experiences through brand partnerships with Titleist and others for golf club fittings. 

For both formats, the goal is to create a place that offers services and amenities that consumers can use all year and will continue to come back to the store time after time to enjoy them. 

Livin’ la vida local


Nike is also dabbling in a variety of new store formats, including its smaller, local-focused format called Nike Live. The concept is tailored to the local market to include local team brands and decor that match the flavor of the community. For example, the Nike Live store in the company’s Oregon hometown will feature University of Oregon merchandise.

To maximize in-store engagement, many of the store’s services will take a digital format that pairs with the Nike app. For example, a digital vending machine called the “Unlock Box” will allow members to redeem free gifts and products. Customers will also be able to choose ship-to-store and text store employees about current sales, product availability, and other offers.

The hybrid model of bringing digitally led experiences to physical retail is unique when thinking through the omnichannel approach – where the engagement channels are being brought together in one place. It all lends itself to a sticky loyalty play.

Community-led, locally bred


Last year, REI opened a new co-op store in North Conway, NH, seeking to bridge the gap between its products and the raw environment in which they’re used. Taking the bulk of the focus away from commerce, the new 25,000 square foot store aims to lead with experience and encourage community – a huge theme that came from the pandemic. 

In the heart of the store are long multi-seating tables that are conducive to workshops and consultations. Multipurpose displays allow for added flexibility, from selling products to providing educational community demonstrations or events. The space also doubles as a meeting place that connects locals and visitors alike with programs and products to take advantage of recreational opportunities in the area. 

Most notably, the store’s location was chosen based on where its shoppers are likely to use the products they purchase. It’s destination shopping at its finest.

Leave it to the pros


Home improvement store Lowe’s is starting to explore different ways to cater to its professional customer base in-store. Professionals spend significantly more and shop more frequently than the average homeowner or DIYer, leading the retailer to seek better ways to drive speed and convenience. 

Changes to the in-store experience include a new Pro Trailer parking zone, a Pro Zone near the entrance stocked with commonly purchased contractor items, a rental tool program, and a Pro Desk that offers free cell phone charging. The store also plans to expand its brick-and-mortar offerings with windshield cleanings and free air stations in the near future. 

Lowe’s is also implementing new in-store technologies to empower store employees to grow and retain Pro accounts. These technologies rely on data-driven processes to personalize relationships, interactions, and recommendations, leading to increased loyalty among its target customer base.

Contactless commerce

Foot Locker

Foot Locker is reimagining one of the banes of in-store shopping: the checkout experience. Stores are now implementing contactless payments for a more seamless, streamlined process.

The move is helping to reduce lines and wait times at the cash wrap, allowing customers to get in and out of the store. It also aligns with a growing consumer preference for digital wallets and alternative payment methods that are both convenient and secure.

And while removing the final customer touchpoint (the checkout process) from the in-store experience might seem like a failure in customer service, there’s another side that should be considered. Store employees now have more time freed up to engage with customers on the sales floor or be delegated to deliver a speedier curbside service. It’s an opportunity to reinforce the brand, highlight special promotions, and increase customer satisfaction.

Mini-stores to curbside cures


Target has long been talked about as a leader in the retail space and their updated store strategy will continue to shape that narrative.  Aside from updating stores to fulfill health and safety protocols, Target’s remodeled stores are fitted to revolve around better customer experiences.

Their “store-within-a store” model via brand partnerships with Disney, Apple, and Ulta is a strong category play that will surely delight shoppers, increase loyalty, and secure brand equity for all parties. 

Outside of the in-store experience, literally, is Target’s emphasis on a convenient pickup experience with designated curbside and drive up areas. Once a trend setting differentiator – and further fueled by the pandemic – is now essential for many businesses.

Using Technology to Reinvent In-Store Shopping

In-store retail is being reinvigorated, perhaps more so after a year-plus long pandemic that underscores the need for personal connections. 

A common thread between these retailers’ expansion to the in-store experience is how they’re using technology in different ways to meet new consumer expectations. New physical amenities are being augmented by technologies that bring the customer experience full-circle. Data is used to create more personalized interactions and make better product recommendations, while other tools and tactics are creating a sense of community that will incentivize customers to keep coming back. 

To further enhance a technology-driven in-store experience, retailers should take advantage of the value that location plays in personalizing the visit. Not only can location services help identify someone who walks into your store, but it helps fuse the brick-and-mortar and digital channels together. It’s now all about interconnectivity and the experience. Gone are the days of the “in-store people,” “mobile people,” and “online people” being treated as three different channels; that’s not the way consumers look at the world. 

Also, when you consider some of the services that are being offered at REI, for instance, consultations will likely rely on appointment settings. By understanding when someone has left for their appointment, if they are running late or scheduled to be on time, reps could service someone else who has been waiting at the store in the interim. Not only does this benefit internal teams, notably operations, it also enhances customer satisfaction and in turn lowers retention.

Other digital components, such as the “store-mode” feature on mobile apps like Home Depot rely on geotargeting to enhance the in-store experience – a capability which, according to a 2021 Digital Trends Report from Adobe, nearly 73 percent of retail executives regarded as “critical” or “important” to their efforts to connect and deliver the right experience at the right time.

Complementing physical stores with location technology can help you learn even more about your customers including store visitation patterns, dwell times at various areas within the store (via beacons), and even what floor customers are on. Pull customers into your store and give them a reason to stay by connecting with them on any device through SMS, email, or the mobile app.

Creating impactful in-store experiences is poised to be the theme of physical retail moving forward. However, rather than seeing the in-store experience and technology as separate entities, the omnichannel begins to collapse and the magic of the physical store is brought together with the online and digital worlds.