Beyond reality – the rise of the digitally-enhanced store

Cate Trotter, Head of Trends at Insider Trends looks at the changing retail landscape

Virtual and augmented reality may be on the uptake, but what happens when these types of technologies come up against the real world? In retail, brick-and-mortar stores are as real as it gets – customers can go into the store, browse, touch and try on products, interact with a real sales assistant and then leave with their purchase physically in their hands.

While there’s still no competition between engineered reality and real life, the way people shop is no longer so black and white. More and more people are choosing to shop with retailers in different ways. One day they might go into a store, the next they buy online. The might browse in-store and buy online, or browse online and buy in-store. They might order from their mobile to collect in a nearby store, and a host of other scenarios.

Retailers should no longer be thinking about retail as online or offline, but as a single experience delivered through different channels. And as friction is removed in how we shop, so retailers also need to blur digital and physical in their stores to create experiences that match this.

Immersive in-store experiences

One way that technology can enhance the in-store shopping experience is by making it more immersive. Pro-Direct’s London store does this by using digital display screens to great effect. The walls are made up of a mixture of screens and printed magnetic squares enabling the entire look to be switched over in a matter of minutes.

Podium touchscreens around the space mean customers can browse and order the entire product range from the store, which minimises what stock needs to be held in the space. Screens are also used to enable customers to see what products look like on life-sized digital models. Because the digital content all correlates with Pro:Direct’s website and social media accounts the space feels like a frictionless bridge between digital and physical.


In New York, Samsung 837 is using technology to immerse customers in its world. The huge three-storey screen is a major focal point, but the gallery space is where customers really get drawn in. It’s used for collaborative projects like the ‘Social Galaxy’, which saw customers enter a tunnel of screens and mirrors that surrounded them with images from their Instagram feeds. The personal nature of the interaction makes it much more powerful.

VR and AR in stores

VR and AR can enhance the physical store by letting retailers bring things into the space that they couldn’t do in reality. Recently Topshop used a combination of physical window dressing and VR to create a unique waterslide themed window display. Customers could sit on the top of the ‘waterslide’ and don a VR headset to go on a virtual waterslide ride through Oxford Street.

The experience was part of Topshop’s Splash! campaign, which was seen throughout the rest of the store. The use of VR gave customers a chance to engage with the brand idea in a much more personal way than flicking through racks of clothes.

Charlotte Tilbury is one of a number of beauty brands experimenting with AR to help customer decision-making. Its in-store Magic Mirrors let customers digitally overlay different make-ups looks onto their own face. They can even take photos and email them to themselves.

For the time-poor this is a quick alternative to being made-over by the make-up artists. For others it can help narrow down the options so that they pick the best look to be recreated by the make-up artist in real life. Being able to try-before-you-buy in beauty is valuable because it gives customers the confidence to buy.

Growing interactivity

Increasingly retailers are using their physical stores as a form of marketing, rather than just sales. With this shift has come a focus on creating interactions with customers. Digital technologies are a great way of adding these elements into stores.

Brands like Ralph Lauren, Rebecca Minkoff and Tommy Hilfiger are all using RFID technology to provide smart fitting room mirrors. Each brand has its own take on the offering, but they’re built around interactive mirrors that can recognise clothing bought into the room by their RFID tags. Customers can then get recommendations of other products, request assistance or other sizes, and a variety of other services.

All sorts of companies are embracing interactivity. Bentley Studio London uses a specially created Inspirator app to track customer emotions and recommend the perfect car configuration for them. Audi City use touchscreens and QR scanners to let customers design their own car, view it in almost life-size and print their own brochure. They can even take away a unique design code so they can look at it and modify it at home. Both of these experiences are far more interesting than wandering around a basic car showroom. They also both lead onto deeper interactions with customers able to test drive their suggested car.

The future of the physical store is going much the same way as the future of retail – a blending of digital and physical. Creating frictionless spaces that combine these elements in a fun, interactive and immersive way is already happening.

By Cate Trotter, Head of Trends at Insider Trends. Insider Trends is a retail trends consultancy delivering retail safaris in London, New York and Berlin, as well as trend presentations and workshops that help retailers identify what’s next and how to get ahead.