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New Retail: One step towards dystopia?

By Tiago Tavares, Architect S+A

Los Angeles 2019, after a vertiginous dive into a dystopian reality we emerge amidst an exacerbated consumerism that reflects a moral collapse of civilization. The futuristic model presented by Ridley Scott in Blade Runner echoes a depressing and imperfect society, one without moral and equalitarian principles, reflecting an irrational city without shared and organic spaces, a reality characterized by a clear separation of classes.

The noir and decadent vision of this dark and bleak universe takes us from a society that is hostage of a globalization and lack of principles, into our contemporary parallel reality that promotes a society that is both social and introvert in an ambiguous relationship.

Although we are still far from the Los Angeles universe imagined by Ridley Scott, we are currently witnessing an ever greater presence of the digital reality, intensified by the pandemic times. The confinement and the cancellation of socialization have drawn a context that seems to be heading towards a dystopic abyss. Are we witnessing a prelude to the dystopia foreseen in 1982 by Blade Runner? Will the online presence be the only reality left in the near future – one that is distant not only from shared spaces but also from real and social experiences?

An analysis of the recent commercial reality points out a growing presence of digital marketing and e-commerce. The industry of retail is in fact rewriting the laws of physics regarding the relationship between product and consumer, endeavouring serious efforts to achieve an ever more personal interaction that is oriented towards the specific needs of the individual. The influence of online spaces have changed considerably the commercial behaviour of consumers, which led to a refinement of the digital presence of retailers and also to a redefinition of their offline presence. Is the global and immediate availability of the online world an announced end of the physical commercial space?

When analysing the Asian market, which is currently responsible for a great innovation in the commercial area, a new step has been taken in what concerns the experience of retail. Innovative spaces tend not to focus exclusively on selling a product but also on providing an immersive entertainment experience, thus creating the opportunity for consumers to socialize, discover, learn, participate and share, which means shifting the feeling of purchase into a feeling of experience. The relation between consumer and seller ceases to be a simple transaction, becoming a social act that arouses curiosity and adds a new value to the physical space, which can hardly be replicated in the online world. An example of this redefinition of retail space around the concept of experience can be seen with the brand Gentle Monster, which was responsible for redesigning the luxury shopping centre SKP-S in Beijing, a space that introduces a radical concept designated as Digital-Analog Future, depicting a world where technological advances dilute the boundaries of human and digital realities. The spaces maintain their commercial essence, but now, through careful design, also provide an immersive experience that reflects the DNA of the brand, while offering numerous photographic opportunities, that can easily and profusely be shared on social media, thus contributing towards a fast and efficient promotion.

We are now facing a new concept, a reinvention of the commercial principle, enacting a new social experience along with a secular act – Retailtainment.

The idea of spatial expansion was replaced by a concept of consolidation on strategic locations, converting the numerous and trivial commercial areas in flagship stores that pursue both the commercial experience and the commercial promotion. Instead of completely replacing the spatial reality of the physical universe, here the digital world serves as a complement and a refinement factor of the actual space, triggering secondary mechanisms that encourage a greater interaction between the consumer and the brand. The reality of social media serves as an expansion and promotion purpose for the commercial space. Using this approach, global brands such as UNIQLO promoted virtual vouchers that could be activated simply by scanning the QR codes at the entrance of the shops, thus connecting an online with an offline concept, building the bridge between the online commercial experience and the effective contact with the physical space.

It is clear that the development of a medium does not imply the end of another, but instead its redefinition and adaptation. Commercial spaces are globally hostage of the digital universe, but their survival does not depend exclusively on their online existence.

If we step away from a retailer scale and take into consideration a developer level, we can also contemplate the real impact of the digital factor in the real estate business and in its spatial conception. The pandemic crisis and the growing presence of the online market seem to diminish the need for socialization, however, the concept of Victor Gruen’s Southdale Mall in 1956 is not a reflection of our current world and his idea of introvert commercial space does not promote an adequate development of the urban experience, nor does it have the necessary economic sustainability. The social space and the several elements that intensify its activation contribute towards a growing commercial value, not only by means of a greater promotion but also through a broader and closer contact with several brands.

The redefinition of retail is happening based on the way consumers use commercial areas. The focus of developers is shifting towards the concept of retailtainment, which has led to the creation of areas dedicated to specific sectors such as lifestyle, fitness, and art exhibition, thus transforming the commercial experience into an experimental journey of social integration.

The future of retail spaces depends intrinsically of the connection between the urban fabric and its flexibility and willingness to integrate sustainable spaces and to understand social needs. It is not merely the supply of a simple service but above all the provision of an experience that allows the activation and promotion of the different brands. It is neither depressing nor noir, but instead a rich and complex experience that encourages a more personal interaction between consumer and retailer.

The efficiency and availability of online commerce contributes towards the reinvention of this sector but does not redefine it as a whole, invalidating its existence. We are still witnessing a repositioning and requalification of retail spaces that will demand greater creativity in the field of design, in order to reaffirm them in a new reality.

As designers, we must question ourselves about the path we wish to pursue, but also consider what contributes, from a social standpoint, towards the development of a more balanced and inclusive society.

We must accentuate our presence in the creation of spaces and experiences without denying the online and offline realities and this must reflect a statement about the path we have set upon ourselves. Are we facing an inevitable dystopia or will we step aside from this near future and set forth a social path that aims for an inclusive and experimental reality?

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