Visiting the Retail Design & Signage Expos last week has reaffirmed the fact that retail is changing. But what was striking for me was how it’s not just the advances in technology and the increases in efficiency driving advances; the way retailers and brands are looking to engage their consumers has fundamentally shifted.

An interesting topic that arose a few times was the idea of sales vs. brand loyalty. Hasbro gave a talk in collaboration with retail strategy agency DisplayPlay on how they optimise activity despite not owning their physical retail space. Firstly, coherence and consistency are key. Hasbro occupies a variety of stores (from budget to premium, large to small) so they developed a flexible kit-of-parts that allows them to deploy the right fixtures and formats for each retail environment. Always in-keeping and always on brand.

In addition, they host a variety of hands-on activities and sensorial experiences to promote their products and engage consumers. Think arts and craft tables with buttons that release the smell of Play-DOH! or Nerf gun tournaments in store; all providing highly engaging and memorable experiences for children and adults alike.

You’d think the sole aim of this would be to drive sales, but this was rarely mentioned. Instead, phrases like ‘repeat visit, ‘likelihood to purchase’ and ‘point of emotion’ were used. It’s clear that Hasbro treats its in-store presence as an opportunity to create experience; offer the theatre that e-commerce cannot (yet, always yet!). All in the informed knowledge that it will lead to sales one day - probably online - but building and cementing brand loyalty is the real opportunity for physical retail right now.

Along the theme of smells and experiences, sensory branding was another prominent topic. Scent profiles for luxury hospitality integrated into everything from cleaning products to parking tickets. Custom soundscapes that change as you move through different sections of a bank. Both examples from The Aroma Co, who are helping brands to realise and optimise their presence across all 5 senses.

One of the most interesting emergent trends I heard at the conference is the blurring of staff and consumers. Within this shift sits Lush TV, a channel for sharing product information with its consumers, a resource which was once exclusively for training staff. Additionally, Adidas has opened up a staff training initiative to its consumers. GamePlan-A.com aims to increase motivation and promote athleticism, helping users to utilise their ‘athlete’s heart’ in everyday life.

In the physical world, retailers are starting to host trade-like events for consumers. Invite-only launches, after-hours shopping events and ‘first to know’ newsletters when extended to a select audience of dedicated customers enforce the feeling of brand loyalty, bringing them closer to the inner circle of the brand - somewhere between regular Joes and employees. A sweet spot for cultivating interest, testing concepts and co-creating.

Yes retail is changing, but it’s by no means migrating exclusively to the internet. Nor is it becoming a data-mined quest solely to draw money from people’s pockets as quickly as possible. Brands and retailers alike are assessing what role each of their channels can play, what distinct benefits and opportunities they pose and how retail can be used to create experiences beyond the transactional, which really resonate with people and provide additional meaning to their lives.