The future of retail: Beyond stories told, to stories experienced

[Presence has a big role to play in the evolution of brick and mortar retail in the age of online shopping; this story is from Forbes, where it features more images. –Matthew]

Twas The Flight Before Christmas JC Penney VR

The Future Of Retail: Beyond Stories Told, To Stories Experienced

By Rachel Arthur
Jan 26, 2016

If you’d visited a mall housing a J.C. Penney store over the holidays, you may have been welcomed by a virtual reality experience that took shoppers on an immersive ride to the North Pole.

Created with marketing and technology agency Narrative, the “Twas The Flight Before Christmas” initiative was in place in four malls (one each in New York, Ohio, Arizona and Virginia), in a bid to grab consumer attention during the busiest shopping period of the year. It consisted of an Oculus Rift-based campaign where individual viewers could interact with reindeers and snowmen, as well as Santa himself, while a large screen was also set up for the rest of the audience drifting through the mall to enjoy.

VR is a hot topic in retail and fashion circles at present (not to mention gaming, entertainment et al), but this campaign wasn’t about using new technology, rather creating something that inspired and entertained consumers, and ultimately helped convert them into paying customers as well.

“It was a really unique opportunity to take a legacy brick and mortar retailer and leverage technology in an authentic way and not just for the sake of it,” says Narrative’s CEO, Tricia Clarke-Stone. “We wanted to show a level of innovation being injected into the J.C. Penney brand, in tune with what consumers are looking for and how they want to engage. During the holidays, it’s all about driving traffic, so we thought what better way than by activating something in malls where shoppers are just a few steps away from the store location.”

The experience took viewers on a sleigh ride to a mystical wonderland (complete with integrated haptics such as a burst of cold air as they flew through the clouds to help set the scene), where they were given five doors to choose from. Behind each door was a different vignette based on a variety of festive characters. One example showed Santa working out, another a group of reindeer playing poker. Once having enjoyed the short films, a gift was handed to the consumer both in the virtual world and in real life. It might have been a $100 gift card, or a discount off sales over a certain amount, either way it served as a trigger point for shoppers to head into J.C. Penney to purchase.

For the audience, such gifts would similarly be attainable merely by being stood near certain floor decals while watching what was going on. Meanwhile, on Facebook the team targeted users within a 15-20 mile radius of the participating malls with teaser content utilising the Facebook 360 tool.

“VR is usually rooted in entertainment experiences, and value that as the goal or objective, but we wanted to add another layer and have it act as a traffic driver,” Clarke-Stone explains. According to the team’s reporting, J.C. Penney received above average redemption rates on promotions compared to ones in the past with different trigger points.

“Part of our marketing strategy moving forward will be looking for new ways to drive traffic within the mall to our J.C. Penney stores,” said Kate Coultas, spokesperson for the retailer. “[This concept] gave mall shoppers a great reason to visit J.C. Penney and also allowed us to introduce potential customers to our fantastic assortment of brands and merchandise that many shoppers didn’t even realize we carried.”

The move came at a time when generating footfall to physical stores is seen as more critical than ever to drum up sales. While J.C. Penney actually performed much better than many of its competitors (reporting 3.9% comparable sales growth in the nine weeks of November and December 2015), holiday was otherwise tough for US retailers. Although sales increased 3% to $626.1bn across the market in that same sales period, they fell short of the 3.7% growth forecast by the National Retail Federation.

“Make no mistake about it, this was a tough holiday season for the industry,” said NRF president Matthew Shay. “Weather, inventory challenges, advances in consumer technology and the deep discounts that started earlier in the season and that have carried into January presented stiff headwinds.”

What’s more, over the Black Friday to Cyber Monday 2015 weekend, over 103 million people in the US shopped online but fewer than 102 million shopped in-store. E-commerce is an appealing opportunity, but for traditional retailers, driving consumers into their physical environments remains crucial.

When Tommy Hilfiger launched its own virtual reality experience in October 2015, chief executive Daniel Grieder told The New York Times: “These days, you can’t just wait for people to come into the store and try on your jackets. You have to provide entertainment. It’s not about turnover by square foot anymore. It’s about surprise by square foot, or newness.”

Clarke-Stone agrees: “When consumers go physically to a store these days, they expect it to be heightened in some way. They want more from it than what they get from digital, and that’s where immersive technology can play a role; it can ‘event-ize’ the retail experience, and enable you to really tell a story.”

She refers to VR as an opportunity to walk around in a story, and to enable consumers to feel like they have had an individual, personalized moment with a brand. It’s that ability for immersive technology to step beyond just stories told, to stories experienced that makes this so resonant for retail, she adds.

The name for the agency was born out of exactly that premise – going beyond telling stories to living within the narrative of them. Clarke-Stone started it in 2013 with entrepreneur and hip-hop magnate Russell Simmons. The aim was to move advertising on from feeling like advertising, to connecting emotionally with consumers through experiences. Four C’s summarize business activity: creative, code (for the technology element), culture and consumer connection.

An earlier campaign for Under Armour saw VR used to launch the Curry One shoe with NBA star Stephen Curry. A press conference was supported by an immersive experience enabled through Google Cardboard that placed editors and bloggers literally into Curry’s shoes. “It was about true engagement,” Clarke-Stone explains, highlighting how culturally relevant it also was.

But the story is again her sticking point. The future of retail could very easily be about this kind of immersive technology if it’s rooted in something that makes consumers feel good and makes them want to come back, she explains. “Technology can heighten an experience, can really dimensionalize who and what a brand is, but it has to be rooted in the experience of the story to drive that authentic connection.”


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