The retail industry needs a deeper understanding of how — and why — their customers switch seamlessly between social media and physical stores, and the how this will shape the in-store experience and design of the retail spaces.

The retail industry has been turned upside down by digital technology. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Recent research conducted by Maybe Tech suggests that customers share experiences and make recommendations online, and retailers can use social media to enhance their reputation and shape their brand identity. In other words, they can drive sales in physical stores by understanding how people use social media.

The medium affects the message

Not all social media platforms are the same, and retailers need to ensure they are using the most appropriate channels for accessing the right audience in the most effective way. Each new technology changes how dialogue or broadcasting occurs, introducing new communication possibilities and new risks. As a result, some platforms are more effective tools than others.

According to anthropologist Ilana Gershon, a consumer’s choice of medium depends on their ‘media ideologies’ — that is, what they believe about how the medium affects (or should affect) the message. While it is possible to personalise online communication through interactive elements, it is not always as effective as a written note. For this reason, most people switch medias; for example, from phone to texting.

While understanding how customers use social media is key to understanding how online communication drives sales, it is also key to the design of the physical retail environment. Why? Because how people use social media to communicate affects how they engage with retailers, and therefore the physical service points required to do so.

Switching between virtual and physical

At Human City, we’ve done quite a bit of work on the design and layout of co-living spaces, and our clients frequently ask whether they should be offering customers a mobile on-boarding option. They want insight into how to integrate mobile on-boarding with the existing in-person on-boarding experience. We advise that it is not a question of which options our clients offer; instead, they must understand how their customers switch seamlessly between mobile and in-person experiences — virtual and physical spaces.

Insights obtained from our own research and client projects have shown that people use digital and physical spaces to be social on different scales. Rather than a decline in more traditional forms of information dissemination, social media is used as a communication tool alongside and in conjunction with face-to-face. There will be examples where the use of social media or in-person engagement is more appropriate.

The concept of a scalable sociality troubles the traditional binary of public and private. As such, customers use virtual and physical methods to constantly negotiate the boundaries of social interaction, to seek a balance between the extreme private and extreme public.

It’s not one size fits all

There is no one size fits all. The retail industry must embrace digital technology as a way of driving traffic to their retail stores, but must also appreciate the differences between different online communication tools. At the same time, they need a deeper understanding of how — and why — their customers switch seamlessly between social media and physical stores, and the how this will shape the in-store experience and design of the retail spaces.

We’ve got the following suggestions:

1. Consider the scale

How do people use different mediums to be social at different scales? Twitter is an open public forum, whereas Facebook is a wide but still selective public space, and WhatsApp is predominantly used for smaller group conversations. In our experience, the way people use social media is a model for the function and size of the physical spaces.

2. Think agile

Shoppers will want an omni-channel experience, and ways to engage and interact with retailers across physical and digital platforms. However, retailers will have to anticipate the changing preferences and evolving behaviours of consumers. This means adapting to support new modes of sociality.

3. Review the function

What is the role of a physical space in a digital age? Retail designers will need to take online engagements into account when envisaging physical spaces. For example, if shoppers already engage with each other on social media and prefer this way of socialising, they might want to use the physical spaces to meet and share their retail experiences.

4. Increase transparency

Digital technology has forced the retail industry, and other sectors, to be more the transparent and accountable. Customers expect the same level of transparency and accountability in their face-to-face meetings with retailers. Staff will be expected to give customers more face time and shops will be designed to be more open and transparent.

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