Architecture, Technology and the Future of Retail

Today’s architecture is an evolution of technological advancement, environmental challenges, social impacts, mindfulness, wellness, and fiscal responsibility. Marrakech Souk – Morocco, Le Bon Marche – Paris, Galleria Vittorio – Milan, Santa Caterina – Barcelona, Namba Parks – Osaka, Markthal – Rotterdam, WTC – New York and The Jewel at Changi Airport - Singapore are all examples of a cross-section of progress that shares these common threads.

Technology continues to shape our built environment, make life more convenient and a whole lot more complex at the same time. Finding a balance is our collective responsibility as professionals. The tension that time creates will continually keep us all at the edge of our seats.

Our future depends largely on more sustainable growth reliant on smart energy and the responsible disposal or recycling of waste. Otherwise, we are simply running down our planet. Considering this threat, architecture and technology have a significant responsibility to deliver a better future for everyone and everything.

So, how does this influence the places of tomorrow? The future may hold closer-knit higher density and a greater requirement for well-structured public transit. With personal vehicles being less prevalent, our retail landscape will change and need to be flexible enough to accommodate.

There is a fantastic opportunity to pre-empt a future 75-years from now through architecture and technology, and a lot is happening in the background. Architecturally, we are already designing projects with drone platforms that can facilitate the delivery and dispatch of goods. We are making adaptable structures ready for a variety of future flexible uses (from commercial to education to accommodation to retirement and so on.)

Car parking bays are steadily being reduced by our authorities but remain inflated by many of our pre-requisite retailer requirements. We are delivering retail precincts with less than three cars / 100 m and others with even less – such precincts are in public transit nodes and parking restrictions justified – walkability, connectedness and wellness are steadily creeping into newer precincts.

Technology itself continues its relentless evolution with quantum computing, machine-learning, self-learning and robotics that are now recognising their own existence. We have already seen assistance bots roaming shopping precincts around the world.

Retail experiences will increasingly tap into in-store opportunities for augmented and virtual reality interfaces with customers and will likely become passé. We are seeing some fantastic ways to ‘preview’ products in-situ whilst being in-store through augmented reality and unprecedented opportunities for customisation in-store. These technologies will continue to grow and develop and get better, making for exceptional experiences.

Data is already allowing us to predict customer behaviour and choice through analytics and data interpretations. This is going to change the course of product offer moving forward and help to inform retailers of stock requirements or turnover almost to the exact hour. Deliveries and logistics are seeing huge changes in the way operations are being maintained already, last-mile delivery is going to infiltrate, and logistics is going to be interwoven within our communities

Stores will increasingly become smarter, anticipating and adapting environments to each customer’s needs by utilising data and artificial intelligence. All these factors continue to allow retailers to ‘personalise’ environments/spaces and make their offer more relevant and timelier.

There is no denying that we are seeing significant technological innovation within retail today. However, architecture, planning and tech can only do so much if we don’t have a connection with our customer at a deep and human level, the former is futile. By our very nature, we are social creatures and respond best to social construct. Nothing beats a simple conversation between people or friendly interaction with staff at the local homewares store.

At the turn of the millennium, we were approached to design a flag-ship telco store for a national roll-out. At that time, it was all about self-help, tech revolution, a reduction of floor staff and increase of screens and touch-interfaces for the customer. We spent a month in several stores only to realise that a typical telco customer was coming into the store to sort out an issue. The last thing the customer needed was another machine – they made the trip to speak to a person and walk away with a positive experience! The brief changed from a slick, high-tech fit out with a significant reduction of staff to a straightforward store that felt comfortable, spacious and welcoming with additional technical staff to assist and support customers more proactively. In short, people respond more positively to human interaction.

Architecture and urban design continue to adapt to our ever-evolving social behaviours and technological relationships to deliver places that are intriguing, sensory, dramatic, beautiful and memorable examples. This is exemplified by what is being delivered at Changi Airport’s Jewel in Singapore, the likes of Markthal in Rotterdam and Parc Central in the Chinese city of Guangzhou.

Our cities need to mature, adapt and be ready, as we need to consider our relationship with transport, the demand for better decisions and embrace public transit like never before.

Technology, as it always has, is shaping our experience and therefore, our relationship with retail, we can find a happy balance that deals with the pragmatics of retail operations while maintaining a personal touch with our society and customer. Design of the next decade will be more attuned to these finer touchpoints to stay relevant and encourage diversified experiences through integrated design.

There are many opportunities and challenges we face together. Still, it is crucial to start making a difference in our thinking, actions and behaviour for a brighter future that leaves a remarkable legacy for those who follow in our footsteps as we create better retail precincts to provide a broader offer to all.

Harold Perks, Director

Harold Perks, Director

Harold is a Director with over 15 years’ practice experience in retail master planning, retail design, high-end residential design, commercial, warehouse and hospitality architecture.

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