Why cross-reality retail design is the next innovation frontier

category - strategy
type - features
sector - retail
Drawing on new technologies and neuro-scientific breakthroughs, there is now a huge opportunity to envisage a future of retail in which spatial environments and in-store journeys are truly conscious of their occupants

Victoria Buchanan, futures director at The Future Laboratory, unpacks the key strategic take-outs from our recent retail macrotrend.

In the past year, the metaverse has grabbed the headlines, raising questions about the future of the retail industry. Digital twin stores and augmented shopping experiences have paved the way for the next retail frontier – one that is boundaryless, immersive and emotionally engaging.

The companies that have leaned in fast have offered their customers inspiration, immersion and fast test cases. But, more importantly, they haven’t forgotten about joining up the dots and treating the physical environment as an ever-evolving playground that can also upgrade over time as people interact with it.

Indeed, last year, after 18 months of pandemic disruption, marketers had already begun to consider multi-sensory experiences and brand design systems as an important future part of their brand differentiation plans, according to research conducted by Isobar.

With an understanding that high-touch experiences still offer a competitive advantage, brands are creating cross-reality spaces that curate tactile interactions, sensory stimulation and social experiences in a more purposeful way. United Colors of Benetton, for example,  has opened a new store concept with immersive pink walls that mirrors the feeling of the metaverse, offering ‘a dimensional link between the real and the virtual’, according to the company.

A desire for hyperphysical experiences also comes at a time when science is unlocking new frontiers of human perception. Last year, The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, who discovered a biology of senses, which means we now understand how our nervous system senses heat, cold and mechanical stimuli.

With a widening multi-sensory repertoire at our disposal, brands can now explore ways to be more selective in the emotions they induce and the senses they can stimulate in the physical realm.  

‘As we re-evaluate spaces, texture, light, sound and smell should take centre stage,’ says Kate Machtiger,  founder of Extra Terrestrial Studio. ‘Many of our strongest memories of places are not visual, but embodied: the cool temperature of the walls, the way sound echoed through the space, the smoothness of carpet under your feet.’

This also ties in to the fact that Gen Z and Millennials are looking for more than a convenient experience from brands. According to a new white paper by Highsnobiety and Boston Consulting Group, the biggest driver of purchase decisions for Gen Z and early Millennials is wanting to live the full lifestyle of individual brands right from the start.

Brand journeys are so important to this group that they account for a quarter of all purchasing occasions, and beat choice, person of influence, value, impulse
 and convenience as reasons to choose a specific brand. 

To thrive in the next decade and win the attention of Gen Z, brands must rethink their in-store journeys and re-enchant the physical space with a greater sense of curation, intentionality and attachment, and as business analyst Marie Dollé says, give a ‘higher life to stores, services and products’.

Published by:

19 April 2022

Author: Victoria Buchanan

Image: Zünc Studio for The Future Laboratory


Zünc Studio for The Future Laboratory

If we look at the ways brands are developing their flagship stores today we can see one distinctive theme: a uniting storyline that proposes new ideas. The hyperphysical store of the future is therefore a simple one: a deeper purpose with more meaningful, embodied moments.

Key thought-starters for retailers:

1. Apply proprioception theory to create a fulfilling in-store trip
Can you draw on neuroscience to design retail trips in harmony with services that encourage people to interact with their environment, products and themselves in a deeper, more intimate way?

The Post Service space, for example, is dedicated to helping people manage feelings of grief, with the intention that its interior design can support mental and emotional responses. The carefully calibrated clinic, designed by Danish studio Tableau, uses furniture, lighting and colour theory to help boost psychological health.

2. Use digital to empower hyperphysical experiences
Can you blend the best of digital innovation, including sensing devices, spatial audio and motion design to create a responsive store that could nudge shoppers onto a more exciting path to purchase?

Look to technology giant Google, which recently unveiled the new Soli project, a system that is able to read your body language without the use of a camera. The company suggests that the future benefits of this technology include reducing feelings of being overwhelmed by devices, offering the potential to make retail interactions more human and less intrusive.

3. Elevate the experience of ‘try before you buy’
Can you encourage more adventurous purchasing, with multi-dimensional experiences that allow customers to test product functionality and claims in a hyper-real environment?

Take inspiration from Nike, which built a cutting-edge, multi-sensory weather simulator in its Paris flagship store that transports clients to different climatic environments for product testing. Visitors could also generate a customised video of their try-on experience as a souvenir of their 3D teleportation.


Our team of strategists have developed a wide-ranging set of strategic decision-making tools to help provide future-first solutions for our clients. If you would like to discuss how our Redemptive Diets macrotrend could support future planning for your brand, or if you have any questions about embedding our macrotrends into your business, send us a message at hello@thefuturelaboratory.com. We look forward to accelerating into the future with you.

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