See How Burberry Turns Its Stores Into Immersive Websites — The Results Will Amaze You.

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See How Burberry Turns Its Stores Into Immersive Websites — The Results Will Amaze You.

One step inside and you’re confronted with a wall of screens. Music blasts over the speakers, making everything pulse to the dance beats. Then suddenly, a horde of fashionably disheveled yet nattily dressed salespeople swarm around you. You stop for a moment to take it all in — the grand, palatial space. But no, you’re not in a posh nightclub. The racks of clothes give it away: you’ve wandered into a 21st century boutique, complete with a heavy dose of technology to get you to spend more.

That scene is actually Burberry’s flagship store in London, England. The British label — famous for its iconic plaid trench coats — used technology to reinvent itself from a fusty old brand into a trendy fashion power. Creative director Christopher Bailey, who meticulously designed the brand’s elegant rock ‘n roll ready-to-wear, oversaw the two-year renovation, and last September, Burberry unveiled the digital makeover to its 192-year old building.

London’s ritzy Regent Street is a futuristic temple of luxury. You immediately notice the huge screens that wrap around the interior’s entire perimeter. The “digital wall” pulsates with content, alternating between live runway feeds, audiovisual content, mirrors and ads. Other displays are sprinkled throughout, propped up against staircases and flanking clothing racks.

Occasionally, you hear sounds of rainstorms ring out over the loudspeakers, and with a clap of thunder, all the screens drench you in a visual downpour. It’s a startling natural environment — but indoors. Occasionally, you’ll see models walk, Harry Potter-style, into neighboring displays. Bailey designed them to mimic the Burberry shows like in Taipei, Taiwan last April.

It’s part art installation, part sci-fi story come to life. And the dazzling, compelling digital elements juxtapose against beautiful antique moldings of the 1820s building. Within one ever-changing space, Burberry captures its approach and direction to fashion and offers a lesson in luring customers back in an age where convenience is just a tap and swipe away.

It’s Saturday morning and outside of a few senior citizens power-walking in jogging suits, the mall seems oddly empty. Hordes of teens and harried-looking families have yet to fill in, so you easily make your way to the usually hectic department store. You begin to browse the sales racks to the hum of soft rock in the background. All is quiet in suburbia… right?

Wrong. Don’t let that instrumental rendition of “Eye of the Tiger” fool you. You’re not in the ’80s — it’s the 21st century, and a whole layer of technology is embedded under the placid surface of the mall. It’s designed to understand and sell to you. Cameras trace your every movement, while digital signs flash selected ads — tailored to your age and gender — as you pass.

You know that scene in Minority Report? The one where Tom Cruise runs into Gap? That’s not science fiction, it’s happening today: welcome to the brave new world of shopping.

Malls are a mainstay of American life. You may not know they’re in decline, but since the mid-90s, foot traffic has slowed, coinciding with the rise of e-commerce. All around the country, so-called “dead malls” are littering the landscape — husks of shopping centers sitting empty, wasting space and adding to sprawl. Some are converted into large-scale recreation centers, complete with indoor golf courses and riding centers, while others are turned into marketplace bazaars for local vendors — ironic, since that’s what malls often originated from. Shopping centers have even been turned into ad-hoc medical centers and schools, as developers, struggling with sagging rents, try to re-invigorate their spaces.

But those that soldier on, blessed with high traffic, are transforming themselves to appeal to a new type of uber-connected shopper. They’re giving stores flashy upgrades, adding “digital walls” and displays, in hopes of transforming into interactive spaces that mimic a website or app that you can walk through. But other changes are unseen; they happen under the flamboyant razzle-dazzle. Changes that are made to open up your wallet. Changes that begin with the smartphone.

People have long loved to shop, and more than ever do it online, turning sites like into retail superpowers. But that doesn’t mean brick-and-mortar stores are obsolete. Our penchant for online shopping certainly contributed to the struggle and downfall of brands like Borders, but not everyone is going down without a fight.

Most stores are embracing technology. Nearly every store and chain has the equivalent of a mobile site or app, and some even offer phone-based loyalty programs. QR codes bring up product information on your device and some even offer shopping suggestions. Even sales floor clerks at Middle American stalwart JCPenney, for example, uses Square-style card readers attached to iPods to ring up customers.

Any retailer with an eye for the future will tell you that mobile is an indispensable part of consumer life. But the “just add apps” approach isn’t enough to keep stores relevant.

“You can feel when a company is just, like, whipping out the iPads to try to be tech-savvy, as opposed to really digging down deep and understanding who the new shopper is and what she or he really wants in that experience,” Jamie Gutfreund, chief strategy officer at Intelligence Group, a trend and retail consulting company, told Elle.

Astute stores and brands like Burberry understand that shopping is much more than a practical way to buy goods. They know that shopping is, and has always been, an immersive and emotional journey.

The invention of the department store turned luxury and aspiration into dreams that customers could walk through in person. That idea — shopping as an experience — has its roots in the first department stores that flowered in the mid-1800s. Mom-and-Pop style dry goods stores existed, but the first department stores took it to the next level, adding spectacle and flash to the mix.

Bennett’s of Irongate in Derby, England — founded in 1734 — is considered the first such venue, but historians consider Le Bon Marche in France as the original template.

Le Bon Marche founder Aristide Boucicaut — whose store inspired the central location of Emile Zola’s great novel “Ladies Paradise” — pulled together goods, previously available only in separate shops, under one roof. That made it easy to shop in one trip, but he also brought the showmanship of the carnival to draw in an emerging middle-class.

For example, he taught his managers how to display goods in ways to both dazzle the eye and disorient the senses, inspired in part by the great World Fairs of the 19th century. In an era that once kept products safely behind glass cases and counters, he created the idea of “browsing,” allowing you to traipse among the merchandise, touching and feeling items to create a sensory experience. He innovated the idea of catalogs and advertising, and trained salesmen, cladding them in smart, high-quality uniforms to emphasize their authority.

But beyond spectacle and flash, the early department stores also pioneered the idea of customer service. Chicago-based retail visionary Marshall Field created many innovations we take for granted today, such as personal shoppers, customer refunds, mail order and revolving credit. He also created the first bridal registry, as well as the first Christmas-themed display windows to draw crowds to its State Street flagship.

As a result of geniuses like Field and Boucicaut, the store became not just a place for you to buy goods, but a sensory, tactile imaginarium, making that rarefied experience of luxury accessible to the emerging middle-class of the Gilded Age.

Even today, retail is a carefully choreographed dance. As you wander through stores, its principles are quietly in motion, whether it’s baby powder wafting through air conditioning to lull you into buying fluffy bedding or seemingly random layouts designed to catch and intrigue your eye, even when you glance down. Meanwhile, tech innovations — whether dazzling video displays or more hidden sensors and chips designed to send data to customers — are simply new ingredients in an age-old recipe centered on retail showmanship and service.

With a wraparound digital wall, Burberry’s flagship has enough spectacle to make Boucicaut proud. It was designed to create an immersive digital experience — that art-slash-fashion design that immediately strikes your eye. You can even interact with select content with your iPhone or iPad, as if the store itself was one giant app. Beyond the wall, screens are everywhere — there’s over 100 of them, include the world’s largest indoor retail display, flanked by about 500 speakers. As you wander throughout the store, even mirrors transform into content displays — an elegant swipe animation creates a constant dance of visuals that respond to your movements.

Beyond what you can see, Burberry uses technology in less obvious ways. The company integrated radio-frequency identification, or RFID, tags into items to give you a window into its inner workings. When you walk up to a fitting room mirror with item in hand, for example, information about its craftsmanship pops up. If it’s in a fashion show, a catwalk video appears, showing you how to wear it as well. Not only is it good salesmanship, it’s also a valuable way for Burberry to communicate its values of heritage and artisanal craftsmanship — tenets that came well before the creation of mobile devices.

Of course, every brand tries to convey its identity, but Burberry does it in a way that creates the magic and enchantment at the heart of in-store shopping — a trick taken from Boucicaut and Field.

Browsing inside the flagship feels like you’re wandering inside the website, and that’s precisely what the company wants. Rather than make a website to mirror the store, the brand took a “digital-first” approach to its flagship, one to capture the attention of a generation whose experiences are as much online as they are off. It translated its digital journey into a multimedia-infused physical space.

Burberry didn’t just build a sleek, stylish website to amass a following for its live runway feeds. It also created digitally-based services, such as a bespoke trench tailoring that lets you design your own coat over iPads — with the help of a sales associate. Burberry designed its supply chain so you can order fresh-off-the-catwalk designs as soon as they’re shown — you’ll get them mere weeks after their Fashion Week debuts.

The brand, which also hosts acoustic sessions of up-and-coming artists through its Burberry Acoustic site, also plans to use its flagship store as a de facto live performance venue for special occasions.

“What we did was the exact opposite of the way people build physical spaces. We started looking at and making the experience you have there very rich, one that shows the whole world what Burberry is about,” Bailey told Mashable. “We wanted, when you walked into the Regent Street store, to feel exactly the same atmosphere, able to engage with it in the same way that you might be able to engage online.”

Even though Burberry is a luxury retailer, its ideas are trickling down to the mass-level stores. That digital approach gives retailers a template to follow, one that emphasizes connection and engagement.

“Walking through the doors is just like walking into our website,” Angela Ahrendts, Burberry’s CEO, told Vogue. While the company’s other outposts have yet to be transformed, Burberry is adding digital elements into its retail plans. For example, you can expect interactive screens in its Chicago flagship — its second largest in North America — which displays photos of local fashionistas in Burberry trenches.

Over half of smartphone owners use their devices to help them shop — find locations, compare prices and check for discounts, according to Chadwick Martin. And Deloitte reports mobile devices will boost in-store sales by 20 percent in three years, up to around $700 million.

That’s why merchants are gorging on apps like Shopkick and RetailMeNot, programs that send you rewards and coupons as you wander the mall. You can use some apps to find promos at your favorite stores, and others like Square, a mobile payment method, to skip the long lines. Some even help you find a parking spot when you arrive.

The idea is simple: use incentives and deals to make you open up your wallet — or phone, as the case may be — and say “shop.” Then get you to come back for more.

The most forward-thinking retailers and shopping center developers, though, are going beyond apps — they’re using technology to deliver personal experiences, in ways that take advantage of a mall’s larger space. Take the “Me-Ality” kiosk, for example. After it scans your body, it identifies the best fit, style and designs for you. Then it tells you where to pick up the items in the mall. So if you’re a parent, it may lead you to Macy’s for that discount on work clothes, then tell your teen that Wet Seal is having a sale on skinny jeans. The scanning technology and recommendations are tailored to you and your mall so it isn’t available on an app or website. But that’s the point: to deliver a more personal shopping experience that you can’t get anywhere else.

Personalization is at the heart of Intel’s “video analytics” display. While some retailers dazzle with artful light and screens that respond to your movements, the innovation here is tucked beneath the surface — it knows when you’re looking at it, and then anonymously figures out your demographic to deliver ads based on your spending habits. Think Google ads, but on signs.

Some department stores are looking at surveillance camera footage, not to catch criminals, but to improve floor plans and displays to better attract customers. How? By gleaming valuable data from videos: the number of shoppers, how they move among the sales floor and what products they pick up and interact with. According to the Loss Prevention Research Council, a survey of 50 national and regional chains found that only one-in-five stores use footage to measure sales.

Analyzing surveillance footage for customer behavior is unwieldy, but as more stores add controversial facial recognition software, it may make it easier. Italian mannequin maker Almax, for example, sells a model, called “EyeSee,” which has a camera in one eye. It scans and records the age, gender and races of passers-byers for demographics profiles stores can use to better target shoppers. It doesn’t store any images and scrubs identifiable data clean. Stores argue that websites already track analytics — and they’re just leveling the playing field. So next time you wander the aisles looking for that perfect swimsuit for the beach, that mannequin may be taking notes of your face and calculating how long you shop.

So far, retailers have yet to admit to using the technology. And who can blame them? The controversy alone would damage any brand. But the reasons aren’t about privacy implications. The Federal Trade Commission says it doesn’t have problem with gathering and aggregating anonymous data — but it draws the line when identities are stored.

“We would be very concerned about the use of cameras to identify previously anonymous people,” Mark Eichorn, assistant director of the FTC’s consumer protection division, told Time. “But it’s not out of the question that 10 years from now we’ll walk down the street and people will be wearing camouflage so they’re not picked up by facial recognition trackers all over the place.”

The most successful retailers won’t just add apps or install responsive displays and signs. No, they’ll figure out your desires and translate them into opportunities.

Sometimes humble artifacts of a by-gone age can be outfitted for a new generation. Take vending machines, for example. They were the original on-the-go shopping option, and they work in a cut-and-dried way: insert a dollar, get a soda or a bag of chips. But they’re getting smarter, too.

For as little as $300, a vending machine can be retrofit with a touch screen, cashless payment system and voice and facial recognition. It knows who you are, what you bought and where you bought something — then it sends it back to headquarters. They can even talk and interact with you as they make your coffee, as the Kenneth machine did in London last fall.

With Millennials more comfortable shopping from machines than from error-prone, slow and sometimes grouchy human beings, vending machines represent an untapped opportunity to create outlets for shopping, especially in places with expensive, and inconvenient, rent. With smartly designed elements, they can even draw crowds, transforming a nice quiet park into a temporary tourist attraction.

But beyond upgrading old technology with new tricks, some proprietors are creating “digital malls” in places with high traffic but little room: spaces like corridors linking airport concourses, subway tunnels and bus stop shelters. The idea is simple: a bright, graphic wall display at a high-traffic place that shows off photos of a variety of goods. You download an app, scan the items you want from the wall and get it shipped to your home. Even retailers like Wal-Mart and grocery store Peapod are experimenting with the concept. Peapod, for example, setup a temporary digital mall in a Chicago subway station last spring. You could scan an item code for food with your phone and have it delivered to your home or office later that day.

The idea of the digital mall can be transported anywhere, from luxury hotel lobbies to even amusement parks and festival events. With it, retailers can create stores and channels for themselves with a minimum of cost and overhead, reaching you where you’re at and offering the speed and convenience you’ve come to expect in this mobile-dominated era.

The Internet has fundamentally changed the way we shop. And as websites gain in popularity, some retailers will die. The difficulty is giving shoppers what they can’t get online — whether the convenience of having a range of stores in a mall, or simply adopting online tactics, like tracking and targeting, to level the playing field. It’s just the beginning.

Burberry’s creativity in reinventing its brand doesn’t involve just adding flashy screens and interaction; it keenly understands that the use of these videos and interactive elements creates surprise and engagement in a physical space. It sculpts your real-life experience without overwhelming you with stimuli. Walking into the flagship, you feel like you’re inside a beautifully choreographed 3-D digital spectacle, one put together as thoughtfully as an iconic trench.

Brick-and-mortar retailers who want to survive and even thrive need to begin thinking of their spaces as not just places to display their goods, but as ways to engage and interact with their customers.

Visionaries like Boucicaut once relied on the idea of the carnival to create that immersive feeling in stores, but digital-era proprietors must also look to websites and social media as inspirations. Why? Because stores are becoming hubs of digital art, culture and entertainment, as much as places to buy stuff.

In the near future, don’t be surprised if to see friends wear disguises to avoid being tracking, or catch reruns of Minority Report and reminisce back in a day when one size fit all.

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