Esther assisted event host, Olga Monroe, in organising The Leeds Business School’s Retail Institute expert panel at Leeds Corn Exchange earlier this month. Marketing and Visual merchandising students gained real-world insight into how retail will transform the future, and the importance of the experience for consumers.

This year is set for big developments in retail-focused technology, and VM module leader Esther has a keen interest in the development of multi-sensory experiences. She’s avid for engaging the five senses to generate atmospheres when shopping in physical stores. 
Dr Esther Pugh from Leeds Business School on a trip.

Dr Esther Pugh

Advances in retail technology

Multi-sensory technology is exponentially improving, and Esther is extremely excited by the innovative and emerging possibilities. Ranging from augmented reality and VR headsets allowing customers an eye into the supply chain, to QR codes and RFID tags compatible with smart phones to offer full garment and production information, the scope of a new retail experience is vast.

Esther details how this ‘immersive shopping’ is also appearing in more functional forms, as facial scanning is used for matching make-up to skin tones and body scanners are implemented to calculate customers’ exact size.

“Retail has moved to being about engaging the emotions, whether you’re a big or small store. When we shop in physical spaces, we build a connection with that brand, our feelings and our experiences are very hedonic,” Esther says. “We really remember those things much more than we’re going to remember an experience while shopping online.”

Esther observes how stores are adopting other technology to make experiences more personal, such as the use of neurotransmitters to measure customer’s responses to different items, gradually building up knowledge of their taste and preferences. “This enables them to build a one-to-one relationship with you. The same as when you buy online, they remember what you’ve previously bought, so the whole experience is very personalised,” Esther explains.

Beyond this, Esther considers how customers are seeking items which are more unique to them: “We no longer just want something that we’re going to see everyone else with, we want something that’s individual,” Esther says. “Isn’t it amazing that you can have a pair of jeans that is only yours, and you feel like you’ve designed it.”

She is referring to how stores are accommodating this desire for personalisation, introducing in-store customisation services which allow for something truly one-of-a-kind. Esther predicts a wave of bespoke embroidery, dying, printing, distressing, stencilling and overall individualisation of clothes in the coming months.

The best stores are not just talking, but doing as well.

Social change and shopping

Customers are becoming more informed of social and environmental issues, and are expecting brands to reflect and operate by these values in genuine, measurable and tangible ways.

“People develop relationships and deep connections with brands they feel they can trust, that have sustainability as a priority. This is changing the physical experience and making it quite educational, and showing that they’re not just greenwashing,” Esther observes. “It’s certainly getting better. It’s altering that experience and increasing everyone’s knowledge of what sustainability is, and how retail is changing and adapting.”

Students on Esther’s Visual Merchandising module consider how stores are communicating information, such as the wellbeing of workers, ethical supply chains, or sustainability credentials, with their customers in stores.

“It’s having posters with information about the supply chain, how the products are made with sustainable materials, how there’s a circular element to their manufacturing. But also, it’s about having lots of opportunities to re-use and recycle goods from the customers. The best stores are not just talking, but doing as well.”

Spatial Fabric research

Esther’s PhD research, ‘Spatial Fabric’, focusses on the role of space within the experience of retail, particularly vintage shopping.

With vintage fashion fairs forming the basis of her thesis, Esther created a typology of the different buildings these events often occupy; borrowed buildings, spilling structures, canvas, and caravans. Her sample was taken from dedicated ‘vintage lovers’ attending these ‘carnivalesque’ events, who Esther referred to as ‘Fashionistas’.

Her interpretation of vintage fairs is far removed from the corporate model of ‘retailer’ and ‘consumer’. Instead, Esther views them as much more ‘democratic’ spaces. She explains, “You’ve got the stall holders, and you’ve got the buyers, and often they’re the same people. Even though the stall holders are meant to be selling, they’ll go around and buy loads of things, and you’ll find a lot of the buyers are also traders.”

After exploring the lived experiences of ‘fashionistas’ in these spaces, Esther divided the data down into the ‘physical’, ‘emotional’, ‘social’ and ‘temporal’. Physical spaces reflected the buildings occupied with objects to look at and touch, while the emotional space come from vintage items that incited memories. Socially, it’s the gathering of people with a strong, common interest in vintage fashion, and temporally, individuals enjoy spending time in such spaces (opposed to going for the sole purpose to buy something).

Esther suggests “there is no better example” of Pine and Gilmore’s four E’s of The Experience Economy (Entertainment, Escapism, Education and ‘Esthetic’) than at vintage fairs. However, she believes the applicability of her ‘Spatial Fabric’ model doesn’t stop here.

“Even though this model came from my research with vintage fashion, I think it’s got potential to be used in lots of different types of spaces as well,” Esther says. “It’s ultimately about making spaces satisfactory, pleasurable, and enjoyable for the people that are in them.”

Dr Esther Pugh

Senior Lecturer / Leeds Business School

Senior Lecturer in Business and Marketing with a focus on retail marketing and consumer behaviour. Research lead on retail and consumer behaviour. Specialist in visual merchandising and the retail experience.