Eight best experience stores of 2018

In another tough year for the high street, these activations champion the rise of experiential design.

Allbirds: Covent Garden store
Allbirds: Covent Garden store

Retail design, retailtainment, experiential retail, the experience store – the language around flagship stores and in-store experiences is rapidly evolving.

While 2018 may be remembered for yet another year of high-street struggles, with old favourites including Toys R Us and Mothercare closing outlets and laying off staff, a more positive development has been the continued rise of the experience store, with retailers developing new formats and technologies to encourage consumers to spend longer exploring their stores and win a new fanbase.

These eight brands are doing exactly that, from New York to Covent Garden.

Allbirds

San Francisco-based sustainable fashion brand Allbirds made its European debut in October, bringing its utilitarian trainers styled from eucalyptus, wool and sugar cane to London’s Covent Garden in a store designed and built by brand experience agency XYZ. 

Working with the in-house team, XYZ developed an experiential retail strategy, using London parks and iconic architecture as inspiration and commissioning local artists to ensure the shop has a strong local influence in window displays and special details throughout the store.

Allbirds' commitment to natural materials is evident in the use of greenery and moss throughout the shop, while the interactive wall displays laces encased in recycled plastic bottles.

Toms

In another example of digital brands venturing into bricks and mortar, shoe brand Toms, which has experimented with pop-ups and experiences, opened a permanent shop in Williamsburg in New York this year.

The 1,500-square-foot space, within walking distance of Apple, Whole Foods and Aesop stores, places Toms on a familiar shopping turf of discerning consumers, while the outdoor café draws in crowds wanting to relax in the brand’s spacious surrounds.

Tiffany & Co

The jeweller brought its tiny blue boxes to Covent Garden with a contemporary space that encourages interaction, personalisation and performance. Dubbed "The Style Studio", the sleek space welcomed visitors to create their own look, with the #MakeItTiffany personalisation bar offering self-styling, plus a perfume vending machine.

Performances, art installations and talks from upcoming creators were all on offer at the store, which took the brand away from traditional upmarket locations and placed it closer to a younger yet jewellery-savvy crowd. 

John Lewis & Partners

Hardly a newcomer to the experience store scene, John Lewis raised the bar once more in the spring with the opening of its 50th store in Westfield London. Commenting at the launch, customer director Craig Inglis said the store "reflects our customers’ behaviour. They want that exclusive product, they want curation, they want that much more one-to-one relationship." And customers are certain to get that, with an experience desk on hand for booking in-store experiences, plus a style studio and daily talks. 

Halifax

When Halifax opened its new branch on Oxford Street in June, it claimed to offer the largest bank branch in the UK. Set across three floors, Halifax aims to offer "a new home buying, banking and saving experience" with the HomeHub for general enquiries, the Travel Zone for currency needs and The Kitchen, a coffee shop area with a programme of talks.

Saliently, with an eye on the experience-savvy next generation, the Kids Saving Zone gets a future target audience engaged early with a playful environment and games encouraging saving habits.

Gentle Monster

Art meets retail in a futuristic mash-up designed to delight fans of cult Korean eyewear brand Gentle Monster in its first European store. Each of the brand’s shops has its own identity – from a folklore-based boutique in China to scarecrows and fields in Los Angeles – yet all allude to an alien landscape.

Londoners were treated to a multi-sensory martial arts scene, complete with fragrance, a soundscape and a joyful line of cheering aliens.

L’Occitane

The natural cosmetics company increased its US footprint with a new store in New York offering a holistic experience alluding to Provence, with an indoor olive tree and a rain shower sink. Based on 555 Fifth Avenue, the store was designed in-house by Daniel Contorni, international artistic director, and Paul Blackburn, vice-president of concept design, construction and merchandising. It has an interactive skin consultation area and is part of a series of experience-led stores that the brand has launched to encourage customers to explore its history and signature products in an immersive setting.

Sephora

While not strictly a new store launch, Sephora has significantly upped its already considerable in-store experience with the announcement of a partnership with Google Home Hub. Google’s latest device will debut in 10 Sephora stores across the US, including Union Square in New York, bringing a "Dream vanity" experience to customers.

Each store will be set up with a connected dressing table, so customers can play with the device and enjoy personalised make-up video tutorials by Sephora.