Surekha Ragavan
Jul 11, 2019

How Chinese O2O is changing retail experiences

Imagination China's group creative director explains how new experience centres are changing how consumers engage with physical spaces.

How Chinese O2O is changing retail experiences

The online-to-offline (020) ecosystem has become synonymous with China and this has suitably put a focus on offline experience design, especially in retail. Alibaba’s Jack Ma coined the term ‘new retail’ in 2016 when developments such as facial recognition and smart payment systems were beginning to make their way into stores, underpinned by the power of big data.

But beyond tech, retail in China is embracing experience design more than ever, certainly more aggressively than any other market in Asia-Pacific. Proof is in the rise of experiential retail stores such as the recently launched MAC cosmetics store in Shanghai, where customers can use a virtual makeup mirror to sample 18 lipstick colours in 30 seconds. 

Also in Shanghai is the Under Armour retail ‘theatre’ store with a 270-degree screen that wraps around the space. A video is splayed across the screen with footage of athletes including Michael Phelps intensely training accompanied by upbeat music.

Marrying online and offline

“Brick-and-mortar is being redefined,” said Sam McMorran, group creative director at experience agency Imagination China. “A customer journey in retail 10 years ago has now been rearranged and it’s much more blended now. Brands used to have linear identities.”

From a creative standpoint, McMorran and his team are excited about the work that brings together offline and online, as they believe that big ideas can resonate more effectively across both worlds. “We’re working with some of our clients to come up with an ‘experience identity’ – a merging of online and offline touchpoints. That allows them to have multi-purpose spaces that can become a brand home,” he said.

When it comes to user experience, this is where offline can potentially learn from the personalisation of online. “Experience design should be really focused on a really strong user experience. When you are integrating both worlds, badly designed journeys can actually really reduce effectiveness and cause frustration,” said McMorran.

“When we are talking to customers who are used to things on demand, brands and agencies really have to consider a China-dedicated approach in terms of design. All of that stuff is really important to personalisation, but what we’re also finding is that they want the tradition of experience. It’s about connection, it’s about theatre, it’s about the unexpected human touch.”

Another thing that cannot be ignored, according to McMorran, is WeChat. “In China, key to the blending of physical and digital is really WeChat. Key to all of that is a little thing called the QR code. It’s a really low-barrier entry for people. It means that everybody in the offline world can just scan and connect to ecosystems and allows brands to get new users and collect data. You are opening up a door into a whole new world of experiences.”

All that data is no use without reacting to it accordingly in the offline world, and McMorran said that analysing and responding to real-time data is something that the Western world is still struggling with. “The ability to act quickly with those shifting trends of consumer behavior is important. It’s really important to have a strategy about how you integrate all that data from the various touchpoints,” he said.

In the long run, leveraging data cleverly also means that experiences have nowhere to go but up. He says: “Learning from data, [experiences] are just going to become more and more engaging.”

A lesson from Vivo

Imagination China were tasked to design an experience centre for Vivo early this year and the result was an immersive centre in Shenzen dubbed VivoLab. As customers enter the centre, they are greeted by a real-time interactive projection wall that uniquely responds to their presence. Fluid light particles gravitate together to form the customer’s silhouette while pulsating light particles are matched to the colours of their clothes.

Inside, another activation features an interactive time travel experience with a playful insight into the history of the camera. Customers are able to snap a series of selfies and the system places their images into backdrops of the past, while demonstrating image effects from the cameras of the time.

As they move on to the ‘discovery’ area, they are greeted by orbs of glowing light floating in space which is their welcome to the science of photography. As they walk into the experience and touch a photon, the colours change oscillating to the surrounding photons and they glow brightly with a gentle breathing rhythm.

It doesn’t end there. Other activations include immersive experiences that attempt to ‘transcend time and space’ such as light painting, interactive sound sculptures, and AI selfie tools. One would almost forget that Vivo is trying to sell you a phone.

The concept for the store began with Vivo’s brief about highlighting photography. “Every smartphone has a fairly decent camera nowadays – so everybody can argue they’re a photography expert,” said McMorran. “For us, it was about demonstrating without having to actually talk about the message or without having Vivo say ‘we’re the photography experts’. It’s more about ‘how can we create an experience that demonstrates an understanding of photography?’”

Basically, the idea was to merge photography and social without having to shout about how many megapixels their cameras had. “What we want to do is teach people photography and creativity. So Vivo becomes more of a partner in educating them about photography and facilitating this idea of creativity. People feel like they’ve built some confidence, they’ve understood the history and how [Vivo] captures light,” said McMorran.

To his point above about reacting quickly to data, McMorran says that this was a big part of the process around designing the centre. “The minute someone scans something through a QR code, we can begin to understand information like how many people are using the space, how many people are sharing, and you can see very quickly which experiences are resonating with people and that allows you to future plan,” he said.

“Using this kind of value exchange, it allows you to be interested within an environment and do that very quickly so you’re maximising that opportunity for conversion.”

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