Richard Branson's empire of Virgin brands rarely fails when it comes to innovation and keeping a step ahead of the competition. So I was really interested to see that Virgin Media has opened its first 'next generation' store, with interactive experiences at every turn - the next step in 'sensory retail'.
No doubt taking a leaf out of Apple's book, the store in Westfield swaps tills for tablets and aims to "deliver a sensory experience at every touchpoint". But an interactive wall where you can create a mobile package and motion-sensor-controlled screens take that innovation beyond Apple's room of laptops and create a truly interactive experience that customers can engage with and enjoy.
Audi is another innovative brand in retail, having created a fully multi-channel experience with its Audi City concept showroom. The store offers the chance to browse Audi's 36 models via four multi-touch tables and two screens, operated by body movement sensitive pads on the floor and cameras overhead. Visitors are then given a more bespoke service in a private room where they can touch or feel the sample interiors before any commitment to buy. Tesco has also used outdoor media to build a virtual shop in Korea and more recently at Gatwick and we have certainly seen an increase in demand for initiatives like this.
I think these examples highlight just how important it is for retailers to remain innovative in 2013 beyond, and to integrate digital strategies across all channels. Combining all channels - from e-commerce sites to the traditional 'bricks and mortar' retail outlets - to create a seamless and linked-up service for customers is key. Consumers are savvy - we know this. They want the most bang for their buck and they want to be rewarded for their custom. So being able to check prices on your smartphone, tweeting an enquiry and getting information in-store are now all assumed to be the norm.
The demise of the high street continues, and it's simply not possible for all retailers to invest in state of the art technology like Virgin has done. However it is vital that retailers constantly strive to improve the customer experience and look at how they can integrate powerful digital channels into their offering.
It will be interesting to see whether Virgin paves the way for more experiential retail strategies - as technology continues to evolve, this is undoubtedly something we'll be seeing more and more of. With 2013 just around the corner, are we set for the year of 'sensory retail'?