The British luxury label’s latest retail experiment marries the digital and physical in a way that makes their stores vital again. 

Dubbed a first-of-its-kind ‘social retail’ store, Burberry’s new Shenzhen outpost has been created in partnership with Chinese tech giant Tencent and its social platform WeChat. Bridging the gap between the brand’s virtual and physical manifestations in a more holistic way than we’ve previously seen implemented, the store links a series of emergent retail trends into a powerful – and potentially precedent-setting – vision of the industry’s future.

'When it came to innovating around social and retail, China was the obvious place to go as home to some of the most digitally savvy luxury customers,' says Marco Gobbetti, CEO of Burberry. 'Together with Tencent, we have pioneered a new concept that will redefine expectations of luxury retail. Burberry’s social retail store in Shenzhen is a place of discovery that connects and rewards customers as they explore online and in store. It marks a shift in how we engage with our customers.'

Currency in context

At the heart of Burberry’s in-store experience is a dedicated WeChat mini programme (think of it as an app-in-an-app) which not only acts as a conduit for customers to explore the brand both online and off, but also rewards them for doing so. Users can earn ‘social currency’ by engaging with the brand, be that through scanning items to learn about products, sharing images, taking store tours or booking appointments. These can then be redeemed to unlock benefits such as secret menu items and access to ‘The Trench Experience’, a video-panelled room that will provide an ultra-exclusive selfie backdrop. Whilst brands like Lancôme, with their CNY gift machines, have explored linking rewards to in-store social engagement before, they’ve usually been seasonal activations rather than core to the retail experience.

Avatar Associates

One of the key outcomes of earning currency is the evolution of your personal avatar. Each customer is given an animal-based character which grows as their owner’s engagement increases, charting their development as a Burberry super-fan. Users can win custom outfits to dress their avatar, which acts as a kind of digital proxy between themselves and the brand. What’s interesting about this concept is less its current form than its likely trajectory. With fashion houses increasingly keen to get in bed with gaming – see Louis Vuitton’s League of Legends skins or Valentino and Marc Jacobs’ clothing lines for Animal Crossing – don’t be surprised to find your Burberry avatar usable in an increasing number of platforms. Don’t be surprised to find them leaping off your phone screen either, perhaps in AR, as is possible in our oft-referenced Frame Awards-winning space Hipanda, or across the store environment itself, seen on cruise-ship operator Carnival Corporation’s latest vessels.

Post-merchandise displays

We’ve written fairly relentlessly over the last couple of months about how store windows will become a major point of differentiation once again – just not for stacking mannequins. Burberry’s new store is another case in point, with guests’ first contact with the store coming in the form of what the brand describes as an ‘interactive window’ and ‘living sculpture’. Inspired by the design of the label’s AW2020 runway, the display will reflect the viewers’ form and body movements, evolving over the course of the year to reflect each new collection. Making the store environment responsive to the catwalk is not a new trick, but in a year that has pushed all physical events – including the fashion calendar – closer to becoming virtual by default, thinking of new ways to transmit the excitement of a new launch to localized audiences is more vital than ever.

The hospitality bonus

At this point it is no shock that a high-end fashion boutique would place a hospitality offer at the centre of its footprint. This year we’ve already seen Gucci try to break into Beverly Hills’ experimental food community, while Louis Vuitton’s Osaka outlet now contains one of the best restaurants in the world. When Nordstrom considered how to make the department store relevant for the 2020s, it was in the combination of food and fashion that they found an answer. . .quite literally, with guests able to order direct to the shop floor. The plan is clear: attract more footfall, maximize dwell time and supercharge spontaneous purchasing. What pushes Burberry’s Thomas’s Cafe beyond the current paradigm is its aforementioned integration with its social currency concept via secret menu items. Loyalty programmes are often a tough sell for luxury marques due to the price point at which they operate; what tangible expression of the brand can they afford to gift away, especially when ‘freebie’ isn’t a concept that much appeals to their demographic? That’s where food fits in: it’s transitory without being frivolous and can communicate the brand ethos – craftsmanship and material excellence – at an acceptable cost and scale. While other brands hope café customers incidentally wander around their displays, for Burberry the need to do so is baked in.