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Home & away: The tech inspiring a (sustainable) new era of immersiveness

In an uncertain period, operators are increasingly open to technologies that can blend online & physical retail, present brands in a more immersive way, and help them operate sustainably, writes David Davies

No one who takes even a cursory glance at the headlines could have failed to notice the adverse conditions affecting retail & hospitality (R&H) over the past few years. The impact of Covid was significant, but in some ways it only served to accelerate existing trends, notably a tendency for more sales – and socialising – to be masterminded from home. In smaller and medium-sized towns especially, where R&H has historically done so much to drive footfall, the myriad streets of shuttered shops tell their own story.

But despite all this, the tone of this latest overview is actually fairly optimistic. Retail operators in particular have, to a large degree, seemingly recognised that a major sea-change has occurred and they will now be increasingly reliant on virtual sales. In some sectors, like fashion, physical outlets are now more about getting visitors to engage with, and find out more about, the brands. The actual sales part can take place on the move or at home, assisted no doubt by text and email reminders.

Sony’s flagship BRAVIA FW-98BZ53L 98in 4K pro display

Consequently, the importance of technology in retail, and its sector sibling hospitality, is more critical than ever. In this article we’ll look at some of the most significant trends, from the technologies helping to merge the physical and virtual retail worlds, to the immersive displays and audio systems engendering more ‘experiential’ stores and enlivening restaurants, bars and – to a lesser extent – hotels. with immersive tech. And if we are very unlikely to see a return to the retail booms of the 1990s and early 2000s, at least it’s clear there is still a vibrant business for those pro AV companies who are able to move with the times.

Nonetheless, with retail especially, it’s clear that an important divide has emerged during the last few years – principally between those operators with the capacity and/or willingness to invest in new technologies that can help push their brands forward in physical outlets, and those for whom a gradual retreat to online-only sales seems increasingly probable.

“It has been a bit of a strange one,” observes Ross Noonan, technical sales & global marketing manager at The LED Studio, a provider of bespoke and fixed LED displays. “Some physical retailers have really capitalised on the last three or four years, post-Covid, have spent a lot of money on technology, and seem to be doing really well. [Trends include] swapping out [older video walls] for LED displays, and perhaps singular displays for larger-format displays. Plus we’re starting to see a rise in transparent LED being used in retail. At the same time we are seeing hospitality operators investing in creating multi-activity spaces that are more of an experience.”

Overall, adds Noonan, demand is “increasing in some areas and decreasing in others”. Some of the smaller retailers that were buying screens in the past are disappearing, he says. “but it’s not really affecting us as a business in a bad way because, if anything, more people are buying bigger screens.”

Implicit in some of these developments is the incubation of a longer-term view, something confirmed by Nils Karsten, business segment lead retail at Sharp NEC Display Solutions Europe. “The market is challenged by many factors as a result of inflation, unpredictability of external influences, and fair risk assessment for investments,” he adds. 

Against this background, however, there is lot of interest for solutions that are sustainable, reliable and future-proof, indicating a hopeful shift away from consumer driven decision-making in favour of a more long-term outlook. “Overall, there is still a good level of demand, but also more pressure on cost,” says Karsten, alluding to the second-generation MultiSync ME Series of LFDs. “To address this, more value-driven solutions are appealing to the retail market which deliver professional quality and attractive pricing.”

In conjunction with lower costs making larger screen sizes more accessible to a wider customer base, there is also evidence of a growing maturity about how they can actually be deployed for best effect. This chimes nicely with a trend by some of the larger retailers, in particular, to concentrate their efforts on a smaller estate of more immersive, experiential stores.

“We are seeing an increase in the average size of LED displays in the indoor market, which is due partly to costs coming down, but also because people are starting to understand how to tell artistic stories on large canvases,” says Noonan, who highlights the EDGE series of large-scale displays as being among The LED Studio’s leading product ranges in R&H. “Three or four years ago it wasn’t so common for people to understand how to do the content creation on these screens and get the most out of them, whereas now you very frequently see really strong storytelling and well-made content that uses the screens very effectively.”

Leyard displays at Nike House of Innovation, Paris

Sven Beinlich, international key account director for retail at PPDS, also pinpoints the increasingly targeted nature of the content being displayed. “I think in the past that some retailers might not quite know for whom they were creating the content, but now they are able to see [who is in store] and play the right content for the right people in the same second,” he says. “And within that, the methods by which retailers approach producing content for those kind of canvases has matured as well, meaning they are able to use them in a more creative and seamless way.”

Managing and optimising display estates effectively is evidently a huge part of achieving a successful end-result. To which end, Beinlich points to the popularity of PPDS Wave, a cloud-native platform delivering integrated applications and services that allow the user to install, manage, update and maintain their Philips professional display fleet devices, including a range of software partners’ solutions that are proven for global use and available for the display manager in the PPDS ProStore.

For Sharp LED’s Karsten, one particular technological trend is helping to make immersive experiences more achievable. “With scalable dvLED becoming more affordable, this technology is allowing much larger displays to implement the immersive experience, and we are finding this a more common requirement, especially in flagship stores,” he says.

At least for now, it appears that immersiveness – rather than interactivity – is the overarching objective for many retail projects. “Interactivity and engagement with the client is the utopian ideal,” notes Karsten. “However, whilst the technology is available and capable, the number of interactive installations is fewer that you might think. The greater focus seems to be on impactful large-format displays, increasingly using dVLED for a longer lifecycle, and 3D content is often used.”

Still, some retail brands are keener to engage with interactivity, as a recent and highly innovative project instigated by Van Marcke – the Belgian family business and international wholesaler of brands for sanitary, heating and renewable energy solutions – neatly illustrates. It revolved around the creation of an entirely digital showroom at its lab in Antwerp, where it employed Leyard Europe VEM-series screen walls to allow visitors to create their personalised bathroom. With immersive and interactive installation specialist Ocular actually installing the displays, the resulting space – which is only 80sqm – allows visitors to digitally assemble their ‘dream bathroom’, visualise it in life-size scale, and bring it to life in 3D, with guidance from an interior consultant.

It’s clear that Cris Tanghe, VP product at Leyard Europe, regards this project as an exemplar of what can be achieved in terms of creating experiences that are both immersive and responsive to the growing demand for personalisation. “There is a new generation of retailers that’s focused on having great interactivity with customers,” he confirms, adding that the Van Marcke project shows you can “focus more on prime locations with a small [footprint], and still achieve a lot of success.”

Looking forward, Tanghe characterises R&H overall as “a rising sector” – a state of affairs that he thinks will continue as “more and more digital elements are required in-store, [for example] with flagship stores, interactivity and so on. There is a recognition that [retailers] need those technologies to attract people, and it’s also a bit like a circle because if you see your neighbour having something very flashy that attracts customers, you will want to do the same thing. So I think there is an aspect of retailers boosting each other a bit, which is also good news.”

The emergence and ongoing growth of the use of AV technology in R&H – particularly retail, as retailers work harder to pull people back into store as part of their hybrid offer – has undoubtedly had an impact on the way stores, hoteliers and other hospitality sectors design their bricks and mortar offerings for improved user experiences. Louise Curnuck, pictured below, designer and leader in creative direction for the built environment, believes that AV tech is having a profound impact on the way that retailers in particular update and launch outlets.

“The store on the high street has had to adapt so much in recent years,” she says. “It’s now not just a store, it’s a showroom, a drop off and collection point for online shopping, a brand experience with an alterations or customisation counter, and – often – a coffee bar. The bricks and mortar store has become the support act for the online store. This makes the integration of AV and consistent customer experience more important than ever. Brands can no longer put a TV screen on the wall and tick the digital box.

“To be consistent with the online user experience, the technology needs to be so sophisticated that customers hardly notice it’s there. Where bricks and mortar stores used to take the lead in creating this experience identity, with online following, many of today’s new brands are starting online and then moving into bricks and mortar once they are established. This has changed the way we design, and a lot more needs to be considered than a tangible fit out. 

Louise Curnuck

“I believe in a holistic approach to design that considers all aspects of a brand experience. We are creating experiences, not just interiors. Like anything, audio-video technology works best when it is considered from concept, and not as an add on, so building strong relationships with designers so that they are truly inspired by the tech from the get-go, rather than sourcing to solve problems at the end of a project, is key.”

Where AV in retail needs to support its primary function in sales, in hospitality the focus can be much more on entertainment, and therefore more immersive, according to Curnuck. “What I find particularly exciting is how technology has allowed for immersive dining where all the senses are aroused to support taste and storytelling,” she explains. “In these projects, the designer’s role is to work between operations, food tech and AV specialists, as well as the usual construction and fit out teams. This is where holistic design is particularly essential for success and the traditional boundaries of interior design cannot exist. The designer becomes a curator. This is where I’m increasingly using the term ‘creative direction for the built environment’, because there are no boundaries to creating a fully immersive experience.”

Talking of immersive experiences, although it’s not surprising that visual aspects tend to dominate discussion of immersive retail, several interviews conducted for this article confirmed that all-enveloping audio is an increasingly important part of achieving the desired effect. For instance, Genelec remarks upon an uptick in projects featuring sophisticated sound design and multi-channel audio playback, including Casino Tampere in Finland – where more than 100 Genelec Smart IP loudspeakers contribute to a “complete sensory experience” – and K-Supermarket Hertta in Herttoniemi, Helsinki, where Genelec 4000 Series installation loudspeakers are part of an ambitious combination of scent and sound design intended to “attract customers and encourage them to linger”.

Sami Mäkinen, Genelec AV sales manager for Finland, suggests that the trend towards more technologically ambitious, experience-type stores began to gain traction during the Covid era. “At that point, retailers started to plan much more carefully when starting any new design or project, with an increased emphasis on quality,” he recalls. “Presented with a massive shock to the system such as a global pandemic, the goal was clearly to attract customers back with a much better overall retail experience. So our job as a loudspeaker manufacturer is to provide aesthetically pleasing solutions with clarity, intelligibility and uniform coverage, so that customers can experience the best possible audio quality as they move around a space.”

These new experiences seem to be increasingly informed by an awareness of the connection between sound and behaviour. “The sense of hearing is our third most dominant sense, and sounds can affect people’s comfort and shopping behaviour in most commercial spaces and environments such as supermarkets, hotels, offices, bars and restaurants,” says Mäkinen. “Studies have shown that the right kind of sound environment can increase sales by up to 30% and it also has a positive effect on the work efficiency of employees,” he adds, pointing to the use of Genelec loudspeakers to deliver an arresting soundscape combining “natural sounds and musical elements” at the aforementioned K Supermarket.

The trend towards AV-over-IP – witnessed in so many areas of commercial audio – is also discernible in R&H. Notes Mäkinen: “Our Smart IP networked loudspeakers have been hugely popular in [these sectors] since they combine exceptional sound quality with single cable networked convenience. Powered by PoE and compatible with both Dante and AES67 streams, they can be combined freely on the building’s existing IT network – making Smart IP a really scalable and flexible solution that’s very clean and simple to install.”

Going hand-in-hand with this need for hassle-free but effective audio systems in R&H is a recognition that good sound contributes to overall brand perception. For Stephen Rhead, installed solutions manager UK & Ireland at wireless speakers and sound systems company Sonos, which has registered particular growth in the hospitality sector: “Audio is still seen as a newish technology for enhancing the R&H experience, particularly around the bigger hospitality and retail businesses who refresh their environments on a regular basis. The companies that focus on brand image are conscious of how they are represented at every touch point, in their stores or in their restaurants, and technology plays a big role here.”

In the case of Sonos, Rhead implies that home user familiarity plays well for the brand in the professional domain, too. He recalls: “I was in a restaurant which featured a solo Sonos One product. I said, ‘Wow, this single product is filling this entire room’. And why? It was because the owner uses Sonos at home. We know that is often the reason why we are integrated into these businesses, it’s because there is a synergy with user-friendliness. We are very aware of the need for user-friendliness in the retail and hospitality sectors, especially when it comes to staff operation of the products.”

K-Supermarket Hertta in Helsinki, specified  Genelec speakers for ‘sensory’ audio

Like Genelec’s Mäkinen, Rhead highlights the role of audio as a contributor to an “overall effect you’re trying to achieve. For example, one idea that we have come across is that you go into a changing room, you are trying on a sundress and suddenly you are on a Maldives beach. You can hear the waves crashing around you and the sounds of the ocean. This is where the audio comes into its own, providing an immersive background sound that completes the experience. I haven’t seen it yet in reality, but that is what we have been involved in.”

Meanwhile, R&H is a sector that has opened up “pretty organically” for OutBoard, the company behind immersive spatial audio, show control and stage-tracking brand TiMax, which became part of the Focusrite Group – already home to brands such as Martin Audio, Optimal Audio and Linea Research – following an acquisition deal last December. Dave Haydon, OutBoard’s commercial director, suggests that the standalone operational autonomy of TiMax has made it a natural fit for R&H applications.

“Obviously, TiMax is known to have grown out of the theatre environment, but it is unique among spatial audio platforms because of its maturity and sophistication, as well as its multi-faceted feature-set, meaning its integrated hybrid of spatialisation, show-control and playback elements can all run themselves automatically, as well as being linked to lighting and other media systems. It also doesn’t need to be tended day-to-day by a fully-fledged AV engineer; its onboard show-control renders it one of those ‘workhorse’ pieces of equipment that can be left running 24 hours per day, seven days a week for months on end without requiring any kind of attention.”

Haydon points to several recent experiential hospitality concepts where TiMax has been used to “create a very sophisticated soundscape that isn’t just on an obvious loop”. Instead, using internal content offsets and triggers it can enable a backdrop that changes itself every few minutes, “which means you can benefit from an immersive environment that isn’t going to irritate the staff!” he adds.

Fellow Focusrite Group company Optimal Audio – which recently marked its third birthday – is also striding forward in R&H, albeit with a rather different pitch. Global marketing manager Jamie Gomez recalls: “We started by looking at the market and thinking there are a lot of products and different options to choose from. We reckoned there had to be an easier way of doing things, so we developed a portfolio where the focus is on making everything easy to install and operate.”

At the “heart of the ecosystem” is the Zone series of zonal audio controllers with DSP and WebApp, the latter being the cross-platform control app that allows the various loudspeakers, amplifiers and controllers to work together seamlessly. The success of the brand, indicates Gomez, confirms the continuing demand in retail “for simple but powerful and easy integrations.”

Meanwhile, Listen Technologies’ regional sales manager, Kasey Kaumans, suggests that “awareness of assistive listening” and the need to provide a comfortable listening experience for all R&H customers has continued to grow on this side of the pandemic. As a result, there has been a shift away from traditional analogue systems with earpieces that need to be distributed towards more personalised delivery. Hence a solution like Listen EVERYWHERE, which is an audio over WiFi assistive listening solution that lets users stream venue audio to smartphones.

Sonos wall speaker installed in a hospitality setting

Installations don’t have to be limited to land, either, with a notable recent project revolving around the new Royal Caribbean International vessel, Icon of the Seas. 

“Royal Caribbean sought a BYOD assistive listening system for guests that would be easy to use and enhance their cruise experience [in applicable venues],” says Kaumans, adding that the system is “not just for guests with hearing loss; all guests in onboard venues where the solution is offered can download the app and access audio as needed.”

If the ability of new solutions to support immersive experiences in R&H is only becoming more important, it’s possible that even this is outpaced by the burgeoning desire for sustainability. For instance, common to all of the interviews with visual display providers this time around was the sentiment that – with 4K and even 8K now in reach – we are approaching a natural ceiling in terms of resolution, and instead we are likely to see a greater prioritisation (by vendors and customers) of factors such as sustainability and low power consumption.

“I do think the focus will increasingly be on sustainability and technologies that [support that], rather than pushing towards the next smaller pixel-pitch and so on,” says Tanghe. “Having everything that a retailer puts into a store be sustainable, green, eco-friendly and carbon neutral – that’s more where the sector is going.”

For Sharp NEC, Karsten indicates that sustainability is becoming “more critical in the procurement process”, with greater attention given to extended lifetimes and modular SoC (system-on-a-chip) solutions that can be upgraded as future demand requires. “One of our key priorities is sustainable innovation – solutions which reduce resource consumption, minimise waste, and mitigate negative impacts on ecosystems. Examples of our recent sustainable innovation include ePaper [a new technology that consumes a remarkable zero watts of energy when displaying content] and new Flip-Chip SMD dvLED solutions consuming 60% less energy compared to previous generation SMD technology.”

Going into the preparation of this article, on the back of a steady stream of news stories about retail closures and estate reductions, it wasn’t hard to feel slightly despondent about the outlook for R&H. In fact, even though the margins aren’t always what they used to be, it’s actually remained fertile territory for AV specialists – especially those able to support the more connected, immersive environments many operators are now seeking to achieve. Pro AV has historically resided at the cutting edge, and more than ever that makes it a great fit for retail & hospitality.