Since it opened in 1909, London department store Selfridges has been defined by a special devotion to modernity. Its historic willingness to be ahead of the pack is mirrored in its Concept Store – a space where the department store regularly tests out innovative and sometimes outlandish retail scenarios.
In its latest installation, Selfridges, in collaboration with trend-forecasting agency The Future Laboratory, design studio Campaign and perfumers Givaudan, proposes The Fragrance Lab – a new way of discovering and buying perfume. The experience starts at home, as customers (guests) are asked to book an appointment with the Fragrance Lab, building anticipation so that they are already invested emotionally (and financially) when they arrive. At the Fragrance Lab, guests are invited to answer a dozen questions on an iPad, picking out images and statements which they feel best represent their personality. They then go through an olfactory itinerary (3 rooms) following instructions from an audio guide. In the last room, a fragrance technician (a salesperson in a lab coat) offers the guest insights into what makes them distinctive as a person, and how this has been translated into a scent (one of a secret number of perfumes that Givaudan has prepared especially for the Fragrance Lab).
This is the “Experience Economy” come to life. The two current staples of shopping – browsing and choosing – have effectively disappeared. Instead, the “Lab” pushes tailoring and personal shopping to their extreme. In an ethereal setting cut out from outside distractions, guests are invited to individually learn about and ponder the significance of scents – how they affect perceptions and confer meanings. This part of the experience is didactic, deepening the customer’s knowledge of fragrances so that they will later fully appreciate the perfume that has been picked out for them. At the same time, guests have the opportunity to embark on an “ego trip,” where they feel that the salesperson has taken the time to understand them fully as a person.
This peaks when the fragrance technician gives them the horoscope-like reading of their personality, and proposes a perfume which reflects the highlighted character traits. This is where the experience is at its most masterful, suggesting expertise: the fragrance technician knows which scent is most appropriate for the guest, who often walks away with an intriguing smell they would not necessarily have picked for themselves but slowly grows on them.
In its essence, Selfridges position the store as a space where learning and reflection are central. At the same time, because the experience is deeply personal and appeals to a certain narcissism inherent to personality tests, customers are led to create meaning and form a special bond with a fragrance, which they can rationalize and will become attached to. Should retail environments go beyond hedonism and incorporate ‘learning’ elements? Will customers trust brands to make decisions for them, especially when it comes to such personal items as perfume? The Fragrance Lab poses important questions as to the future of retail and ultimately recaptures different phases of the customer decision-making process (from the information search through to the product choice) to propose new uses for physical stores.
At Selfridges London: 1 may – 27 june 2014
Mathilde Leblond is a UK-based trendwatcher with a passion for creativity, beauty and the future. For Trend Tablet she contributes posts about some of the most arresting artists and creators which she scours the internet to find out about.