Spark Commercial Bay (Photo: Supplied; Additional Design: The Spinoff)

The future of retail is already here

In an era of online everything, brick-and-mortar retail faces unique challenges. Now Spark is looking to innovative, immersive experiences to keep people coming back.

On the average day, the main commercial artery of Queen Street in Central Auckland sees a fraction of the foot traffic that it did a year ago. The vacant atmosphere is an entirely expected symptom of the arrival of Covid and its resultant economic impacts, but it’s also reflective of a world in which remote working and online shopping were already on the cusp of becoming our new normals.  

For the businesses that have invested a lot in providing a special, face-to-face customer experience, the trends are particularly noticeable. This is true of the new Commercial Bay shopping complex, which was developed over the last decade with the expectation that it would be serving not only the estimated 30,000 workers within a 500m radius of the store, but also the formerly thriving cruise ship market. Having opened after the first Covid-19 lockdown earlier this year to an empty cruise ship terminal and half-empty office buildings, it’s clear that – impressive as it is – the development still has a mountain to climb. 

But because the tourists aren’t going to be returning any time soon – at least not to pre-Covid levels – and the challenges of low foot traffic are likely to remain for some time, Spark’s Commercial Bay store has been trying something new to buck the trend and bring people back through the doors.

While the plan has been in place over two years, over the last month the store has launched a new range of immersive, interactive customer experiences, which aim to create a community space for people to enjoy new products and services. While it’s what you might see in flagship stores in American cities, Josh Parrish, Spark’s brand experience manager, says it’s an entirely new style of engagement for New Zealand. 

“The idea was to launch this as a store for customers to come in and engage with the brand similarly to Nike, Apple and Microsoft. They have flagship stores that are a true representation of their brands, and this creates an experience for customers that makes them fall in love with ours.”

Spark’s Commercial Bay store has been designed to enrich each customer experience (photo: supplied)

So what exactly has the store been doing? Essentially it has been partnering with large international brands like Microsoft, Samsung and Apple to showcase their products to customers in the flesh. Its first major project was a gaming activation experience in partnership with Logitech, which built racing simulators in the store like an arcade. 

“It highlighted our Microsoft Xbox partnership,” Parrish says. “Customers could book their spot online, then come into store to compete for the fastest lap using the new F1 2020 game.

 “Our gaming customers really loved it. And we had a tonne of engagement on social media with customers tagging friends and commenting, signing up for the time slots to come in and do their time trial. That drove a lot of engagement and a lot of traffic.”

Another feature of the store is seasonal and rolling campaigns, showcased in a pop up space near the entry. Parrish says at the moment it features a Christmas campaign, which is all about offering a wide range of tech gifts at all budget levels. 

“We’ve expanded our product offering to beyond just mobile devices and plans for customers, because we know that this year people will probably be looking for something a bit different.” 

“We have gifts for people who love sport, gaming and music, and of course those who love technology too – our drones and our Sphero products for kids are great examples of what we’re doing there.” 

This also extends through to the Christmas activation, which uses an Xbox Kinect camera to immerse customers in a virtual Christmas world.

“Customers choose their world based on their interests, whether they’re into sport, music or gaming. The camera then superimposes them into this world in the form of a Christmas globe where you can interact with certain elements in the environment. 

“We are looking at adding in the ability to create a GIF while in this snow globe world, which customers will then be able to share with friends and family – like a digital Christmas card, to add some cheer over the holidays.”

Because of its relatively Covid-19 free status, New Zealand is one of the few countries in the world where bringing people back into physical stores is a realistic option. Even still, the rise of e-commerce is here to stay, and it’s likely that the convenience coupled with the constantly looming risk of community transmission has meant many people won’t be hurrying their return to the face-to-face days of old.

Innovations at Spark Commercial Bay include immersive gaming experiences. (Photo: supplied)

 So have Spark’s initiatives succeeded in getting people to visit the new store?

“The gaming activation in the first month was very successful in driving foot traffic,” says Parrish.

“It’s a beautifully designed store. A lot of people are coming in and asking for tours of the space, because it definitely looks like a brand flagship store when you walk up through the three levels.”

The top level of the store has an event space that can hold up to 150 people. Parrish says the space will leverage Spark Lab, which is the business brand, and host events in their Speaker Series as well as live sport screenings 

“You’ll start to see those come online in 2021. We’ll have live events up there for our business customers, and we’ll get inspirational speakers from some of the large international tech companies.”

“Then we’re also looking at doing some Spark Sport viewing sessions. We have a lot of great rights, including the Premier League, the NBA and Formula One, so we’re looking at setting that up in the theatre space because there’s a massive screen up there.

“It’s a great way of hosting our customers who are interested in sports and getting the conversation going about Spark Sport. It’s been a test and learn situation up there.”

However, Parrish says customers have also come into the store asking to rent the space out for private events, or simply use it as a space to hang out.

“There’s also a coffee area upstairs. People are coming up for coffees, hanging out and enjoying the great views across the street.” 

In many ways, it’s the type of retail experience that we’d expect to see more of in New Zealand; an early embrace of new technology to stoke interest and change the way customers engage with retail businesses and their products, rather than just the buy and sell dynamic. Is it something Parrish expects to see emerge in other businesses and other Spark stores?

“There aren’t a lot of retailers doing this,” he says. “As more customers buy online, there needs to be that reason to get customers to come into the store, beyond just purchasing products and services from you.”

The second floor of the store will host events including Spark Sport screenings (photo: supplied)

While the other Spark stores aren’t as big as the Commercial Bay one, they will be influenced to some degree by the new initiatives.

“We’re currently running a Spark Sport Match Fit education session to get customers ready for the cricket season this month. For that specific piece and for other education pieces, we are looking at expanding to our new stores.”

“All of our new stores have what we’re calling the trust space, which are small conference rooms with all the AV to run these education programmes.”

Despite the challenges facing traditional retail, these initiatives are all part of Spark’s vision for New Zealand to be a leader in the digital world – a view that has been echoed by Jacinda Ardern’s new government as a way to drive the economy forward. 

“It’s about getting customers comfortable with some of the complexities of technology, so that they can weave them into their everyday life,” says Parrish. “And this helps us shift the customer perception of Spark from being a traditional telecommunications company into a digital service company.

As for the Commercial Bay store, Parrish says that despite the challenges, so far innovation appears to be the key to thriving in a post-Covid world.

“Before we opened we were expecting the CBD to be bustling. But now I think we’ve just got to listen, evolve, test, learn and be fluid.”




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