As shopping centres struggle to compete with online retail, one of Russia’s oldest malls has brought the computer right to the store with the help of Cheungvogl architecture and design studio.
Cosmetics shoppers at the Au Pont Rouge department store in St. Petersburg are in for a surprise. Rather than strolling the aisles, here they will use a product-fetching robotic system. A single sample of each available beauty product is presented for perusal, set on a slender-legged table within a stark white space. When it’s time to buy, customers simply scan the product to activate the automated system, comprising a large robotic arm that moves around on tracks to access a network of conveyor belts. The arm collects the chosen item from a glass-enclosed storage area and ferries it to the checkout counter.
Conceived by Cheungvogl of Hong Kong, the system is an attempt to reinvent the department store experience in the age of online shopping. Rather than following the conventional model of luring in shoppers with luxurious interiors (and then offering them the same old transaction formula), Cheungvogl stripped the interior to make the physical act of shopping something much closer to a digital experience.
“Usually, store redesigns are reduced to aesthetic changes, which generates only short-term attention,” says the architecture and design studio’s founding partner Christoph Vogl. “The market concept, where customers see piles of stock and carry shopping baskets through the store, seems out of date.”
The historic Au Pont Rouge was originally completed in 1907, a time when department stores functioned as places to socialize as well as shop, says Vogl. Letting a robot take over the transactions frees people up – both physically and mentally – for more human encounters, and allows staff to act as attentive consultants. Of course, it also creates a sense of spectacle, which the architects hope will attract visitors.
The remaining store galleries are defined by translucent glass panels that are set off from the building’s ornate details, and generous amounts of space are left open to be used for fashion shows, culinary events and other store events. Even the final checkout experience has been overhauled. “Queuing up for payment feels like a long process compared to online shopping,” says Vogl. Here, the checkout counter acts more like a bar, where customers are invited to enjoy a beverage, meet friends, and watch the robotic arm as it does all the heavy lifting.