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Experiential Retail

Give customers a shopping trip they’ll remember

Retail used to be fun. Before the recessions of 1980 to 1982, many retailers were organizing events and promotions to bring people into stores not only to shop, but to have a memorable experience. Experiential retail wasn’t a buzzword; it was everywhere! Bloomingdales in New York City used to honor a different country throughout select stores every year. I made it to its China, France, Ireland and India events during the 1980s and was fascinated by the remarkable decorations, street food and merchandise on every floor of the huge store. Its China event in 1980 created a 10 to 20 percent increase in traffic, and sales in all departments over the same period the previous year. This increase was similar to its Christmas sales.

When I was visual manager for an upscale specialty store, I piped Bee Gee’s music onto the outdoor mall and had young sales women from the store dancing in the window in disco attire. When I saw two children dancing outside, I asked their mother if they could go into the window as well. The children had fun, and the crowd of more than 75 people oohed, ahhed and laughed. Sales in the store that day went up 14 percent.

The early ’80s recession started the slowdown of major events in many department stores, and specialty stores followed their lead. Most big events ended in the ’90s. Why go crazy doing a promotion when there is no guarantee of getting your money back? If sales are steady, why mess with a good thing?

With e-commerce growing and big-box stores carrying specialty merchandise once only found in hot tub stores, customer visits to your stores may decrease as it becomes easier to have chemicals and accessories shipped to their door for free. Getting advice may be as simple as going onto YouTube. But people are still going into stores for experiences — especially personalized help. Whatever makes an in-person shopping experience more personalized makes it more appealing. Marian Salzman, CEO of Havas PR, spoke at the 2016 National Retail Federation’s BIG Show. She said today’s consumer lives on Uneasy Street with “emotional alarm bells [that] are endlessly ringing.” Every morning’s news brings new stress; Salzman called on retailers to create environments that help consumers escape through positive experiences.

Many retailers understand the importance of a seamless omnichannel experience that allows easy, stress-free online and in-store purchases, exchanges and returns. To create this seamless flow between the in-store and online purchasing experience, many retailers have changed accounting and inventory systems as well as upped social media/marketing and advertising efforts.

PSFK’s Future of Retail 2018 report from November found that 55 percent of the 400 retail executives surveyed will spend part of their marketing budgets on in-store experiences by 2020. In-store experiences took second priority to investing in data collection and tracking, with 68 percent of retailers saying they are making investments in that area for 2020.

While it’s important to keep processes working for you and your staff, it’s even more vital for the shopping experience to be comfortable, easy and stress free for your customers. Reducing stress is what spas are all about. Shopping for and maintaining one should not add to their daily stress.

Experiential retail is reemerging into stores: Tiffany’s on Fifth Avenue in New York City finally opened a café so you can actually have breakfast at Tiffany’s! Other examples include classes at arts and crafts and hobby shops; DIY classes at home improvement or local hardware stores; and cooking classes or appliance testing at appliance stores. Some sporting goods stores have added climbing walls, golf and tennis simulators, and at Danner Boots, there’s a “rough” trail to test out the boots. Taste testing has always worked for food stores, but many are now adding cafés, bars and specialty food tasting areas.

Boy’s Fort, a trendy gift store in Portland, Oregon, took the back area of the store — its “dead zone” — and had an artist install an imaginary wildlife biologist campsite. You entered through a vintage, 10-by-10 yellowed tent; inside was an old camp cot, a suitcase folding desk, lots of notes and taxidermy small animals. The walls of the tent were cut out to look like windows, with photo blowups of scenery on the back and side walls. It felt like you were looking into the woods. The entire experience was fascinating, engaging and memorable. Most importantly, it was a visual and sensory gift that re-engaged and energized the customer for more shopping.

Big Red Rooster is a multidimensional brand experience firm at the forefront of designing digital and environmental experiences. Stephen Jay, executive vice president of strategy, says there are four characteristics that the best retailers employing experiential retail have in common:

  • They are consumer-centric.
  • They know how to win versus compete.
  • They are technologically nimble and decisive.
  • They are culturally ready to accept change.

Jay says the cultural shift starts at the top and must be driven by the CEO. Being nimble and willing to accept and implement change is what will separate successful retailers from those who “have always done it this way” and who may, in time, be far less successful.

Retail companies realize that immersive experiences energize their brands. It’s possible you won’t see sales increase immediately if you hold an event, develop an experiential area or hold a special promotion, but you will increase brand awareness and visibility. Once someone has a positive memorable experience in your store, they will want to come back for more.


Linda Cahan
Linda Cahan is an internationally known expert in visual merchandising strategy and store design. She gives seminars, workshops, trains and consults for chain stores and independent retailers. Along with SpaRetailer, she writes for several other retail magazines, and is the author of two books and seven corporate visual standards manuals. Cahan lives in West Linn, Oregon. lindacahan.com

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