Recently, we’ve witnessed many retailers respond to a decrease in foot traffic with attempts to make their brick-and-mortar shops more flashy and fun. A good idea on the surface, unfortunately, plenty of them miss the mark when it comes to brand authenticity. The most popular fad of 2018, Instagram selfie backdrops, may have made a little splash at first, but taking a look at these fun-house effects from a marketing perspective reveals a bit of a problem: they put momentary gimmicks ahead of brand engagement and, as Fast Company reports, they do nothing to deepen the relationship between the customer and the brand. This doesn’t mean experiential retail is over, however. Far from it.
It stands as true in 2019 as it did a year ago that retail brands must meaningfully engage with their customers, and to do so in person means they need to offer more than the customer can get online. Therefore, if a cool “grammable” backdrop is off the table, what can retailers do to enhance their customers’ experiences?
Here are three tips for creating effective experiential retail:
1. Cultivate and learn from customer insights.
Use what you know about your customers. You have data on their buying habits, purchase preferences, shopping history and more. You also have a wealth of insight derivable from social media and customer service engagements. This knowledge gives you the opportunity to design something that uniquely resonates with particular people. Your people.
Vans has opened several combination retail store-skate parks where shoppers can practice the lifestyle the brand is known for, right in-store. Similarly, a lululemon shopper can both look and act the part by picking up her newest pair of leggings then embracing a meditation session in an in-store pod created specifically for this purpose.
An authentic experience isn’t just built on customer insights. It gives you, the brand, the opportunity to continuously learn about your customers, too. Far from relegating research and development to a distant lab, stores can now become the labs themselves.
Look at how Canada Goose has created a buzz with its cold room. Consumers can put the promise of the extreme-weather parkas to the test in temperatures as low as -13 degrees Fahrenheit by stepping into a sub-zero room available in several of the company’s retail locations. More than just a unique customer experience though, Canada Goose has a prime opportunity to test an individual’s reactions to the experience. What are the most favorable parts of the experience? The least favorable? How could they be more comfortable?
2. Showcase what your company stands for.
Fun or pretty isn’t enough. Without an authentic embodiment of your brand, an experiential will do nothing to deepen the relationship you have with your customers.
REI understands its customers aren’t the type to want to spend time in a retail store at all. That’s why the company began offering hiking and adventure tours to engage with its customers where the brand encourages them to be: outdoors. Macy’s couldn’t pull this off. Casper gives sleepers (as the company refer to its customers) an opportunity to be just that by offering 45-minute nap sessions in The Dreamery, wrapped in a promise of comfort.
Northern Grade, a menswear company known for its classic aesthetic, gives consumers the opportunity to be transported to the era that inspires the brand. Stepping into its pop-up store brings shoppers back to the 1930s, where they can channel their inner Cary Grant and purchase the wardrobe to match. Each of these experiences allows customers to engage with the brands in a way that brings the products to life.
3. Make your team part of the experience.
With an increased focus on customers’ in-person experiences comes a need to refocus the role of staff in these encounters. Your sales team doesn’t just represent the brand, they embody it. In an experiential retail environment, think of your team more as conductors than salespeople.
Take a cue from Disney, where everyone working at the park is a “cast member” assigned to create memories. Staff at the park are part of the experience, not just on hand to swap out a medium for a small.
On a similar track, just this December, CAMP Toy Store brought the wholesome feel of summer camp to downtown Manhattan. In this fun-for-all-ages setting, staff assumes the role of camp counselors to truly bring the experience to life.
An experience can’t be immersive with an out-of-character team. And the best teams aren’t composed of characters at all, but rather people who live the lifestyle already. A yogi at lululemon, a climber at REI, a skater at Vans … if your staff are already authentic brand enthusiasts, they’re your best asset for effective experiential retail.
Frank Weil is the chief customer officer at KWI, a cloud-based complete commerce solution for specialty retailers.