Recently I took my 4 ½ year-old twin grandsons to Dutch Wonderland, an amusement park tailored to the pre-teen crowd. We rode all the age-appropriate rides, strapped into our seats and let the effects of centrifugal force and mild balance disorientation do the rest. But by far their favorite experience was a miniature train where they used their arms to propel themselves along a track. They rode that thing 7 times.
It got me thinking what was so special about that train ride? Yes, they are train fanatics, but more than that, it was the interactive nature of the ride. They had to do something, rather than sit back passively and let the ride do it for them. And this, of course, got me thinking about retail and shopping.
Numerous academic studies have shown that two factors largely determine retail success:
- Amount of time shoppers spend in the store, where if a retailer increases the time spent in the store, their sales increase; and
- Extent of interaction with the store personnel and merchandise, so the greater the shopper interaction and engagement, the higher the sales.
Retailers’ success today is not so much what they sell, but how they sell it. Shopper engagement is the buzzword, and creating opportunities for shopper interaction is how to do it. The challenge for retailers is how to make their stores more interactive for the customer, which will increase the time they spend in the store. This is what experience retail is all about.
How to get shoppers to ride your train
Most retailers recognize the need to make their stores more “experiential.” But they seem to resort to the same old solutions, i.e. add a coffee/wine bar or restaurant. “It seems like everyone is following the same kit of parts in the name of experiences; things like every store has a coffee bar,” says Ken Nisch, Chairman of JGA, a firm that designs retail spaces.
“The tools that retailers are leveling experiences against are falling into the same bland ubiquity that has resulted in the sad state of retail today. We have become too focused on information, data, CRM and one-off ideas, like the coffee bar, as a substitute for the personal and imaginative,” he continues.
Retailers need to stretch their imagination to create opportunities to make their stores more interactive, which will drive engagement and inspire the imagination of their shoppers. I challenge retailers everywhere to find an imaginative interactive hook that springs organically from the merchandise they sell into an experience for the shopper. It may be easier for some categories than others, but there are creative possibilities for all.
Here are some thoughts to inspire your imagination:
From high tech to high touch
Apple Stores have long been a pioneer in experiential retail, making their stores centers for shoppers to check their emails and interact with Apple Geniuses to resolve their technical issues. But under direction of Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s new head of retail, the Apple in-store experience is becoming even more experiential. Holding firm to the idea that retail has to be 80% experience and 20% shopping, Ahrendts has introduced the “Today at Apple” program of educational seminars and activities to engage shoppers.
While it may not be revolutionary for a technology company to train users to better use their technology, the idea behind it is, “We’re creating a modern-day town square, where everyone is welcome in a space where the best of Apple comes together to connect with one another, discover a new passion, or take their skill to the next level. We think it will be a fun and enlightening experience for everyone who joins.” In other words, all these virtual social connections that Apple technology enables now become real, meaningful and personal at each Apple Store.
Question for retailers, then, is how to make more of a personal impact on your customers? How to engage them in new pursuits that stretch their imagination and help them grow? Clothing stores could host workshops to help their customers select fashion for their body type. Art galleries could conduct classes to learn how to paint. Pet stores could do the same, giving workshops for pet portraiture. Record stores, yes there still are some, could offer musician workshops and jewelry stores could offer jewelry making classes or workshops to take old pieces of jewelry and restyle them. Furniture stores could invite interior designers to give design workshops, thus engaging customers and encouraging designers to source more from them.
As Ken Nisch says regarding retail stores, “Give people a reason to be there, and they will shop. But shopping can’t be the reason to be there.”
Tell new stories that inspire customer curiosity and discovery
NYC-based STORY store has mastered the art of retail story telling. Founded by Rachel Shechtman, she describes the store as “Point of view of a Magazine — Changes like a Gallery — Sells things like a Store.” STORY is one of the independent retailers profiled in my new book, Shops that POP! 7 Steps to Extraordinary Retail Success.
Every six-to-eight weeks the STORY store is remade top to bottom, themed around a new story to tell the customers, like its current FRESH story told about fresh produce, fresh food serving and preparation ideas and fresh wellness ideas. The STORY concept is brilliant in its simplicity, as it presents a constantly-changing smorgasbord of products displayed around a story-based theme. It entices customers with its cutting-edge vibe to come in, participate and satisfy their curiosity and share their discovery through social media.
While STORY sells products, the products don’t come first; the story and the customer experience does. Shechtman says, “We have to let our story drive the assortment, rather than let the assortment drive our story. And when the story is sincere, it will spread just like a viral video.” Thus the products it offers is only part of the story, not the story.
As far as I know, STORY is a totally unique concept at retail, but it is idea that others can borrow, maybe not to redo their entire store regularly, but retailers could set aside a portion of their space to move in new story-themed displays. To make it work, the stories need to be well planned around real interests of the community. Retailers might also team up with other merchants to stock unexpected merchandise in surprising new ways. And the stories need to be presented more frequently than just as the seasons change with each new installation getting an “art-gallery” styled opening as well.
At first blush, I can’t think of any type of retailer that wouldn’t benefit more from adapting this concept than department stores. After all, they are set up as separate and distinct departments. Why not put a story-inspired department at the front of the store and curate products from all the various departments to tell a special new story on a regular basis for their shoppers?
The importance of telling new stories at retail can’t be underestimated. “The origin of the word ‘store’ is ‘storage.’ A retail store has been a place to collect and arrange things in anticipation of a transaction,” Nisch says. “Today the store must be a collection of ‘stories.’ So much time and effort in retail today is spent trying to systematize, organize and create consistency, but we’ve lost the human element of surprise and delight that should be our goal.”
In this Age of Amazon, where every conceivable product is available with the click of a button, people are starved for real and meaningful connection. They crave community and retail stores can help them find it. A retailers’ roots in their local community are one of their most powerful competitive weapons. Shoppers crave that community feeling where they can be known, understood and belong.
“Main street” retailers have the seeds to create community every time a shopper walks in their door. But they must germinate it properly. That is one reason why Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell, the fabulous “Beekman Boys” and founders of the Beekman 1802 brand as well as Beekman 1802 Mercantile, call all their customers and future customers “Neighbors.” Ridge explains, “‘Customer’ says ‘What you can do for me,’ i.e. conduct a transaction and give me your money. ‘Neighbor’ says ‘We are all in this together.’” Beekman 1802 Mercantile is another shop that POPs! in my book.
Since “birds of a feather flock together” shoppers that love your store have something in common with others that feel the same. So creating community not just within the local community, but within the community of the store’s shoppers is also an opportunity.
Ken Nisch told me about Berlin-based KaDeWe, a department store retailer, delivering on this idea of building store-based communities. It has devoted one floor to an “Idea Shop” where people can express their creativity and imagination through arts and craft experiences. Along with displays of a seasonal selection of the latest trends in textiles, handicraft, jewelry, art material, home decorating and stationery, customers are invited to make things themselves with craft materials.
“It’s a place where people can meet people and make ‘store friends,’” Nisch explains. “They can collaborate to make things and take things away. They call it the ‘happy floor’ because it is designed to give people an experience that makes them happier, calmer and emotionally engaged.”
In conclusion, retailers need to think way outside the store box to make their stores interactive and in so doing create a real experience for the customers to engage in. These core ideas – High Touch, Story Telling and Community – are key to doing that. Unfortunately too many retailers are wedded to the concept that the answers to retail stagnation lies in more data and new algorithms. Instead they need to imagine the kind of experiences people want that make them feel engaged, surprised, invigorated, and rewarded. Otherwise, retailers will be stuck in storehouses filled with stuff, but empty of shoppers.