The future retail experience must be extraordinary and experiential

Evolution is a slow process. Although the world around us changes rapidly, human beings remain relatively unchanged.

Our hopes and fears, likes and dislikes, wills and won’ts are fundamentally the same as they were thousands of years ago. The marketing world often forgets this and leaves behind the experiential. We can’t resist the next big thing – the must-use platform or the glitzy new gadget. We forget the fundamentals of what makes people tick.

When looking to grow a brand, rather than worry about Tik Tok or blockchain or cryptocurrency, think first about the golden rule of business. How can we provide a good customer experience?

On 19 May 2001, the first Apple Store opened in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia. The idea of a tech company launching a physical retail space was seen by many as a huge risk.

“I give them two years before theyre turning out the lights on a very painful and expensive mistake,” said Retail Consultant David Goldstein.

“Maybe its time Steve Jobs stopped thinking quite so differently,”  commented Business Week.

“Apples problem is it still believes the way to grow is serving caviar in a world that seems content with cheese and crackers,”  observed Joseph Graziano, ex-Apple CFO

Retail experience innovation

Some 17 years later, Apple launched its 500th store in Seoul, South Korea. Apple is now as much a retail brand as it is a tech company. What opportunity did it see that so many others missed?

“Youve got to start with the customer experience and work back towards the technology – not the other way around,” said Steve Jobs.

Apple understood the value of providing its customers with an amazing experience. Enough was enough. The previous model of watching commission-hungry salespeople push their products in drab surroundings was no longer good enough. The company needed to go to extraordinary lengths to provide a better experience for prospective and existing customers. The investment was worth it. The gamble paid off. Brand experience innovation won the day.

The American Society for Quality conducted a survey on customer loyalty. One question asked why companies lose customers:

  • Customer influenced by friends – 5%
  • Customer lured away by competition – 9%
  • Customer dissatisfied by product – 14%
  • Customer turned away by attitude of indifference by the provider – 68%

The results are significant. The experience provided by frontline staff is nearly eight times more important in maintaining customer loyalty than the actions of a company’s competitors.

A study by PwC told a similar story. The research showed 85% of brand opinion is driven by everyday interactions with the brand. Only 15% is driven by traditional comms. Put simply, the frontline of a business matters. Like Apple, companies willing to go further with their experiential platform to make the experience on their frontlines extraordinary tend to succeed.

An experiential future

We are living through a period of rapid change for customer experience. For thousands of years, all business was conducted face-to-face. However, the last 100 years have seen the development of a vast array of new technologies, which have divided most company’s frontline. People can now connect with businesses via their phones or emails, social networks, or chatbots. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has accelerated the uptake of several new technologies that puts even greater pressure on face-to-face experiences.

  • Why go into a bank when I can speak to an advisor over Zoom?
  • Why go to the cinema when I can watch a film on Netflix?
  • Why go to the shops when I can buy an outfit at the click of a button?

The answer to these questions is the same as the one Apple gave us when it launched its first store 20 years ago: Extraordinary brand experience innovation drives an extraordinary level of customer loyalty and advocacy.

While nobody is doubting the unparalleled level of convenience digital experiences provide, there is nothing quite like the immersive power of experiencing something in real life. It is, for this reason, we are seeing, and will continue to see after the pandemic, more and more physical spaces investing in delivering an amazing experience on their frontlines.

A brand does not have to build an entire store like Apple to improve their customer experience – this can simply mean augmenting existing touchpoints to become more experiential.

In a world where 81% of people choose brands based on recommendations, according to Brand Love, businesses will need to unlock the potential of turning their existing customer base into their marketing department. The best advert of all is a satisfied customer who spreads the word.

Rather than fear digital technology, physical experiences should use it as a reference point. Businesses should ask themselves what value digital provides in their field and then look to provide a different experiential value with their physical touchpoints.

For a retail brand, digital technology provides an amazing speed of purchase. A physical retail space should provide the opposite: a slower experience where customers can browse, try on the clothes, and be immersed in the brand’s identity.

For an entertainment brand, digital technology keeps us amused in the comfort of our own homes. A physical space, such as a theme park or an exhibit, should leverage everything we can’t do from our sofas: move us around, create an active and invigorating space where we experience and learn with all five of our senses.

The past few years have seen wonderful experiential innovation within the retail sector as brands look to provide something different to the digital world:

Vans – House of Vans

Situated in the former Old Vic tunnels in London, Vans has transformed the 30,000 sq ft space into a hive of cultural activity. Part skatepark, part retail space, House of Vans has become the poster child example for the experiential future of shopping.

Timberland – Best Then, Better Now

Timberland worked with renowned artist Tim Cockburn to create live ‘Best Then, Better Now’ murals in UK stores, promoting the chance for customers to personalise their Timberlands with bespoke boot art.

Charlotte Tilbury – Magic Mirrors

Charlotte Tilbury wanted to enhance the in-store experience at its flagship store in London. Customers now can access two touchscreen Magic Mirrors – fairytale-style screens allowing people to ‘try on’ each one of Tilbury’s 10 signature looks in as little as 40 seconds. No more messing around with tester pots and samples – now customers can layer on the look digitally and get a feel for what suits.

Fortnum & Mason – In-Store Events

Fortnum & Mason has a whole section of its websites dedicated to its latest in-store events. From a Glenfiddich Whiskey Distillery pop-up, where shoppers tour the famous distillery using VR technology, to the Midnight Food Hall Feast, Fortnum & Mason is using brand experience innovation in order to offer a more experiential retail experience.

How can retail brands leverage the experiential future of customer experience?

There are three key components brands should consider when improving their customer experience:

  1. Audience – a brand should conduct research into their customer base to understand what they consider a good experience and what they want when interacting with the company’s frontline. So much of good strategy comes from the simple act of listening.
  2. Brand Proposition – a brand should consider what they uniquely stand for in their market. For example, if a brand is the most luxurious company in the category, their experiences should continue to provide more luxury. If the brand stands for health, it should create experiences that help people become healthier.
  3. Touchpoints – finally, a brand should map their entire frontline to work out which touchpoints could become more experiential. Maybe it’s the home delivery, the in-store experience, or the customer service desk? Mapping out the frontline of a business helps to identify gaps that need improving.

The combination of these three considerations should allow any retail brand to create experiential customer experiences.

The next 12 months

As we move through 2021 and into 2022, it is likely the world will slowly begin to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. And it’s likely consumers will rush back to real-world experiences when possible. It’s a key moment for brand experience innovation.

The balance between our physical and digital lives will be restored. The challenge for retail brands is ensuring their frontlines are extraordinary enough to satisfy the raised expectations of their customers. Apple Stores show us the size of the prize for those willing to go the extra mile. The consequences for those who provide a sub-standard retail experience is customers leaving to find something remarkable.

Vaughan Edmonds is Planner at global brand experience agency Sense.

This article first appeared in Talk Retail on 19th March 2021.

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