Retailer survival tips: Why experience is “king”

Retailers have been decimated with the rise of e-commerce. Hardly a week goes by without news of another global brand–American Apparel, Radio Shack, Blockbuster–or local legend–Jacob, Jean Machine, Danier, HMV–shuttering its doors.

I won’t attempt to over-simplify the issue since there are many causes (increased global competition, lower margins, decreasing mall traffic, etc.), but the unwavering truth is this: retailers that fail to innovate become obsolete.

Consumers can now buy almost anything that they can find in a store from the comfort of their couches. So, in this new landscape, how can retailers convince shoppers to venture out of their homes?

Well, the answer is that retailers shouldn’t be competing with themselves. There is no need and no expectation for the brick-and-mortar store to offer the same conveniences provided by their e-commerce offerings. Instead, they need to see their store(s) as another channel that should offer a different–yet complimentary–experience.

There are two approaches for retailers to accomplish this:

1. Introduce technology to simplify and amplify the shopping experience.

Shoppers are looking for a unified experience. There is now an expectation that the shopping experience they begin on one device will be continued onto the next. For example, if I start to fill my cart while shopping on my iPhone and then want to check out from my desktop, I expect that all my selections will remain in my cart as I make that shift. The next step is to be able to take this concept from digital and apply it to the physical world.

Experiential activations infused with technology can provide solutions to bridge this divide. A few example include:

This is in no way an exhaustive list; there are a number of exciting startups testing really interesting technology offerings for the retail sector to deliver customers an enhanced experience and retailers with a wealth of customer data.

2. Shift objectives from ROI to ROE (return on experience).

We know that sales are the lifeblood of any company. However, in today’s landscape brands need to consider shifting the purpose of traditional storefronts from sales outlets to experience centres to remain relevant.

A handful of retailers are already making the shift through the “concept” of a concept store.

One such example is Canada’s own lululemon athletica. The “lululemon lab” offers products that can’t be found in its regular stores or online, but also serves as community centres for the type of lifestyle the brand promotes.

lululemon’s approach to concept stores offers an opportunity to engage with its customers in a more fulsome, less transactional manner. Rather than exchanging a few words while printing out a receipt, an employee or brand ambassador can spend more than an hour with a customer over a yoga class or a coffee (both offered at lululemon lab).

This time provides an invaluable opportunity to gather intel on how a customer interacts with the brand. Has she chosen the optimal tights best suited for her vinyasa class? How does he style his ABC pant when he meets his friend for coffee? From a broader perspective, the idea of a concept store also provides insight into how the brand’s lifestyle needs to adapt and shift to remain relevant and trendy.

Furthermore, the concept store affords brands opportunities to play and take risks. These outlets can be positioned as a testing grounds to experiment with new products and services, retail design, technologies or event programs that, if proven successful, can be rolled out more broadly.

By creating a richer experience for customers, retailers are able to forge stronger connections with them and learn more about them in the process. That said, as retailers add more to their brick-and-mortar stores, it is important that they maintain a laser focus on the needs of those customers. Technology and brand-halo experiences are merely the vehicle.

It is the retailer’s insights and understanding of the customer’s needs and passions of their audience that will continue to drive customer loyalty and brand love.

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