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Retail commerce | Marketing

Make It an Experience

image: a picture of a compass
Selling experience as much as goods enables shops to compete with online merchants

The latest wave of big-name retailer bankruptcies—Toys R Us, UK electronics retailer Maplin, U.S. department-store chain Bon-Ton Stores—has resulted in more chatter about a "retail apocalypse." But at least one industry professional views what's happening as more akin to retail Darwinism, in which the fittest companies—those that sell experience as much as merchandise—will indeed survive.


"The offering needs to be more than just a product," says Marc Gingras, CEO of Foko Retail, a provider of a retail visual communications platform. "It needs to be a lifestyle."


Retailers that sell proprietary and exclusive product have an obvious beat on the competition: Shoppers may be able to buy similar merchandise elsewhere but not the exact items. If, however, like Toys R Us, you sell goods that are readily available everywhere from Amazon to Asda—and quite often for less money—you need to distinguish yourself in a different way. For bricks-and-mortar retailers, that means offering what online-only sellers can't: an experience that makes the store a go-to destination and engenders brand loyalty.


Sounds easy in theory. But how does one implement it in reality?


"First, identify who you really are," Gingras suggests. "If you say, 'I sell toys,' you're selling a commodity, and people making buying decisions on commodities based on price. What are you really selling, what are you really offering? If I'd been Toys R Us, I might have said, 'We offer entertainment to kids.' It could also have been educational entertainment. Then you begin crafting experiences based on that. Let them play video games, build massive Lego towers. From there it's a natural extension to buying that product."


It's not just toy stores that lend themselves to this sort of experiential retailing. "Let's say you're a store that sells baby products," Gingras says. "Perhaps you actually sell wellness for children." You could then offer complimentary classes on everything from diet to baby-proofing. "The experience is also the ability to explain what they can do with product."


At the most basic level of experiential retailing—and happily for smaller stores with slim budgets, the most affordable—you need to ensure that your store associates are educated enough to advise customers. For a store offering children's wellness, that might mean teaching them how to proper install car seats and swaddle infants. For a pet store, that could encompass knowing which types of leads and collars are best for which breeds of dogs. Offering personalised instruction and advice is a definite unique selling proposition in this era of impersonal online interactions. As proof, look to how an increasing number of ecommerce sites are adopting chat bots in an attempt to provide something similar.


This emphasis on in-person expertise might require a shift in how you hire and train store staff. "Have associates in your stores really understand your mission," Gingras says. "The role of the associate is changing. They're not just there to fold clothes and put the inventory away."


Instructing and empowering associates to provide what Gingras calls "concierge service" could have a secondary business benefit. Staff are likely to feel more engaged and valued, which can reduce turnover. "The more you give them responsibility, we've found, the more they will rise to the occasion," Gingras notes.


Skeptics might argue that even if shoppers come into a physical store for the experience and expertise, they might still end up making the purchase at the cheaper competitor. No doubt some customers will do just that. But others will doubtless develop a sense of loyalty to your store and its associates. Think of department-store cosmetics counters: Once a shopper has allowed an associate to make her over, she typically makes at least one purchase then and there.


What's more, many retailers have found that employing personal shoppers more than pays for itself. For one thing, these associates help salvage sales by providing customers expert advice—for instance, a man who is looking for a single-breasted suit might leave a shop if he can't find one that he likes, but a personal shopper could show him that a double-breasted style, which he might never have consider, actually flatters him even more. For another, by suggesting add-on products (a tie and pocket square to complement the suit, say) they help increase order values.


And once a sales associate and a shop have delivered a satisfactory experience to the customer, that customer is likely to return and to spread the word. And of course, the more a customer frequents a shop, the better the shop can personalise its offering to him or her, which in turn reinforces loyalty. By way of illustration, Gingras describes how, because he visits his local Starbucks so often, the baristas now ask if he wants "a Marc." Remembering his order and asking as soon as he walks if he wants "the usual" is impressive in and of itself; that the staff appear to have named his particular combination after him creates a personal bond.


"That's loyalty," Gingras says. "A loyalty card isn't loyalty. There's a clear difference between a discount and loyalty."


Physical stores can also take advantage of the human desire for instant gratification. Once shoppers have held, used, or tried on a product, they're more apt to want to buy it then and there rather than drive to another store that sells it a bit cheaper or order online and then wait days for it to arrive. Toys R Us would have been especially well positioned to capitalise on this, had its stores been more experiential to begin with. After all, the desire for instant gratification is especially strong in kids—and the desire on the part of parents to stop the whining of their offspring is also strong. "I have two kids," Gingras says, laughing, "and I would gladly pay a few dollars more to buy them what they wanted at the moment rather than wait if it meant they'd be quiet."



author: Sherry Chiger

Sherry Chiger

The editorial director of Your Commerce, Sherry Chiger is an award-winning writer and editor. She was formerly editorial director of Multichannel Merchant and Catalogue e-business magazines.


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