Retailers, it’s time to face the facts: your customers don’t shop with you because it’s easy and convenient, or because it’s inexpensive, or because you have a large product selection. Those are the reasons they shop online. They shop with you because you can offer them something those digital mega-marketplaces can’t: a great customer experience. If you don’t have that, then you don’t have anything.
A great customer experience necessitates, first and foremost, an authentic and engaging staff, but an innovative practice that creates a memorable impression for your customers is experiential retail.
Well, perhaps “innovative” isn’t the right word; retailers have been incorporating hands-on experiences into their retail strategies for decades. Abercrombie & Fitch’s 1917 flagship NYC store, for example, included 12 floors of experiential retail that featured a basement shooting range, fly-and bait-casting instructors, a casting pool, dog grooming and a log cabin. The venture was, as this Bloomberg article says, “a gateway to experience, tailor-made to trigger the slightly deeper emotions that brand loyalty is built on.”
With the rise of the supermarket and the shopping mall, experiential retail declined as consumers began to favor fast service over quality, a movement that peaked with the advent and appropriation of marketplaces like Amazon. And now, there’s a harkening back to the good ol’ days, when shopping was an experience and customers were valued as people, and a resulting
hankering for experiential retail. Shoppers want an immersive retail experience that’s personally catered to them, where they get to experience the product before they buy it with the nimble, authentic guidance of a knowledgeable salesperson.
Surprisingly, it’s the big box retailers who are capitalizing on experiential retail in the 21st century: consider Lululemon’s pop-up partnerships that combine workouts and shopping, or even Trader Joe’s sampling program. But it’s in the small businesses—as in, your business—that experiential retail could be most effective and most rewarding. Your customers want to connect with their local businesses, and it’s your job to foster that connection; experiential retail is a guaranteed way to do so.
We’re sure it might seem intimidating, but incorporating experiential events or programs into your lineup is an easy (and fun!) endeavor. You’ll just consider the product and experience you already have on hand and turn them into an engaging platform with which customers new and old can interact.
Need some inspiration? We’ve got you.
- Lectures, classes, and info sessions.
One of the greatest hurdles for specialty retailers is introducing new customers to their sport or hobby, but that barrier to entry is immediately alleviated if the introduction comes via a class or info session. Through these kinds of experiences, you simultaneously dispel the discomfort of your potential customers and instill a sense of trust in your business, since these classes validate that your priority lies is in your community, not in your profit. Even your existing customers could learn something new if the topics you cover are specialized. These classes get folks into your store, where they can try—and buy—the product you’re featuring.
- Demo days.
Ideally, your customers should always have access to your products and you should cultivate an environment where they feel comfortable trying them out. On the other hand, demo days are a realistic way to offer your customers an experiential and engaging trial in a festive environment. And don’t be afraid to go off-site! Bicycle shops might take some of their new models out to the trails for free rides, outdoors stores could set up a campsite in the parking lot, and even traditional retailers like home goods stores could model a kitchen and demonstrate their products for the day.
- Popups and collaborations.
There are retailers and businesses in your community who have consumer bases that are completely unique from your own; you can access them through popups and collaborations. Plus, the experience of those collaborations is even more memorable than if those customers were to find you organically. Even if you just bring in a food truck for the day, or provide the equipment for a local gym’s popup event, you’re creating memories that they won’t soon forget.
- Hosted adventures.
If you’re a specialty retailer, chances are your employees are engaging in your sport on a regular basis. Why not bring your customers along? Hosting guided trail runs, bike rides, camping expeditions, climbs, or even river floats or beach days cultivates community and introduces your products to your customers in a really cool way. If they have fun trying your products, they’ll be eager to get in store to buy them.
- Free samples and experiences.
This one may seem obvious, but offering your customers something for free is a great way to get them in the store and engage them with your product. Of course, if they try something they love, they’ll be far more likely to buy it, but more importantly, it proves that you’re willing to invest in your customers in a tangible way.