Build an experience and they will come: the experiential retail phenomenon

The retail landscape is shifting towards a new and interesting era of customer experience, as experiential retail gives rise to more meaningful and authentic customer interactions with brands and businesses.
Image by 123RF
Image by 123RF
While the ‘customer is king’ adage has always rung true, retailers are under increasing pressure to liven up their in-store offerings, resulting in intriguing and sometimes curious trends.

One major shoe retailer, for example, found that customers were willing to pay more for a pair of sneakers displayed in a floral-scented room than they would for a pair that was presented in an unscented room. Many supermarkets have also started to adapt store formats to include boutique food bars and restaurants, encouraging shoppers to stop and stay a while rather than rush out after running their errands.

Enhancing the customer’s sensory experience and providing additional value propositions are just some of the tactics retailers are utilising to downplay the ‘hard sell’ approach with enticing and meaningful interactions.

Reza Motani, MD and innovator at the Brands Luv U experimental hub in Johannesburg, is on an experiential journey to create a new and niche experience for guests visiting the industrial-style store in Wynberg, and shares insights from his experience along the way.

Creating impactful in-store experiences

Contrary to conventional business models, putting customer experience before sales is the main principle of experiential marketing, says Motani. While the bottom line is a key concern, he believes that prioritising the in-store look and feel, and creating multi-sensory in-store experiences for customers has a ripple effect on profitability.

“I will admit that positioning sales income as a secondary aspect to anything else as a business owner is a scary thought,” says Motani, “but I’ve come to understand that how the customer sees your business and its offerings has a massive impact on sales.

“It’s not enough to just have a good product that solves people’s problems anymore. We need to surround those products or services with meaningful and impactful experiences in contexts that customers can relate to.”

Staying true to the brand

Authenticity is key if retailers hope to build lasting relationships with customers, and staying true to the vision that lies at every business’s core is vital to the success of any experiential marketing campaign or idea.

As the buying power of the millennial generation grows, many retailers are scrambling to find a voice that younger generations can relate to, often resulting in experiential marketing ‘fails’, as the millennials would say.

To put this in perspective, consider the suitability of rap music in a retail store that caters mainly to mature or elderly shoppers – most young people would spot the lie from a mile away, and the retailer would likely lose a sizeable portion of its current customer base.

Experiential retail is rooted in being honest to the brand’s ethos, and building on this in interesting ways. Using these thinly veiled and inauthentic attempts to attract customers to the door only insults people’s intelligence, sending them straight into the arms of more well-researched competitors.

Experiential is a learning experience

Developing an effective experiential marketing strategy for retail takes time and practice, says Motani, and admits that he didn’t always get it right over the years.

“We established BLU at a time when people weren’t really interested in niche concept stores, but preferred the experience of shopping at the mall or a massive department store,” he says. “I think we were also trying to do too much all at once, because we wanted to give customers a full 360-degree lifestyle experience when they visited our store.”

While immediate success is unlikely, retailers need to experiment with experiential trends and concepts to find out what works, which involves conducting in-depth market research to understand who their customers are, their values and even their aspirations.

“We’re always playing around with new concepts to see what customers will respond to the most. The recent launch of Ozzy’s Kitchen, a casual fine-dining eatery, is just one aspect of the BLU experience, but we’ve ensured it speaks to BLU’s wide range of offerings as a whole,” he says.

“The food concept ties in with our niche high-end fashion offering, as well as the rooftop venue with stunning views of Sandton where we host pop-up events, like sunset yoga classes which customers respond really well to.”

While retailers have understood the importance of paying attention to customers’ needs since time immemorial, experiential retail compels them to build and nurture meaningful customer experiences on a continuous basis.

Experiences encourage people to spend more time in-store where retailers have the time and opportunity to build lasting relationships with them. To survive in an industry that shifts and evolves as quickly as retail, retailers need to focus their attention on creating meaningful, authentic and original in-store experiences for customers.