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  • Daniel Jacques

Experiential Retail… What is it and is it the future of High-street Retail?

Updated: May 17

Experiential Retail is the oft-sounded hero of the high street and physical shopping spaces, the knight coming to rescue the troubled industry. While not an entirely accurate statement, experiential retail has a huge role to play in attracting people into shopping spaces again. This is especially true after the pandemic with people needing more reason than ever to visit a physical store. So, what is experiential retail? Is it actually a new phenomenon and how can capitalising on it improve the fortunes of the high-street moving forwards?

The constant certainty of the last 10 – 15 years has been that ‘retail is dead’ but this misses the mark with the widest margin possible. Retail isn’t dead and while it is struggling it isn’t dying either. Bricks and Mortar retail is a powerful tool for both businesses and society in creating an experience for everyone. Retail can be a place to meet, a place to learn and a place to buy. These three things are exactly what the constantly developing arena of ‘experiential’ retail aims to achieve, creating spaces people want to be in and ultimately want to spend in.

Think of some of the best stores and retail sites that you’ve been in recently, I bet that they all gave you something other than just something to buy. Was there a certain smell or activity that sticks in your mind from it? one of the most recognisable shops on the British High-Street is Lush the bath bomb and cosmetics company and that’s before you even see the store! The sensory connection of smelling the Lush products before you even see the store create an experience and a memory that lasts far longer than the time in store and it draws you back! Making you want to see, feel, and of course smell the product in real life before buying.

Laura has a similar reaction to the Lush smell. “I’m often daydreaming on the street, or running around in haste,” she says. Then that soapy tang hits her and shakes her up: “Something about [the smell] clears my head of feelings and thoughts.”[1]

Lush stores have been gracing the British high-street and those worldwide since 1995 so it seems as if in some respects experiential retail has always been a part of the mix of offerings available to consumers. If we look to department stores such as Harrods and Selfridges we can see that offering customers, especially high-end high spend customers, an experience along with their purchase has always been essential. This can be seen by looking into the storied past of Selfridges using anything other than its merchandise to entice customers into its doors, anything from science exhibits, museum pieces or miniature golf courses on the roof.

The idea has been inspired by the Selfridges roof displays of the 1920s and 30s, which included a mini-golf course.[2]

Something that the legendary department store reintroduced recently as part of ongoing efforts to provide its clients with the best possible shopping experience.

The big change that has happened over the last 20 years or so is that these kinds of experiences are no longer just the purview of the famous and storied department stores. Brands around the world now want their store and retail space to be the meeting place of the future.

‘Meet me at Starbucks’,” says Angela Ahrendts, SVP of Retail, Apple. “And I’ve told the teams, I’ll know we’ve done a really really great job if the next generation, if gen Z says: ‘Meet me at Apple. Did you see what’s going on at Apple today?’”[3]

This kind of thinking is what is driving retail forward into the next decade, shaping the way that retailers, brands, and customers think about shopping spaces. No longer do people need to visit a town centre or shopping centre to purchase their goods, they can do this by a couple of clicks on a computer screen. This means that rather than trying to attract a customer into your store rather than a competitor’s, bricks and mortar are trying to attract people in these spaces full stop. This significant step change in the needs and demands placed on experiential retail is what is leading retailers of all kinds into doing all they can to draw people in, attracting people to experience something so that they might buy something as well.

Located in the heart of the Meatpacking district in NYC, Samsung 837 combines art, fashion, technology, and sport in unprecedented ways. It’s not a store, but a new kind of place filled with ideas, experiences, and Samsung’s latest devices.

Designed by WonderWall Inc., the space features an amphitheatre area, AR Studio, Sound Studio, customer service and experience area, and café.[4]

As shown above this is usually best showcased by the big and flashy efforts undertaken by the major international players in the retail field. This of course though is not the only way that experiential retail can be successful, smaller new and established brands can also take advantage of this tactic to create ‘magic’ environments for their customers and offer new and essential services.

Due to the growth of its subscription business, Rent the Runway adds another layer of convenience for its consumers. “We’ve seen how a physical footprint can provide even more convenience and magic to the customer base,” shared Jennifer Hyman, co-founder and chief executive of Rent the Runway[5]

The majority of efforts we have discussed so far tend to involve giving customers something other than the product on offer, arts or leisure activities that draw people to a place that also happens to sell a product. Experiential retail can also be both entertaining and functional as exhibited by a particularly inspired effort by Canada Goose below.

In a scheme that could help spur off-season sales, the New Jersey and Montréal stores will be the first of its locations in North America to offer a 'cold room' – an immersive experience where customers can test parkas in temperatures as low as -13 Fahrenheit.[6]

These kinds of services also go some way to remind us of one of the most important factors of bricks and mortar shopping, especially on high end products and that’s making sure it works and looks how you want it to before committing to a purchase. By applying the principles and examples seen so far it is possible to see how experiential retail, will have a huge role to play moving into the next decade of retail and how it just might help save the high-streets and shopping centres that we love so much.

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