Originally published on November 20, 2018 at linkedin.com. You can read the story by clicking here.

Experiences are a retailer’s latest must have accessory. As a retail strategist, I explore how brands bring experiences into their stores. Some ideas are brilliant (DSW’s shoe-vator) as they complement and enrich the shopper’s actual path to purchase; and the best ones solve an operational challenge to boot (no pun intended, DSW). But I often see experiences added to stores without clarity on the underlying “why”. In store experiences will either champion a desired purchase outcome, or merely entertain without a resulting sales lift. Navigating the difference is crucial to retail success today.

Four things that seem like a good idea, but may not be:

1. Automated check-out is convenient for the retailer, not the shopper. As stores progressively turn their customers into unpaid check-out clerks, we should understand this is not by shopper request.

Thinly disguised as “optimization” scan-and-go and self-serve are born from retailer challenges, not shopper demand. Yes, shoppers hate long, boring queues. But less than 1/3 of shoppers prefer self pay in stores. One retailer who gets it is Kith. Check-out is slow, but no one seems to mind. Customers use this time to relax, text, unwind: a mental pause in a busy day. And the check-out clerks make it worth the wait, rapidly becoming new best friends and handling every detail. A customer’s only tasks are to hand over a credit card and breathe. Talking to regular Kith shoppers, I couldn’t find one single complaint about check-out. They wouldn’t change a thing. Scan and go? Heck no.

2. Experiential retail has begun to feel “forced festive”, like thanking your aunt for that nice holiday sweater covered in kittens playing with yarn.

While I love the Ice Cream Museum at Target, and I love buying ice cream (and eating ice cream), does a museum make me buy more stuff at Target? On the other hand, experiences in sync with the shopper journey are pure gold. I watched three $550 gold plated hair dryers sold in 20 minutes at the Dyson Experience. All because of two stylist chairs and one fantastic employee coaching each woman to style their own hair. I would have bought one myself if I hadn’t been flying home with an already full suitcase. Experiences should relate to the shopper journey. Otherwise it’s just free entertainment.

3. Store employees are stoic. Somehow they remain polite to rude shoppers, patient as we text while ordering, and convey product love a hundred times a day. But as retailers strive to wrap store experiences around the customer, staff struggle to cope. Case in point – the Starbucks in my neighborhood recently received a retrofit. The new store is beautiful, but employees are struggling with less room to work, constant ladder climbing to reach storage and hundreds of deep knee bends daily to access the label printer. Somehow these folks keep smiling at customers through back pain and co-worker collisions. Experience should work for employees too.

4. Experiences require free time. I see mani/pedi bars going into DSW. Great idea, but most shoppers visit DSW on their lunch hour, or on the way home from work. I might want a pedicure, but if I haven’t arranged time for it I can’t partake.

While I believe DSW is on track with this concept, how they roll it out needs to be carefully managed. Even the perception of too much time or effort can alienate a customer. The Google pop-up experience in SoHo was incredibly cool with toys, hammocks, tree houses, play kitchens – a lot going on all over the place. But Google was smart to make this a temp gig. The store was busy, but I saw too many people walk in, survey the chaos, then turn around and leave. The time and energy to understand what to do was off-putting. Energy is the new currency.

In Summary: Experiential retail is here to stay, but still in its infancy. We are only beginning to learn how and when to bring experience into stores. When holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We must remember that store experiences are part of a larger box of tools. The most successful retailers will be the ones who learn to filter experiential design through grounded strategies that align with revenue goals and the shopper’s fundamental reason for being in a store.

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