I keep reading that success in retail today is all about the experience. Some retail influencers whom I cross paths with on the conference circuit often anchor their talks on some variation of customer experience being “the new black.” Whether I’m working with clients or fielding questions at one of my keynotes I often get asked which retailers deliver the best experience. I’ve even been known to channel my inner Bill Clinton (technically it was James Carville) and glibly state that when it comes to fixing the fault in our stores, it’s the experience, stupid! Of course, all of this begs this question. Just what the heck are we even talking about when we say “experiential?”
Google “experiential retail” or “customer experience” (go ahead, I’ll wait) and you will come across many different definitions and interpretations. The one thing that is consistent among them is that there is very little consistency. So at best this is confusing. At worst, it’s pretty much useless.
In the most literal sense retail has always been, and still is, experiential. And depending upon what the customer seeks to do the complexity and importance of what we might commonly consider experiential dimensions (human interaction, tactile elements, investment of time and money, emotional connection to the outcome, etc.) varies considerably. At one level, this is the difference between buying and shopping.
In this context “buying” is more left brain and mission-driven. A great experience is frequently defined by some combination of best price, incredible convenience and satisfactory product. “Shopping” is typically a discovery process, more emotionally-driven and may involve a complicated, service-oriented solutio. That might be that putting together a great outfit, getting the right solution for a home project, selecting the right gift for that special person and so forth. A great experience in this realm is more about effectiveness and what our purchase says about who we are or how we wish to be perceived (see Seth’s riffs about “people like us, do things like this” for more).
To bring more clarity and utility to the “experience is everything” narrative, I suggest the following ideas guide our strategic actions:
Treat different customers differently. While some generalizations can be drawn, no customer wants to be average and a truly remarkable experience is largely in the eyes of the customer.
Take a human-centered design approach. One thing we know for sure is we live in an increasingly VUCA world, making it harder to know the optimal ways to eliminate the friction and amplify the wow when confronted with diverse sets of customer journeys. As we get to the more premium priced “shopping” end of the spectrum, customers are solving for more emotionally-driven wants, rather than needs. A deep understanding of a brand’s core customer segments and their priorities is essential. The customer should guide us, not technology in search of an application.
Focus on memorable. “Memorable” is, arguably, the most important essential in my 8 Essentials of Remarkable Retail. In a world where many things that used to be scarce no longer are and the customer is the captain now, good enough no longer is. Among the key elements of being memorable are to be unique, customer relevant, meaningful, authentic, scalable and to amplify the wow. Adding a ping-pong table, espresso bar or super cool interactive dressing room mirror might hit one or two of the memorable dimensions. But the real customer magic happen at the intersection of all of them. Much of what passes for experiential is merely gimmicky and ultimately is just a slight better version of mediocre.
Avoid “lipstick on the pig” syndrome. Newer, often digitally-native vertical, brands are often cited as the retailers that “get it” when it comes to delivering an experience. And that’s often because they not only practice the first three ideas I’ve mentioned, it’s built into their brand’s DNA. There is also the question of how much is scalable and profitable, but that’s a different article. On the other hand, legacy brands that are trying to innovate often inject well-intentioned, experiential elements into their existing stores, serving mostly to call attention to what is broken in the rest of their business (see Story at Macy’s). Or they create a “store of the future” pilot that often comes across like a greatest hits of other brands’ memorable moments. That rarely scores well on being unique and authentic.
The waves of disruption that are elevating company’s interest in transforming the customer experience aren’t going to stop. So, to paraphrase one of my spiritual gurus, we all need to learn how to surf. And to embark on the journey from boring to remarkable means we need to start somewhere. But we should be careful not to confuse necessary with sufficient. It’s also far more important to be truly remarkable in the things that customers really care about than to wrap ourselves around the axle chasing somebody else’s definition of “experiential.”
A version of this story appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.