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Creative retailing engages customers and gives them a special experience, or at least a way of interacting with products and services to assist with and encourage purchase. Philip Smith looks at the art of experiential shopping, and how it can help your business and enhance the shopper environment.

Experiential shopping goes way beyond function. It’s a way of enhancing your products and services so customers can better understand or appreciate them through interactivity, sampling, information or by creating appealing settings.

While this form of shopping isn’t new-think to traditional fruit and vegetable markets where the grower would slice off some fruit or snap a pea for customers to try-this broad concept has been developed in modern retail.

It interacts with each customer’s senses (taste, smell, hearing, sight and touch) to create an environment that assists purchasing. Not all senses will be heightened at each shopping experience. Experiential shopping is about creating a mood or feeling in the store that enhances the shopper environment. It is not themed shopping that creates an environment (such as Australia Geographic shops) but an environment that allows the shopper to understand and experience the product better.

In some retail environments the product itself manipulates the senses and is an important driver in the purchase. Food, especially fresh food, can manipulate the senses, especially taste (in a deli tasting cheese or olives) or smell (such as coffee or freshly baked bread). In food related areas ‘try before you buy’ and demonstrations are powerful persuasive measures.

Perfumes utilise three senses: smell, the actual fragrance; touch, being applied to the skin; and sight, the look of the bottle packaging. And that is why fragrance counters allow you to use testers, to ‘feel’ all dimensions of the product.

In other settings the senses are massaged so the customer can feel more immersed in the retail environment. Furniture in retail outlets such as Ikea and David Jones create rooms that allow the customer to see how the furniture will look in a room setting. To enhance and personalise the room, the products are set out with accessories, including curtaining, books, vases, and paintings. This creates an environment that allows the customer to experience the product. Real estate agents are using stylists (such as Designer Boys, Gav and Waz, from television’s The Block) to enhance properties for prospective buyers.

Each time you create the space for your product, do it with your target customer in mind. As a space is made more welcoming and familiar toward one customer group, it will be less so to another. Clothing can be enhanced for some customers through sound and lighting displays which might encourage one type of customer (such as youth in Surf Dive n Ski) at the sacrifice of another (in our example this would be older, more conservative shoppers).

Experiential shopping is also mentioned frequently in relation to web-based shopping behaviours. In this case it’s the interactivity and engagement with the site, not only the ease of movement and stimulation on the site but also the ability to assist the user to commit to the purchase.

Creating Spaces

Many businesses have the opportunity to enhance the shopping experience for their customers.

As a retailer, the questions you need to ask are: what does my customer need to experience about my product or service, how can I enhance this experience? You also need to think how that product will be used, to determine if this environment can be recreated in the retail outlet. An example here is the working kitchens in some Domayne showrooms.

Demonstrations of the product also enhance consumer understanding. You need to then consider whether it is better for the customer to experiment with the demonstration themselves, whether assistance is needed, or if a video demonstration or a voice guide is required to help them through the process (like the prompts when paying by BPAY). Allowing the customer to experience the product is a powerful persuasion tool.

Your store will be more shopper-friendly if the customer has the opportunity to touch and feel products. Does it need to be taken out of packaging (or placed in protective packaging) so the customer can handle it? Or perhaps you can consider a demo model to be stored on a shelf or at the service desk to encourage interaction.

It’s important to create different spaces in the outlet to appeal to different shoppers, especially if you are not targeting one specific demographic. As mentioned, experimenting with lighting or sound, particularly with music, can create a new mood, but so can more obvious design and fit-out tools. Make spaces appear bigger or smaller with the use of different coloured paints; experiment with the height of the ceiling-Freedom uses dropped ceilings well in its stores. Or use walls and partial walls to create spaces in the retail environment. And experiment with clustering related or different products-Bay Swiss use this form of visual merchandising.

Don’t be afraid to borrow from other retailers. If you sell clothes, ‘borrow’ jewellery from a jeweller in the centre, or shoes from shoe shops to allow the customer to see what the outfit can look like. It’s a win-win for the store you’re cross-promoting and for you. Some shopping centres encourage this process through personal shoppers. Work with your non-competitive but aligned retailers, for example if you sell plumbing supplies use tilers, mirror and even linen companies to create bathroom displays.

As well as playing up the positive aspects of your space, you need to hide or disguise the negative. Fragrance, for example, is used to disguise an unpleasant smell or to enhance an environment.

And show the production process. Presenting how the product is made can enhance shopper experience of the product. An example is in Boost Juice outlets where each drink is prepared individually and you can see all ingredients, and in Krispy Kreme donut factory stores, you can see (and smell) the donuts being made from start to finish.

Measuring Success

There are several methods for testing whether an activity is beneficial for your business. The most commonly used is pre- and post-measurement. Simply measure and record sales (units sold and/or dollar value) and customer interactions before the change is made, then instigate the experiential change and remeasure your results. Ideally, all aspects-advertising, pricing, seasonality-should remain stable and the only change is the experiential element. The differences over the two periods will give an indication of the impact of the experiential change.

In some cases the experiential interaction may increase customer interactions, and this the brings the potential of more sales. In this instance, a survey of customers may be a more appropriate way to obtain feedback. Either way, it’s important to gauge the success of any measure taken to increase customer traffic and sales.

Experiential shopping enhances the opportunity for your customers to interact with your product and this has the potential to lead to increased sales and customer loyalty.

* Philip Smith is qualitative researcher at Environmetrics, researching retail behaviours and trends. www.environmetrics.com.au

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