Summer 2017. In the US, the retail carnage continues, with each week bringing another story of store closures and bankruptcies. Having vanquished all but the most scrappy book, electronics, and mall stores, Amazon is making its move into brick and mortar stores, and mulling its plans for pharmacy. Neiman Marcus can’t even get itself bought. And Nordstrom is taking itself private. Talk of retail reinvention is everywhere.

Notably absent in much of the conversation are explorations addressing the most crucial and enduring parts of the retail equation:

+ creating covetable products;

+ having a clear and differentiated brand (what, as a merchant, do you stand for);

+ good old customer service.

Instead, much of the talk has centered on changing up the “retail experience”.  “Experiences”, the thinking goes, will bring in the shoppers, as in “come for the experience and stick around to shop a little”. Shops now have to be destinations, palaces of entertainment and discovery, where every sense is catered to.

This is silly. Retail, in fact, has always been experiential. It’s just that no one paid attention to it, and for that, retail (in particular, big retail) is paying the price.

But at least it rediscovery might prompt some thinking about the role of experience – physical, emotional – in the shopping process, and in particular what it can be in physical space.

With a few exceptions, “Experiential retail” has clustered into two categories.


APPROACH #1. JUST DRIVE TRAFFIC. The obvious goal of this approach: get the punters in. As many as possible, as often as possible.

Sending in the clowns. AKA in-store entertainment. Some times it’s small and story-telling, such as trotting out the artisans out to demonstrate in an “in store” studio. Other stores go big and bodacious: celebrities, “influencers”, sound and light shows. An almost-ancient formula, now with a social media spin.

Sprinkling in the services. This means bringing outside services into their stores with nail salons, cobblers, yoga studios, and wellness clinics being some of the most frequent mentions.

Rounding up the usual suspects. This means periodic or one-off product demo’s, hands-on workshops, designer meet and greets, and talks. Long the purview of craft/cooking stores, design galleries, and high fashion, it’s moving into the bag of tricks of more general lifestyle retailers.

The challenge with this set of “just drive traffic” approaches is that they drive traffic (in the short term) but no love.

In the desire to connect with consumers, these  strategies often have a strong whiff of inauthenticity (ok, let’s call it bullshit) and desperation to them. Neither is a promising sign of long-term health.

First, let’s take entertainment. In limited quantities, spectacle is good: we all love to be entertained, all love to a bit of showmanship and effort. But it’s not the panacea.  First of all, as behavioral psychologists have noted, humans have a built-in novelty-seeking tendency. To feed that, the traffic-driving events will have to continuously outstrip each other in grandeur and/or coolness. Then, there’s the cost. This approach is expensive. It’s also pretty exhausting. And if every store in the mall, main street and high street starts doing big fat experiences, won’t people tire of them?

And from big celebrity-studded events to the humble one-off workshop or book talk, many of the drive traffic events require the bolt-on of someone else’s celebrity and pulling power to pull people into the store. Suddenly the store becomes about someone else’s brand. Effective yes. But again, if every store starts doing the same kind of thing, then the store is just a venue: interchangeable, forgettable.

Finally, the just add service approach won’t add anything to the brand unless it’s such an extraordinary, exclusive service or unless it’s integrated with the product of the store (e.g. gyms and yoga in a workout gear store.). It feels like an inauthentic bolt-on and just turns the store into a mall.


APPROACH #2. DEEPENING + EXPANDING THE BRAND CONNECTION. This slightly more subtle approach generally takes the following forms.

Help people learn.  Not surprisingly, direct to consumer brands root their brand connection in the product, using their physical space as an integral part of their product and brand story. This is not about hand-wavy story telling. This is about really teaching people about the product. Learning, after all, transforms people, which transcends product. Through sales staff, in-store show and tell, even a look into how it’s made (views into workshops, ateliers and factories), the goal is to imbue the product with meaning and justification of its “specialness”.

Mixing things up. Concept, small independent stores, and certain department stores like Selfridges are the classic examples – stores that use the physical space to create strong and steadily changing retail experiences. The soul of the store is the curation and depends on the art and craft of retailing, from sourcing to merchandising.

Branded services. For some enterprises, like the tailors of Saville Row, the service “experience” and product have always been inextricably linked. But what about other industries that don’t rely on as much customization? As opposed to bolting on external services, brands like Apple have brought the service experience into the store, elevating it along the way. Now service (or at least its front end) is in the hands of approachably cool Geniuses, not the stereotypically shifty dude with questionable hygiene working in darkened apartments.

There are also those other inherently “experiential” lifestyle companies, like Rapha and Trek, who’ve extended their brand into the experiential space far outside of their stores and into true experiences: rides local and far-flung bringing together the brand and experience in a beautiful self-reinforcing way.


Of the two sets of approaches, the  brand-forward approach is by far the better model for “experiential” retail. It’s brand inspired and driven, and thus feels authentic. But there are still challenges.

The brand-forward approach roots the experience in the product, and that, too feels that it builds a deep connection with the brand. It will work for a while, but what happens when the product falls out of style or the people who love the product move on, or if the product just meets market saturation? In other words, how long will this matter to customers? And is it enough to keep them coming in?

On the other hand, the “mixing things up” approach has so much going for it: it uses space as a place for helping people discover new, rarely available things for limited periods of time in much the same way as markets of yore did.

But it’s also devilishly tricky to deliver on, as it relies on a powerful brand vision, flawless execution and relative exclusivity. Many stores like Anthropologie will try to become concept stores by bringing in a wide variety of lifestyle items. We’ll see if that works.

True concept stores like Collette show that it’s all about the curators and their very distinctive ability to make people curious about, and caring about what they are curating. But how many people have that knack of truly curating  – not just merchandising – in a way that people care about? When the curators are ready to be done – as is the case of Collette Roussaux and her daughter, Sarah Andelman with their knack of creating delight around discovery – it’s hard to bring in other people. And so the store will close.  Similarly, it’s hard to imagine Dover Street without Rei Kawakubo’s subversive eye, restless soul and utter control over every detail.

Of the three approaches, the clear winner is the “branded service” approach: it’s similarly on-brand, and has the additional advantage of being an integral part of the product. The service matters to the product Every retailer should find its inner, and absolutely necessary, can’t-live-without-it service.

But let’s say you’re not Apple or a Saville Row tailor with an obvious way to create those kinds of services.

Well, first off, if you can’t create services, you’re not thinking hard enough. But for those who’ve already got branded experiences going in or out of the brick and mortar store environment, and those who have yet to move in that direction here’s a thought-starter:

How can retailers take advantage of the unique properties of physical space to help people do things that matter to them in a way that builds a profound and enduring connection to the brand