For brick-and-mortar retailers, COVID-19 was the challenge of a lifetime. The virus’s sudden spread in early 2020 saw sales plummet, with all but the most essential stores forced to close. Some, unable to weather the storm, never reopened.
Two years later, the pandemic’s effects are still being felt. But with restrictions lifting, retailers are looking to the future of in-store shopping. By 2024, experts believe almost three-quarters of sales will again take place in physical stores. That’s an encouraging forecast, but if real-world merchants are to continue reclaiming customers from eCommerce contenders, there can be no room for complacency.
To stay relevant, brick-and-mortar retailers will have to offer something their online rivals cannot: immersive, hands-on shopping experiences and superlative in-person customer service — both of which require a workforce that’s well-trained and well-equipped.
The Experiential Wave
Shaped by a simple philosophy — that the shopping experience counts just as much as the product — a new wave of “experiential” retail stores is coming. These will endeavor to offer customers something above and beyond the old browse-and-buy routine, combining technology with on-site attractions, services, and events to create a shopping trip that’s truly memorable.
Dick’s Sporting Goods is something of a trailblazer in the experiential space. Unveiled in April 2021, the company’s “House of Sport” concept store boasts a 32-foot rock-climbing wall, batting cages, golf bays, equipment services, and even a full-sized outdoor turf field and running track.
This might initially sound like a simple — albeit amped up — case of try-before-you-buy. But by letting customers interact with products prior to purchasing, Dick’s isn’t just heightening the chance of a sale — they’re offering shoppers a space to socialize and make memories, and fostering a positive brand association in the process. Experience, in other words, can become a powerful driver of brand loyalty as customers return to real-world stores.
A Tailored Shopping Experience
Despite the turmoil of the last two years, almost half of consumers say they prefer in-person shopping, with more than four-in-five stating that a positive on-site experience makes them more likely to return to a physical establishment. Retailers that are willing to think outside of the box can tap into this sentiment, investing in new experiential features that feel tailored to each individual shopper.
Farfetch’s so-called “Store Of The Future” is a prime example of experiential personalization. Launched last April, the luxury fashion brand’s London flagship location boasts an array of advanced retail technology, including smart mirrors that allow shoppers to request different sizes or colors, browse for alternatives, and even pay without leaving the dressing room. The store’s augmented reality virtual try-on tool takes things up a notch, letting customers sample different styles that are available online, but not in store.
Workforce of the Future
When dealing with new amenities and immersive technologies, it’s vital that employees are thoroughly trained, especially in digital technologies fueling the immersive experience, and that they feel empowered to work autonomously and efficiently. In a practical sense, that means having training programs tailored to unique experiential scenarios and providing access to productivity-promoting workflow platforms.
Likewise, as the line between digital and physical commerce blurs, it’s particularly important that retail workers aren’t hindered by subpar sales software on aging handsets. To take the customer on a seamless journey that commences in-store and concludes online — or vice versa — staff need access to connected devices that can help drive sales and better service by leveraging shopper data.
Closer Customer Relationships
To capitalize on the experiential trend, retailers need to think creatively about how to entice customers back through their doors. They also need to invest in their people and ensure that their sales associates have the tools and training required to deliver phenomenal customer service.
Get that wrong, and merchants risk deterring shoppers with clumsy, poorly executed experiences that are memorable for all the wrong reasons. But get it right, and they’ll be building closer customer relationships than ever before.
The author, Christel Grizaut is SVP of Marketing at YOOBIC.