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Giving the right experience

Retailtainment, experiences, personal styling and curated subscription services are all on the rise online but how are retailers balancing experiences with sales? Emma Herrod investigates.

How much help or advice do shoppers want from assistants in store versus self service and how do store assistants identify correctly the shopper who wants some help? How do shoppers want to be sold to when attending an in store fashion show, footfall-enhancing yoga class or in-store service such as a hairdressing appointment? These events and services are designed to bring customers into store and live the brand, but how are they translating into sales?

Shoppers do still value the help given to them in store by assistants. In fact, they are valued equally with online influencers when it comes to recommendations, according to research conducted for the recent InternetRetailing Expo (IRX). The study found that promotions, advertising and online and in-store experiences offered by brands have more of an impact than online influencer campaigns.

“There is no denying that social media stars influence what we as consumers buy – whether it’s a new outfit, kitchen appliances or food items in the weekly shop,” says Stuart Barker, portfolio director of IRX.

“The encouraging news for marketers is that brands still have the biggest influence over purchasing, validating decisions to continually invest in their own content, websites and marketing campaigns, which in turn lead to knowing their customers better.”

Book shops, one of the first specialist categories to feel the impact of the rise of online and changing consumer behaviour, have seen a resurgence in the UK in the past couple of years.

While the number of independent book shops has more than halved since 1995, 2018 saw 15 new book shops opening bringing the total number in the UK up to 883, according to figures from the Booksellers Association.

Niche product categories show how important experience is to consumers whether that’s experiencing the depth of music from vinyl – another category experiencing a resurgence in sales – or the browsing experience and insight from staff in a book shop selling a product which can usually be bought for a lower price online.

“These retailers also recognise the importance of the quality of the interaction. Book shops offer coffee as well as readings and book signings; but they also invest in staff who love reading and are willing and able to discuss book choices with the customers – because that is a fundamental component of a great book buying experience. Similar thinking applies to art stores, as well as wellness destinations: a team of engaged, confident and committed staff who understand the product, the concept and the brand is at the heart of the successful new retail experience,” says Tom Downes ceo, Quail Digital.


And larger retailers understand this too. However, changing the experience for customers in a flagship store is a different matter to updating an entire store estate. Boots is one of the latest retailers trying to up the game in terms of experience for shoppers. It has overhauled the beauty halls of 25 of its stores.

Ikea has gone down the route of introducing small, city centre stores which specialise in helping customers to plan and order kitchen and bedroom storage. The smaller stores are the company’s way of bringing the brand closer to potential customers without the need for large stock holding areas.

It’s London Planning Studios use digital technologies such as screens to help staff better advise customers and offer inspiration. Digital pricing screens are located near kitchen room sets and wardrobe units, while other screens give shoppers further information about the item they are looking at as well as access to the full Ikea website.

The first store opened on Tottenham Court Road in October 2018 with a second one opening in Bromley in March 2019. The Bromley store has plenty of spaces in which customers can relax as well as a demo kitchen for cookery and food-relating activities and events.

It also has a workshop space which is open for the local community to book and use. The flexible space is available to host events, workshops, meetings and training, the company says.

Bromley is “another exciting step in our city centre approach,” says Jane Bisset, London city centre market leader at Ikea. “We’re currently exploring other locations in London for similar outlets, to help improve accessibility across the city,” she adds.


This idea of bringing the local community into store in a non-retail related way is something that beauty brand Crabtree & Evelyn is exploring too, showing that shopping isn’t just about the purchase.

The experience is now everything – be that in how the customer is helped by a stylist in store, the technology UX in the changing room enabling the customer to ask for an item in a different size, through to yoga classes, cookery demonstrations and fashion shows.

But the issue for retailers is how to balance the experience with selling in a way that doesn’t come across like a time-share sales pitch but also isn’t simply a marketing cost with no ROI. Is it possible for retailers to make money out of experience alone?

Some events fit better with selling and some people are better at mentioning products in a way that sounds natural in a conversation, explains Ros Lawler, general manager at beauty brand Crabtree & Evelyn. The brand has opened a space for the community to use in Islington, London, and is facilitating events ranging from beauty and wellbeing such as reiki and disco yoga, to art, food and music workshops.

The aim of the Islington Townhouse is for the brand to gain an understanding of a “new generation of customers” ahead of a brand and product relaunch in the premium space in the Summer as it shrugs off its image as a brand bought by an older generation.

Lawler explains that a lot of people don’t mind being sold to or asked to follow the brand on social media when they have attended an event for free. One of the key things, she explained when she joined InternetRetailing in the podcasting studio was the recruitment of a visitor experience manager who was able to blend events and retail because they were used to “hosting things rather than selling things.” They also spent time knocking on doors in the area to find out what type of events different parts of the community would be interested in running and attending.

Going forward, the brand will be “very much about relationships” and Islington is giving it the opportunity to not only find out which types of event bring in people who are interested in Crabtree & Evelyn and its products but how to get a balance between being hyper-local and amplifying that on social media.

She also admitted that while the Islington Townhouse provides a nice space for beta testing it needs to be turning a profit in the next year through gifting and regular customers.
The test explains Lawler is “as a digital-first organisation how do we turn this into an international business.”

This will become more apparent as Crabtree & Evelyn relaunches and extends globally in July. The Townhouse is one idea which will continue though in other areas of London as well as other cities including Shanghai and New York.

And so omnichannel moves on from click and collect to more subtle ways of blurring the lines between digital and physical retailing. Retailers are expanding into services, moving further into understanding customers’ lifestyle and actually becoming more embedded into their life be this through personal styling, delivery passports or monthly subscriptions.

Technology is the enabler and enhancer but it also takes vision, a desire to change with customer behaviour and to think beyond the product. But are customers loyal to the brand or to the experience or does it matter if the experience you offer matches the needs of the intended customer base?

While Next reports a 2.5% increase in annual sales rising to £4.2bn for the year to January 2019, ceo Lord Wolfson comments that retailers “cannot decide how our customers will shop; our job is to adapt and serve them in whatever way they most want. To this end Next has changed dramatically over the past 15 years. The business has moved from stores to internet, from UK only to international, from mono-brand to multi-brand aggregator.”

In contrast, Nokia, which started to dwindle as a company when the iPhone launched in 2007, “didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow, we lost,” commented Stephen Elop, ceo of Nokia, at the time the business was bought by Microsoft in 2013.

The lesson for all is to adapt and change because someone else will offer your customers the experience they are looking for and however it’s couched that competition is still only one click away.


Omnichannel is moving from click and collect and single view of the customer to a position where retailers can amalgamate the best of the physical and the digital worlds to create something that is much better than either. And it doesn’t need inventory to be in stock.

As with Ikea’s London Planning Studios, US department store Nordstrom has a number of showroom stores in which the customers experience is around personal service with a subsequent order delivered to their home.

Experience though isn’t the premise of retailers with physical stores since it is something that pure plays have been doing for some time. In fact, their deeper knowledge of the customer, gained through analysis of browsing and purchasing history and a full view of each customer’s behaviour across all channels, puts them at an advantage over their competitors with stores.

Curation is something on which subscription services, such as Birchbox, are maximising. The company can use its online platform to ask subscribers questions about the type of products they like to receive, learn from purchases they’ve made and use artificial intelligence to work out what they are most likely to purchase next – and when.

Men’s fashion site Thread uses AI along with a personal stylist to recommend items to each customer based on preferences shown through a series of questions about the looks that they like, choosing pictures that highlight their casual, work and dinner date styles before being asked about specific sizes and colouring.

A number of suggestions are returned to them to browse immediately while a personal stylist investigates any items that they have said they are looking for immediately. In IR’s case, Freddie with experience at Gieves & Hawkes, GQ and Mr Porter, came back with a suggested outfit in a couple of hours as well as some fashion advice. What makes the service even more accessible is the fact that the shopper can place an order, try it on at home and pay later for anything they want to keep.

Stitch Fix does the same but sends out a box as requested by its customers. Items of clothing, shoes and accessories in the curated box are chosen based on a one-off session with a personal stylist who can also gain insight from ongoing data analysis of social media and purchasing patterns. The service will launch in the UK later this year.

Enty has taken things a step further connecting its community of 25,000 users in the UK, US and Canada to more than 140 tested fashion stylists and bloggers who will comment on a user’s outfit choices. Through a smartphone app, Enty enables users to tap into the expertise of a personal stylist ensuring that the platform remains troll-free and “a supportive space where women go to feel confident, whatever their size or budget,” says Sophia Matveeva, ceo and founder of Enty.

Enty’s analytics platform provides a unique view into why consumers buy certain items and not others, she explains, so conversations on the Enty platform can be used to predict future trends, validate existing ones and estimate their life cycle, helping brands and retailers sell more of what consumers want.

While, at the other end of the spending spectrum, men’s luxury fashion brand Mr Porter is sending personal stylists to the homes of its most valued and loyal customers.

The Style Trial service is by invitation only and allows the retailers’ ‘Extremely Important People,’ as it calls its VIP customers, to order up to 30 pieces to try at home before they buy, for a seven-day trial period.

The items can be chosen by the customer or a curated selection can be sent from the personal shopper according to a brief. Encouraging customers to experiment without commitment, payment is taken automatically for the items the customer wishes to keep and unwanted items are collected immediately.

In cities where Mr Porter and Net-a-Porter’s premier delivery is available, EIPs can book private consultations and appointments with their personal shopper who will arrive at their door with a fully merchandised rail of clothing and a jewellery and watch case featuring a personalised selection of items.

Customers are gifted a silk, monogrammed robe during the fitting while they are given expert advice on their existing and future wardrobe by their personal shopper.

Both brands are further brought to life for EIPs through global fashion events, trunk shows, exclusive designer events and early access to products.

Net-a-Porter has continually innovated pushing forward and enhancing the relationship with its customers and its EIPs. “We are incredibly proud to offer a truly elevated personal shopping service to our EIP,” says Alison Loehnis, president at Net-a-Porter and Mr Porter. “These new bespoke offerings are the next innovative step in better serving our customers within the comfort of their homes,” she adds.

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