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Give Customers an Experience, See Retail Sales Grow


Stop in at Hudson’s Hill in Greensboro, and you can do more than pick up some beard balm or denim goods.

You also can plop down on the leather couch in the store’s retro-styled “living room” and watch a movie—The Goonies, Home Alone and O Brother, Where Art Thou? are among the choices—on the throwback VCR.

“We wanted a place where our customers could sit down with their friends and relax a while,” says William Clayton, president and co-owner of the North Carolina business. “So we put a living room in the middle of the store, set up an old TV, and play VHS movies.”

While some retailers might scoff at the idea of dedicating space in their store for things without a price tag, many shop owners today know that their customers want more than a simple exchange of money for goods or services.

Customers crave an experience, a sense of belonging, exceptional customer service, and brands that are in step with their passions, politics, and lifestyle. It’s what retail and marketing experts call “experiential retail.”

Nationwide, this year is expected to be a good year for retail, according to the National Retail Federation, which projects that retail industry sales (excluding automobiles, gas stations and restaurants) will grow by 3.1%, an increase from the 10-year average of 2.7%.

At the organization’s recent annual convention, several top CEOs discussed experiential retail and how continued sales growth is dependent upon retailers providing standout customer service and an oasis of sorts for their customers—a reprieve from life’s otherwise rushed pace.

A Sensory Experience

In fairness, the idea of experiential retail is not new, says Roger Beahm, marketing professor at Wake Forest University School of Business. But given increased competition from online retailers, better-informed consumers, and our busier lifestyles, it’s become more critical to success for brick-and-mortar stores.

“Smart merchants were always looking for ways to get shoppers in their door,” says Beahm, who is also executive director of the Wake Forest University Center for Retail Innovation.  “And they are always looking for ways to provide value. Experiential (retail) can add value. After all, a retailer can only have so many SKUs (products) and only discount so much.”

Gone are the days when most shoppers had the time to walk aimlessly around a mall to browse or visit multiple stores to comparison shop, Beahm says. When we enter a store today, it’s usually no accident.

“We have done our research online, but we come into a store because we want to touch and feel the product, we want a sensory experience,” Beahm says.

A Sense of Community

Sally Brewster, owner of Park Road Books in Charlotte, believes we also seek a social connection and sense of belonging when we shop.

“It’s very easy to sit in your underwear at home and click a button to buy something,” Brewster says. “But people need community. And we are trying to make our store an extra living room for the community.”

At Park Road Books, which will celebrate its 40th year in business in 2017, that means you can settle into a comfy chair and stay awhile, have a cup of coffee with a friend, or take part in one of several ongoing book clubs.

And since many people’s living rooms aren’t complete without a dog, the bookstore has Yola, a 24-pound Corgi-Carolina mix who dozes off unapologetically during a lot of her shifts and doesn’t mind if you bring your own dog to the store.

In Greensboro, Clayton also sees his shop as a part of the community. They work to highlight the history of the area and focus on selling locally-made denim, leather goods, and other items.

They also host events that highlight other business ventures in the area or things that are of interest to their customers. These can range from a workshop that shows customers how to use the clothing wax the shop sells to another on brewing beer at home, even though the store doesn’t sell brewing gear.

“We have been very cognizant of the fact that with these events there’s not always an immediate financial impact to us,” Clayton says. “We are creating relationships and a sense of community. And social currency goes a long way.”

A Focus on Customer Service

“Experiential is not just entertainment,” Beahm says. “It’s added value and that value for many customers is added services.”

Customer service is a priority at Park Road Books, Brewster says, adding she tells those who apply to work at the store that, “It’s not enough that you like books. You have to like people too.”

Most of her employees have been there for years and know exactly the type of books that will appeal to their regular customers. The store also will search for rare and out-of-print books for customers. And if a customer doesn’t come into the shop for a while? Brewster said they are truly missed.

“We’ll make a call or send them a postcard just to let them know we are thinking about them,” she says. “If we hear a customer has been sick, we’ll send a ‘get well soon’ card.”

At Hudson’s Hill, Clayton says they are always looking for ways to stand out, customer service-wise. To that end, the staff loves to work with shoppers to create custom leather goods, and customers can get any piece of denim clothing they purchase at the shop hemmed or repaired for free, for life.

Since finding a place to repair denim isn’t always easy, the shop will, for a fee, hem and mend denim bought elsewhere unless it’s too far gone.

“We try to offer those extras for our customers because we care, and we want them to know we appreciate their business,” Clayton says. “We always focus on service and meeting their needs.”

Appealing to a Mindset

Consumers today often want more than just the best deal or most convenient option. They want a brand or product that they believe in—a personality that matches their interests and shares their concerns, Beahm says.

Clayton agrees and says he’s well aware that offering complimentary repairs for store-bought items fits both the company’s mindset as well as its customers’.

“We are selling products that are made with purpose and integrity in the U.S. and will last for years to come,” he says. “We are promoting mindful consumption when it comes to clothing. And our customers appreciate that, they believe in that.”

At Park Road Books, most customers believe in the importance of setting aside technology now and again and reading words on paper rather than a screen. That’s why you shouldn’t worry if your iPad or laptop isn’t connecting to the store’s Wi-Fi signal.

“We intentionally do not have Wi-Fi in the store,” Brewster says. “It’s peaceful in here, and people can relax, read books, and talk to others. Most of our customers are grateful for a break from technology.”

The Future

As online shopping has grown in popularity over the years, so have the predictions that most brick-and-mortar shops will be shuttered as a result. But as much as the Internet has changed everything about our lives, including how we shop and buy, Beahm says he has no fear that storefronts will be abandoned en masse.

For example, he points out that online giant Amazon— which is often named as the behemoth that will kill retail stores—is now building brick-and-mortar stores to better meet customer needs.

The company earlier this year opened its first Amazon Books store in Seattle and is reportedly considering opening stores that sell a variety of other goods.

“It’s not going to be either/or when it comes to online shopping and brick-and-mortar,” Beahm says. “It will all meet in the middle, and a lot of what we go into a store for will be these experiential things:  the service, the relationship, the sensory experience. We will always want that in some way.”

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