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The Changing Face of the Retail Experience

Today, the word “store” almost doesn’t seem appropriate anymore. That’s because now a store is a giant chain with multiple locations, a website with personalization technology, an iOS and Android mobile app with near-field communication, and a loyalty program driven by a customer segmentation strategy.

However, an argument could be made that the more things change, the more they stay the same. For while retailers face seemingly infinite choice, competition, and technology, retail is still at its strongest when it is focused on the basics: people, service, and relationships.

Retail today, according to Carol Madison, is about what she calls “the experience.” Madison runs the toy, book, and teacher supply retailer Stone’s Education & Toys in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband David.

She says that her thriving business is all about wowing customers and giving them a can’t-find-it-anywhere-else reason to visit and revisit her store.

Enchantment At The First

“We try to minimize the merchandise and focus on the experience to create an environment that is so positive, and in a good way, overwhelming,” Madison says, citing examples like interactive in-store displays and giant sunflowers in the parking lot that enchant customers well before they even walk through the doors. “This is what keeps people coming back for more.”

This retail experience, she adds, goes far beyond something transactional—it is the foundation for a deep relationship that grows over time.

“When we do this well, our customers want to be part of this environment and will actually leave their homes to come here.” Madison says she even has customers who, when traveling to North Carolina from places such as Alaska, Europe and Africa, make sure to include a stop at the store on their “to do” list.

“If we want you to keep coming back,” she explains, “we know that we need to give you a reason to come to our store. That’s where the experience means everything.”

But What About The Internet?

When it comes to “always-on” retail, nothing can beat the Internet. It’s a 24/7/365 experience that gives consumers options and access they’ve never had before.

But not everyone wants what Madison calls the “self-service” experience. “We’re really trying to step away from the trend of people going online to buy things,” Madison says. “Customers want to touch and feel what they are buying. We want to give that to them. As an example, my staff knows that if a customer wants to know more about an item that is shrink-wrapped, we will open it up for them and allow them to touch and feel it—no questions asked.”

Tracy Causley, owner of Rising Phoenix Holistic Center in Manassas, Virginia, says that she and her customers feel the same. “While over 90% of my business comes from Facebook,” she says, “I don’t want to be chained to a computer all day long, and my customers don’t want that either.”

The Internet is a game-changer, and although technology (such as mobile apps and e-commerce) is incredibly important, not everyone is fully satisfied by the virtual experience.

“Mobile technology is not what my people want,” says Causley, whose center offers products and services related to spiritual and personal growth and development. “They want more community, more face-to-face. They want to give their thumbs a rest. They actually want to know the friends they are connected to,” she adds.

Redefining Business

For many retail consumers, then, business is about much more than a transaction.

“When we talk about business,” says Causley, “we might be talking about something sterile—exchanging money for a service or an object. I like to ask people what is actually going on with them, how their day is going. I like to get people talking about themselves. This is what makes them happy.”

When people leave Causley’s center, she says, they tell their friends and colleagues how welcome and accepted they felt there. Not only do they come back for more, but they bring their friends, too.

“Because of how we made them feel, we created a positive experience for them,” she adds. This experience, again, is the foundation for all future interactions, both business and personal.

Madison and Causley both agree that these relationships must go beyond just a transactional exchange or finding a good deal. For both retailers, people seem to trump price every time.

“I’ll worry about another store’s prices when they match our customer service,” Madison says. “There is always someone who does things faster and cheaper, but that is not what we are going for.” At the end of the day, she and her husband say, “We are more about the community and events than we are about the coupons.”

Both businesses do use technology to connect with people. Madison’s team sends out an e-newsletter to 20,000 subscribers and makes good use of its Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, and Causley’s team offers Skype-based personal coaching sessions.

While technology definitely improves efficiency and reach, both retailers agree that there is still no substitute for a special in-store relationship—one that cannot exist in a solely online environment.

What’s Next For These Retailers?

Causley says that there are many opportunities to expand and reach her market throughout the United States, and globally as well. She is looking to expand into more online offerings, such as seminars and international outreach, but the focus, she says, will always remain on the physical center and the people who seek community there.

Madison is on the same page, adding that she has grand plans in the fun department.

“We like to do things that people will talk about,” she says with a smile. “I love this store. I feel like a kid in a candy store every time I come in. I think we will continue to have a little too much fun here.”

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