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More than 8,300 retail stores are expected to close all over North America in the next 12 months. And yet, according to Doug Stephens, founder of the consultancy Retail Prophet, brick-and-mortar stores still have an important role in business today.

In a recent Vision Critical webinar, Stephens shared his provocative thoughts and predictions on the evolving role of stores in retail. Despite all the talk about the so-called retail apocalypse, the retail futurist makes one thing clear: the store itself, the physical space owned by a brand, is not out of commission yet. Its role in the purchasing decision may have evolved, but it still plays an important part.

That’s because, according to Stephens, a store’s main purpose is no longer to distribute products—it’s to distribute experiences.

The question that companies need to ask is this: How can we create memorable in-store experiences in a way that drive revenue growth? Stephens shared some great tips during the webinar. Here are some highlights.

Begin with the customer journey

The first step to creating customer experiences that build loyalty is to take a deep, analytic dive into your customer’s journey. A “meticulous analysis”, Stephens said, “is where the heavy lifting is.”

A thorough customer journey map enables you to understand what your customers are doing and why. More importantly, it also helps you identify the points where you can introduce incredible experiences. For example, outdoor equipment retailer REI has developed “moments of truth,” points in the journey where it can deliver repeatable, excellent service. Identifying these moments enabled REI to uncover opportunities where it can deliver experiences that are memorable and that move the needle.

Engage with all the senses

Psychologists and neuroscientists have known for a long time that humans rely mostly on vision to go about their lives. In the traditional retail model, vision is also the most exploited: mannequins, posters, displays and screens provide information and incentives.

But shoppers have more than just one sense: we have tongues to taste, ears to hear, skin to touch, noses to smell, and bodies that exist in space. For example, smell is the sense that has the strongest links to memory. By expanding the experience into other senses, companies can give customers more modes to engage with the brand, and more experiences to remember you from.

For example, an American appliance retailer lets customers try cooking with their ranges or showering with their shower heads (using a bathing suit). “Great brands use the senses to become less static and more engaging,” explained Stephens.

Customize and personalize

We all enjoy a customized, personalized experience. A staff member who remembers your name, a system that can recall your past purchases and make suggestions for new products, or a product that can be modified to your personal tastes are all things that make shopping memorable.

That’s why according to Stephens, retailers need to rely less on mass production and inventory and more on on-demand, customized delivery. Take Tesla Motors, for example: each car is made to the buyers’ specifications. It takes a little more patience, as you can’t leave with your new car, but the wait is worth it.

Change the usual script

Imagine your typical electronics shopping experience. You visit a store, see a large display with dozens of televisions, and try to choose one from the lot. Electronics stores are often loud, overly stimulating spaces; it’s difficult to imagine how the television will look, feel and sound in your living room, making the purchase more difficult.

Now, imagine that instead of a large floor with dozens of products to choose from, you can just walk into a comfortable listening room, and try different systems at your leisure, in an environment that mimics that of your home. The sound system retailer Sonos has done just that, by launching concept stores that feature homey rooms where you can bring your friends, listen to your favourite music, and experience the sound in a more comfortable environment. This simple change in the shopping script turned Sonos into a leader in electronics retail.

Use your retail space for making, not taking

Instead of just showing your product in your store, let your customers do things with them. Take a kitchen accessory retailer: instead of shelves full of pots and pans sets, innumerable kitchen gadgets and small appliances, it lets customers make a meal, whip up a smoothie, or taste wine from different glasses. That’s a much more memorable experience, and one that is likely to encourage people to buy products that they know they enjoy using.

Providing an experience such as this is much more likely to bring people through your doors. In Stephens’ words, “why would I go somewhere to pick up a thing when I can have it delivered?”

Retail is transforming

Customers are less and less likely to visit a store simply to buy a product, and more and more likely to visit a space to have an experience. Since it’s so easy to order anything online nowadays, people prefer that convenience to the hassle of getting into a car and visiting a store for ordinary, repeat purchases.

If your store provides an amazing experience where people can use their senses, customize their purchase or even make things with your product, they will remember you better than the retailer that just gives them a box on a shelf. Which one would you rather be?

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Kelvin Claveria

Kelvin Claveria was the former Content Marketing Manager and was responsible for Vision Critical's blog and social media marketing program. Before joining Vision Critical's global marketing team, Kelvin worked at Dunn PR, a Vancouver-based public relations firm. His experience includes working with lifestyle, real estate, and non-profit clients to develop social media marketing and PR strategies. Kelvin has a Bachelor of Business Administration from SFU's Beedie School of Business.
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