Are You Experiential?

Overwhelmed and overstimulated, consumers are becoming experts at skimming through life for what matters.

Anything too lengthy, too boring, too upsetting, too difficult—anything that causes friction—doesn’t stand a chance as consumers live in a click, tap and scroll world. There’s a reason why Seamless, the food delivery service, is gaining steam in Manhattan: because it is what it’s called. You order online, it’s paid for electronically and there’s no tipping. What’s more, your orders are on file, so you can get that Sunday night Moo Shu veggie platter fix minus the shitake mushrooms (eww) even quicker. 

What’s a brick-and-mortar retailer to do? How can schlepping to and from a store with no guarantee of finding what you want be remotely as seamless? News flash: it can’t. That’s why the experience has to be worth the friction of getting there and, quite possibly, an added expense. The décor, vibe, service, selection (the more exclusive the better), entertainment—it all has to be worth the effort. Otherwise, you’re likely shitake out of luck.

Just look at the carnage, be it massive store closings, bankruptcy filings and disappearing altogether. It’s a Who’s Who of former titans that are on the ropes or already down for the count. Granted, a good deal of these knockouts stem from over-expansion, and we’re seeing a necessary correction. The online channel is greasing the wheels. But consumers are also changing how they shop. The faster and more frictionless you are, the better. There’s a reason why Amazon is in the beta stage of checkout-free supermarkets. No lines! There’s a reason why Instagram has replaced Facebook at the preferred social media platform—easier to post and fewer words to read.

If stores as we now know them have any shot at long-term survival, they must become destinations. They must be get-off-the-couch worthy, convenient and efficient. Take the new Nordstrom Men’s store—a 47,000-square-foot, three-level mecca on Manhattan’s West 57th St. It’s chock-full of merchandise (lots of it exclusive) and features user-friendly services in a spectacular setting. At the Levi’s Tailor Shop, for example, shoppers can custom embroider items, heat press a shirt or get a hem done while they wait. The Samuelson Custom Suit Visualizer is an interactive digital made-to-measure experience at an accessible price. Eton Endless Aisle is a digital touchscreen offering an expended assortment of dress shirts and ties. Le Labo creates personalized fragrances. Thirsty? Hit the Clubhouse Bar, which also serves meals, while offering views of Central Park. The Coffee Shop features, among other things, a small batch blend based in Brooklyn. Draft beer is also on tap, as is a selection of local pastries. Then there’s services like buy online and pickup in store, reserve online and try in store, and three-hour same-day delivery anywhere in Manhattan. In addition, there’s Express Returns kiosks at each entrance, an on-site tailoring department, complimentary personal stylists, a cell phone charging station and a shoeshine stand. It sounds pretty seamless and definitely fun! Now toss in the aroma of that Brooklyn coffee and the beauty of Central Park…You just can’t experience that online.

You don’t have to be on a scale of Nordstrom, either. Frankie’s on the Park, this month’s profile (p. 12), is the definition of a destination. Owner Lisa Burik’s tween girl palace in Chicago and offshoot in Santa Monica, CA, go way beyond selection to draw crowds. The stores serve as a community where young girls can shop, customize items in the graffiti bar (Chicago), seek fashion advice and, when needed, get a little reassurance from a caring staff. Frankie’s on the Park are stores shoppers want to go to—often. It’s also a business you want to support, thanks to its extensive community outreach efforts. They include sponsorship of an annual fashion show in support of a local children’s hospital, contributing to school auctions and the recent launch of “Frankie’s Gives Back,” where customers can delegate a portion of their purchase to an array of partner charities. For Burik, who previously owned a healthcare consultancy firm, becoming a retailer offered a fresh start on a new career. Her fresh approach to the business is, well, a breath of fresh air.

Similarly, the experiential element driving into the licensing category is also a refreshing approach jump-starting interest and sales. It’s about bringing license properties to life. Mattel, for example, is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its Hot Wheels franchise with a slew of events, pop-ups and partnerships. Fans can enjoy a traveling car show and the “Hot Wheels: Race to Win” exhibit at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis this year, and the multi-year marketing program “Hot Wheels Challengers” is where kids can compete in the Hot Wheels Indycar Junior Grand Prix. It’s just one of several examples featured in our Special Report (p. 6) of how licensing brands are embracing experiential partnerships.

While the pace of change in retail has shifted into high gear, some aspects never change—like consumers deciding where their hard-earned dollars go. The choices today are greater than ever and the competition never fiercer. One must eliminate the friction while elevating the experience if one expects to stay in the fast lane.

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