When Customer Experience Is the Ticket

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Businesses in which the experience determines whether a sales is made can learn a lot from businesses that peddle an experience itself.

A lasting appeal of brick-and-mortar stores is that they let customers interact with the products they're interested in. For some time, retailers feared that this would lead to "showrooming"—evaluating a product in-store, then purchasing it cheaper online.

But that fear is dying out.

Contrary to common expectations, the great digital revolution has created a greater need for physical stores and locations—spaces that are appealing and enjoyable to be in. Even companies that were formed to function solely online, such as Amazon.com, Birchbox, and Warby Parker, are beginning to understand the benefit of having physical locations a customer can walk into.

Robert Spector, author of The Nordstrom Way, highlights a number of reasons people are still so attracted to physical stores, among them the ability to interact and form relationships in person. The stores' sales staff can connect to a customer and understand her personal needs. "It's all about the person you want to sell to," Spector says. "You want to learn about the customers and listen to them."

But just because people by and large want to visit stores doesn't mean that companies are absolved from engaging them in sophisticated ways once they are there. Simply having merchandise and warm bodies isn't enough to get them to come back, Spector says. The culture has to be up to par, which is not as easy as it might sound.

Having observed the company for 30 years, Spector deems Nordstrom an innovator in uniting the digital and physical worlds. The company's TextStyle app puts customers in contact with a person they've met and trusted and knows their tastes based on previous interactions. It's "one…reason why Nordstrom does it better than any other retailer," Spector says.

Spector points out that Recreational Equipment Inc. (better known as REI), a retailer specializing in outdoor sports equipment, hosts lectures by authors who are well versed on a variety of topics. "If you're interested in hiking, or skiing, or bicycling—whatever—you can find a meeting or a speaker or somebody [who] has written a book, and there will be an event at an REI store," Spector says. With these kinds of events, customers can feel like they're part of a community. It goes without saying that recommendations should be pointed enough to align with the customer’s interests.


A benefit to having a physical location, Burnette suggests, is that it gives companies a laboratory with which to test out ideas. "Ministry of Supply's retail environments are places where they experiment and see what kind of content, designs, and layouts work," Burnette states.

A retailer can make improvements to its dressing room environments, for instance, to offer experiences that simply would not be possible elsewhere—like smart mirrors, which combine technology with a traditional in-store experience to give customers the chance to compare how they look in various outfits. It's also a way for companies to link items to other information they have about the customer.

Story, a Manhattan retailer that changes its design and merchandise every four to eight weeks, has made it its mission to serve as a sort of testing ground for companies and their products. The store takes inspiration from a magazine: Once every few weeks, the store will select a theme and organize the products on display to align with that theme. The company then opens an exhibit-like space to brands that pay to have their products in the store, providing a gallery setting for companies to showcase their goods in appealing ways. Shoppers are welcome to interact with the in-store stations and take part in various activities, such as contests. They can also buy the products. Story keeps track of how customers interact with the store's exhibits to see what is working and what isn't. The store tests how popular certain items are with heat-mapping cameras.

Stores can also use technology to enrich an experience after a person has left the physical location. Joe Gagnon, senior vice president and general manager of cloud at Aspect Software, says that someone who orders a latte at a coffee shop, for instance, can be sent interesting facts about the coffee beans after he has left.

And just as museums offer supplemental information about exhibits, retailers can do the same with products in the store, Gagnon says. Customers can use their phones to scan barcodes and ask questions about certain products. If a shopper is curious about a shoe's material, he can type it into his phone and connect with a customer service rep. This will all be much easier to execute, of course, with in-store Wi-Fi.

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