Mastering the In Store Experience

Not only does digital drive people to stores and help them once they’re there — phone in hand, looking up a review, recalling an Instagram post they favourited or a product they bookmarked — there is much brick-and-mortar inspiration that can be taken from the online space.

Liebmann likens Sephora’s “best-of” micro-curations — an end-cap touting The 5 Best Mascaras, for example — to an IRL internet search. “I Google X and get the top five options,” she said. This type of messaging is smart, too, because it reinforces Sephora’s position as experts, their authority to tell the customer what is best.

The digital world provides a living, breathing mood board of the looks, shades and trending application techniques (and the attendant products and tools) that have captured a customer’s imagination. It’s also a hunting ground for new brands that can set a retailer apart, build credibility and win an audience. Arnaudo looks to platforms like YouTube — which 70 percent of her customers are on — to help determine what’s coming in to Ulta’s assortment. She recently brought on Morphe and Colourpop, two digitally native brands with enormous social followings and influencer ties. “They’re driving traffic into the store because the consumer couldn’t see or test the product until we had it,” said Arnaudo. “It’s a piece we all have to stay on top of, and it moves so fast.”

At Cos Bar, evaluating traffic has allowed them to quickly asses what’s moving and what’s not; their flexible new store designs facilitate moving segments and making strategic tweaks “on the fly,” said Olsen. “If products aren’t moving, there’s a reason for that, and you need to find a new home for them.” Even if a floor plan is working, “you’ve got to constantly change the stores, too, for customer experience,” he adds.

Refreshing customer experience includes merchandising according to what’s new and what she’s interested in, now. That requires keeping up with her life (what is everyone suddenly talking, and posting, about?) and reacting with speed. Ideally, a store’s feature tables, end-caps, product and brand spotlights should be a mirror of her thoughts, questions and desires. Consider it retail ESP.

Olsen attributes part of Cos Bar’s recent success — their sales are up 27 percent this year — to the fact that one salesperson learns the customer’s concerns and preferences and leads her through the store to cherry-pick a regimen. Conversely, the department store’s Achilles heel continues to be the fact that to learn about five different brands, a customer must visit five different (hard-selling, commission-based) advisors at five different counters and start her story over each time. These days, who has the time, or the inclination, to shop like that?

At Target, Hennington understood that people with an affinity for products with natural ingredients wanted to shop for them in a dedicated Naturals section, separate from the traditional skin care, cosmetics and bath & body aisles. Merchandising these products within a “lifestyle section” has been a hit with virtually everything — except hair, which Hennington quickly learned customers want to see in one overarching section, regardless of ingredients and positioning.

A good place to start, said Liebmann, is by figuring out what kind of trip she (or he) is on, which may change with every person who walks through the door. “Often,” she said, “retailers are not good enough at recognising who she is at that moment and accommodating. Even if the trip is just about ‘me,’ it’s a question of how much time do you have? Can we spoil you or do we have to get you in and out fast?”

Service is the name of the game — whether you’re a drug store or a specialty store, where people tend to linger longer. But the key is knowing when to give it, and how much. “If you don’t have time — if you’ve got the kids with you and all you want is your Sonia Kashuk lip gloss — you don’t care that there’s a beauty concierge in Target,” said Liebmann.

And what is the most comfortable way for consumers to find the things they are seeking? “We look at the order in which the customer makes decisions — is it by brand, or by category — and merchandise accordingly,” said Hennington. Most of the time, she noted, customers seek out a brand first and then look within that brand of choice for options. The same holds true at Cos Bar’s niche boutiques. “People are still loyal to brands and want to learn about brands even though everything in that brand isn’t right for them,” said Olsen. “Combing through 20 different moisturisers is not the way people shop today. They’d rather say, ‘I know La Mer; tell me about their three best moisturisers.’”

Target recognised that guys — historically a somewhat shier beauty customer — might benefit from a separate moment of their own, and when they gave it to them, it immediately started paying dividends. Hennington described the men’s section as “a world designed for them,” a shop-in-shop with special fixtures and lighting, where men can find everything from skin care and fragrance to shave products, minis to encourage experimentation and zones where they can interact with grooming devices. “We’re trying to see how likely men are to browse and spend time investigating categories they might not have before,” said Hennington. “We’re on our third version now, and each one is a bigger version of the prior and delivering better results.”

Mithun is an international development specialist and author of several publications on socio economic development. Mithun is a regular contributor to online article sites on the topics of on line education, underserved peoples, scholarship and educational excellence.

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