Sell the experience

I want to tell you a story…

Paul Laville, group CEO of T21, says you should fill your store with experiences, not products, and get customers sharing what they see on social media. Or you could just have rows of fridges on the pavement outside with balloons tied on…

There’s a lot of buzz around the idea of retail theatre right now, and with good reason. As traditional retail models are disrupted and eroded, retail theatre, as an integral component of customer experience, is being revitalised as a means by which retailers can truly differentiate themselves.

I find it genuinely exciting when I’m walking through a vibrant in-store environment pulsing with more than just the standard array of goods stacked in a line against the wall. There’s a real sense of exhilaration when interacting with a showroom of technology and wonder, designed to create lasting customer experiences beyond the norm.

Sadly, I also see plenty of fridges and washing machines plonked on the pavements outside shops, too, and I wonder, why is that still a thing? Seems to me a forlorn hope that such health-and-safety hazards will somehow divert passers-by into the dark, empty caverns behind them. I’d be interested to know if it works as well as it used to in the 1970s.

Perhaps it’s an illustration of whether retailers view their premises primarily as shops or showrooms. If you’re thinking of your retail business purely as a shop, then your focus and means of attraction is probably product. Whereas, if you’re thinking of your retail space as a showroom, then maybe you’re promoting ‘experience’ first, enticing customers into your stores and rewarding them with something they’ll remember.

In my opinion, customer experience is critical. Get your customer experience right throughout the business – online as well as physical – and you’ll have a real point of difference, one that will enable you to showcase the value of everything you sell, products and services alike, and give you a fighting chance of selling at full margin. To my mind, retail theatre is where you can start creating lasting customer experiences.

Just recently, I was at a truly beautiful showroom. It was full of what I can best describe as ‘stories’, or rather ‘potential stories’, unwritten narratives awaiting the arrival of one key component, the customer, to complete them.

If that sounds a bit abstract, let me explain.

The showroom space was divided almost into living areas – kitchens, TV rooms, listening rooms, etc. Nothing unusual in that. But the presentation of each was truly stunning. Each space had been designed, and the feeling when walking through them was one of heightened expectancy.

There was a single question being asked at each point, a simple ‘what if…?’ at the centre of each space: What if this was your home? What if you were enjoying this TV? What if your kitchen looked like this? How would you feel?

I had goosebumps.

I took pictures on my phone and tagged the showroom on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. You know the kind of thing: “Paul Laville is feeling excited with so-and-so at so-and-so.

Check out my new home cinema room! Lol!” It’s almost like being at a restaurant and taking pictures of your food to share online – something restaurant chains are wholeheartedly embracing, because it augments the restaurant’s presence on social media.

It makes them current, ‘on-trend’, amplifies the brand and provides data for their marketing execs to jump on. According to a friend of mine who sells broadband into that industry, it’s a major reason the big foodie chains have upgraded their wi-fi.

Anyway, the ‘theatre’ in the showroom I visited varied from week to week: cooking schools, vinyl record evenings, coffee mornings, manufacturer days, make-your-own pizza and cookie competitions energised before, during and after by self-made videos and photographs posted mostly through social media and mostly by the participants as ‘stories’ in which the customer is the hero.

It meant that each event became a personalised narrative for the customer, a physical experience echoed and amplified online to generate a truly magnetic pull for the retailer within their target customer base.

Recently, the editor of this very magazine and I were at the Sonos showroom in London, which was full of art. What was the first thing we did when we walked in? We took pics to share on Twitter.

We’re lucky at T21, in that all our retail clients are progressive, forward-thinkers, even those who tell me they would ‘love to create theatre and drama and excitement’ in their stores but feel they can’t – because the premises are too small, or they don’t get support from their suppliers and nobody engages with their Facebook or Twitter pages unless they’re offering discounts on end of line stock. I’ve talked with many who say they’ve ‘tried it and it didn’t work’.

To which I would say, ‘try again’, because the rate of change is rapid, and it might be that the previous time you attempted some theatre your customers weren’t ready for it, or it wasn’t quite right. This time think about why you want to do it. What’s the end result going to be, and work back from there. Think about the kind of experiences you want to produce for your customers, and then look at how you can execute them. Collaborate with other businesses and local initiatives: that showroom I was describing partners with a kitchen designer, local colleges and pop-up coffee shops.

Nobody needs to spend a lot of money on retail theatre, and you don’t need massive premises. Think about how you can use tools that are easily available. For example, don’t ban people from using their smartphones in store – embrace them, give people something to take their selfies against, run competitions for the best Facebook video or use of a Snapchat filter in your home-cinema room or kitchen area.

Whatever you do, get customers creating stories in-store and then sharing them online because this is where you can use a splash of drama and excitement to truly differentiate, and at the same time easily and powerfully showcase your products, your services and your brand.

It’s got to be better than heaving a bunch of white goods onto the pavement and tying some balloons to them. Right?