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Putting the Customer at Ease

In-Store Retail 2021

As we put one of the most tumultuous years of our lives to bed at the end of this month, it is happily time to turn our attention to 2021, and hopefully far brighter skies. 

While the pandemic most certainly took its toll on the brick-and-mortar retail world, the new year provides opportunity to take stock of changes we need to make and new directions we may need to head in the coming year. While we looked at where the eCommerce world is headed last month, in this issue we take a look at how the physical retail world continues to evolve. 

While dealing with COVID-19 still paints a rather foggy picture for retailers in 2021, we did see quite a few in the CE space make in-store changes in the second half of 2020, with an eye to winning back some of that lost foot traffic. 

We spoke with a multitude of retailers, as well those that cover the retail space from a marketing perspective, and while all agreed the pandemic will remain an obstacle for the foreseeable future, the retail world beyond this crisis has everyone focused on the new customer journey.  

It’s a Journey Today 

“Today’s consumer is becoming far more technologically advanced and they are taking several different paths to purchasing,” began longtime retail consultant Martha Refik. “Retailers now need to think about how best to seamlessly serve these customer journeys.” 

Refik added that there needs to be a more transaction-based strategy where the physical location can sometimes simply serve as a fulfillment channel. “This doesn’t mean that this is all the location serves as, that in-store experience needs to be a memorable experience, needs to be experience-based, but it also has to be a unified commerce experience where there is this obvious transition from what may have been the beginning of their journey online, to this actual buying experience in-store.” 

Walmart made a few headlines in 2020 as the chain recently redesigned 200 of their supercenters with an eye on exactly what Refik referred to as a combining of shoppers’ digital and in-store experiences. The newly refurbished stores have added much bolder signage that reflects and encourages app usage, as well as self-checkout kiosks. The basic idea here is to take advantage of, as Refik reiterates, “inspiration that the consumer feels online over products, and try to instantly reflect that when they enter the store.” 

Within the CE retail world, the experiential retailing Refik mentioned is clearly beginning to take center stage. 

Selling the Sizzle 

During a recent Nationwide Marketing Virtual PrimeTime event, Dos Marcos, the very entertaining team of Mark Quinn and Mark Kinsley, did a presentation entitled Driving Store Traffic & Creating Transformational Experiences. The duo are mattress retailers with a unique insight into taking a different look at the items retailers sell. 

“When I ask mattress retailers what they sell, they typically say, ‘I sell mattresses or furniture,’” Quinn began. “And I always say, ‘No, that’s not the business you’re in. The business you’re in is sleep and life improvement.’” 

Quinn spoke of how along with selling mattresses he also sells the notion of how important it is to get a good night’s sleep. Along with that mattress sale, Quinn has sleep specialists that explain to customers how to enjoy a better, deeper sleep every night. This goes far beyond simply selling a mattress, and the sale has now become a fun, helpful and memorable experience. Again, it’s that experience that stands in front of the sale that differentiates one location from the rest. 

Gregg Richard, president & CEO of the longstanding and hugely successful P.C. Richard chain, has always been stickler for detail, and when it was time to update their showrooms, the man truly had a plan. 

“We wanted our showrooms to ultimately help make our customers’ decision-making process easier, so we keep them clean, new, fresh, and up to date,” Richard says. “And we’ve expanded them into technology centers, highlighting home automation, using a lot of touch-and-feel tech and lots of interaction with products in the smart home category.”

Regarding the focus on customer experience, Richard had the customer service counters lowered, so their staff and the customer would both be at eye level, providing, as he explained, “a more welcoming, more friendly-feeling experience as people approach the counter, and providing a more comfortable area as online orders were picked up in-store.” 

Displays have also been changed, incorporating softer colors, with a more wood-grain look, and a greater emphasis has also been put on the home automation aspects to many of the products displayed. 

At the new Howard’s Marina Pacifica store in Long Beach, Calif., you’ll quickly discover a complete embracing of the “experiential retail” concept. The new 22,500-square-foot location functions as a luxury brand showroom featuring demonstrations of technology and connectivity, in-store kiosks, and live product vignettes. The store includes “live” kitchens, laundry displays, a coffee lounge, and a designer conference area — essentially a completely connected experience. 

“This new flagship store is all about new, innovative technology, new styles and new designs,” explained COO Kathy Genovese.” And in an effort to help immerse buyers as soon as they walk in the door, they are now greeted by the coffee bar and lounge area, all designed so customers can just sit back and relax. It’s a destination location, not an in-and-out store. They experience everything. Ultimately, it’s all about how you get to ‘yes’ with the customer.” 

Howard’s VP of Marketing Michelle Nien added, “We want to follow them on this journey they’re taking and educate them along the way. We focus a lot on connectivity and demonstrate how all the things in their home can talk to each other, connect and make their lives so much easier.” 

Hybrid Approach New Path 

The good news is, despite the massive shift to eCommerce during the 2020 pandemic, physical retail isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. The retail world in general has been seeing a pivot away from the more traditional concept featuring aisles of shelves stocked with products, to a more open, more inviting space.  

However, the days of relying on the physical location as the final destination in the purchase journey are over, as the consumer now relies on, and looks forward to, a more hybrid shopping model. While the in-store  “experience” can be all about testing products out and seeing how they “fit” with a particular lifestyle, the appeal for many with the online world is it eliminates the high-pressure, in-store sales pitch that turns many buyers off. This is a perfect example of how this aforementioned hybrid model works to perfection.