‘Don’t just make a song and dance about it’

Give people a reason to visit your store to gain an experience they won’t find online. Retail experiences do matter, but these must translate into sales, says Paul Laville, CEO, T21 Group

At the ERT Turning Point event in October I was invited to the stage to talk about retail theatre, in-store events and what my thoughts were on the future of experiential retail. Some words tumbled out of my mouth and I wasn’t sure that they made an awful lot of sense. So here’s my chance to address that right now and explain exactly what I meant…

I view retail theatre as a means of providing an in-store experience that engages all the senses and inspires customers to buy from your business repeatedly. I think of retail events as engaging, above-the-line promotions run semi-regularly, perhaps with support from your suppliers or a strategic partner who stands to benefit as much as you do.

For all of the above, which I define as experiential retail, I view it as a means to achieve sales. Whether that’s sales made on the day or in the future, for me it is all about selling, because if it isn’t then what benefit is there for the business? I half remember making the point that ‘yes we want to provide customers with the things they want, and yes we need to find new ways of engaging and inspiring them, but we can’t afford to be entirely altruistic because if we don’t make money then we don’t have a business’. Retail events cost money to run, so at the very least you want to make that money back. If you’re asking your supplier for support they certainly will.

On the Turning Point panel I suggested that what works for another retailer might not work for you, because your customers and their expectations could be widely different. It’s one thing to be inspired by another retailer’s successful event, but even if you want to run something similar you still need to put the work in to ascertain its feasibility. When I see retail events that don’t work it’s usually because there is no real plan, no solid commercial objective. As a supplier, being asked by a retailer to support their big event, that’s what you want to see. A vague wave of the hand over lunch, even an enthusiastic pitch with lots of buzzwords, without a commercial plan behind it, it’s just guesswork. But if you know what you need to achieve then you can work back from there, knowing how much you need to spend and what you need to make in order to cover it, how many people you need to turn up and how much stock you need to sell.

But how do you get people to turn up? How do you know what people are likely to respond to? What sort of retail experiences are going to turn them on?

This is where social media comes into play. You can do many things with social media and it needn’t be grossly expensive. First you can build a community of followers, target the people you want to attract and incentivise them to like and share your posts and turn up to your retail events. Secondly, you can test your marketing communications to see what really resonates with those followers and thirdly you can analyse the data to shape the kind of retail experience and events you want to offer them. You can poll your followers, ask them outright what they want to see from you and analyse how feasible that is. Using your social media intelligently before you commit to running expensive in-store events can increase the chances of their success. For retailers who say their social media isn’t working, it’s probably because your communications aren’t relevant to anyone you want following you, so work at it and make your messages relevant – change the tone of your posts, the language you use, the images, the call to action. You’ll know when you’ve struck gold because you’ll see an upturn in your engagement stats.

As for the future of experiential retail, I mumbled something about bringing your online and in-store experience together. Right now there is pressure on giving people a reason to visit stores and gain an experience they won’t find online. I think that’s fine, that differentiation is still important. But that doesn’t mean you should relegate your online presence. Increasingly, people are blending the virtual and the physical into a unified experience, they don’t see the boundaries anymore. People will be browsing your website whilst they’re in your shop so those retailers who can tap into that, who can bring their customers into that journey and offer them an experience so relevant and attractive that it positively sings, they’ll be the ones spearheading the future of retail.

I do agree that retail experiences matter, arguably more so than they ever did. But those experiences we offer our shoppers must result in sales if the business is to survive.