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What is experiential retail (and is it the future of retail design)?

What is experiential retail (and is it the future of retail design)?

Making sales in-store is so last century. OK, maybe we need to clarify that statement. There’s a growing trend in the world of selling, and it’s called “experiential retail”. 

As the name suggests, it’s all about the experience rather than the transaction. It’s counterintuitive to think that footfall without sales can ever be a good thing, but there’s some pretty solid reasoning behind it, as we’ll examine here.

What does experiential retail look like?

Essentially, the whole point of experiential retail is to stimulate the senses and to create emotions linked with a particular product, range or retailer. So what it looks like might not be as important as the way it smells, sounds, feels or or even tastes. And even that isn’t necessarily quite as you’d expect. 

When selling fragrances, for example, it might seem like a no-brainer to have the products as the (ahem) scent-er of attention. But the actual smell of a perfume is only part of its story, just as the taste of the food in a high-class restaurant is perhaps secondary to the exclusivity and the fashionable decor. 

It’s about the experience – how it makes you feel, what those feelings are associated with, and how they implant themselves in your memories and affect your emotions towards the brand.

Setting up retail displays that include unusual lighting, music, staff interaction and a host of other felt experiences sparks emotions and, when done properly, inspires warmth towards the brand. Sales might follow, but that’s not the immediate aim – you’re planting seeds.

What is driving its growth?

Like almost everything in modern retail, the online shopping boom, aided and abetted by Covid-19, has forced high street retailers to become more imaginative. While a shop on a screen might have convenience, what it lacks is immersion. 

You’re looking at products mainly in 2D, probably on a screen little larger than a credit card, and often with the sound turned off. It’s a purely transactional relationship with the seller, rarely an emotional one. 

In the store, you can ignite all the senses, and physically immerse customers in a world where their undivided focus is on the products and the feelings they inspire. They might not buy anything, but they might smile, or take a photo or video to share on social media. Those little flecks of gold are of great value to a retailer, and can produce enough goodwill to turn a neutral opinion into a positive one.

This is why experiential retail displays are a growing trend, and anyone who has visited physical stores (especially fashion) will probably have noticed. What’s more, retailers are feeling the benefits, so there’s no reason to believe they will become a key part of the shopping experience. The internet isn’t going away in a hurry.

Does it work for every retail category?

It’s probably true that experiential retail works better for luxury or aspirational brands than for the more mundane ones. Linking a delightful experience to a can of beans will always be an uphill struggle. 

But suggesting that a product can help customers on their way to an improved lifestyle just by becoming associated with a brand can really work for even mid-range products. If the ends justify the means, it’s surely worth a shot. 

Whatever experiential retail installation you choose, make sure you’re working with professionals, because nothing sinks a concept like a bad execution. When you’re ready to take the plunge into an immersive new world, let us know.