I am surprised that the much advertised experiental retail is not too much visible in the brick-and-mortar stores. The digital platforms have improved the customer experience greatly by e.g. simplifying the shopping process, improving search algorithms and introducing chatbots, just to name a few. But what has happened in physical stores – nearly nothing. Clearly the flagship stores and luxury stores have done some major improvements but in regular retail stores the change is mostly invisible.
What are the opportunities for improving customer experience?
Let’s start with the ambience and outlook. Why do retail stores still look like warehouses? They do not have to, since the sale of everyday products is moving to ecommerce and will be handled in the future by automation. The stores are often too large and the customer path is boring, since the design is based on principle, where you have to maximize the amount of products in the space. It does not have to be like this – if the customer takes the energy to come to the physical store, she will expect having a comfortable, positively surprising visit, not just walking between high shelving with lots of products.
Retailers are afraid that physical stores are turning to showrooms. Well, let’s make the stores look like showrooms and improve the service for the customers. A well-designed, nice and cozy showroom that has wide offering for ecommerce solution and modern fitting rooms (large and well air-conditioned) with smart mirrors would be a good solution for the customer. Current clothing and fashion stores have not very good user interfaces for the customer, since you have to by quite a explorer trying to find right model, right size, right brand and right colour all by yourself. There are no sales persons, since finance department has decided that stores can manage with only one person in the cashier desk. That is efficient, but that does not offer any customer experience.
This leads to the service in the retail stores. Well, normally it is limited or self-service. I do not mind using self-service devices, if they easy my shopping and are easy to use. Self-service pay points are a good example. But the more demanding the product is, the more it requires personal service. There is a trend that people – not all but a big amount of people – are willing to pay for the service. I would not mind paying for the service for example in the fashion stores, if I would get some good and professional service. The luxury brands have invested an l lot in the personal service. And it the other end of the line are the low-cost retailers that no not have any service. But I would think that there is space in the between of these for some well-targeted, reasonably priced service in mid-range stores.
New technology can improve the customer service too, if the use is designed based on good customer insight and well-designed customer path. Digital signs are not any more new technology, but they are getting smarter. The new smart digital signs that recognize customer’s gender, age and even emotions improve customer experience by offering customized messages. The sound environment in the store can be also something else than poor background music and dull ads. There can be silent areas for relaxation, sounds from the wilderness for excitement and sounds that support the brand image of the products in the certain area. And same analogy is also valid in the scents. They could also create a brand-supporting environment, when used rightly. Of course technologies like AR and VR can add the customer experience too. Especially AR has a great potential in the physical environment.
Smart lighting is important in creating an exciting environment. New light sources and smart light control systems are a must, when building a flexible and exciting store ambience. I believe that retailers should utilize more professionals from the arts, like theatres, opera and event professionals. They are very good in inspiring people’s emotions and that will be one important part of the future customer experience in the physical stores.
I could continue this list even more, but I think that you got the idea. The design principles for creating a modern, customer inspiring and emotionally effective physical store should change. The challenge is of course that the investment will by higher that current warehouse designs. On the other hand, there will be less physical stores in the future and they will often be smaller.
But even if investing in better customer experience in the physical store is more expensive, it is a most for the brick-and-mortar stores. And it can be also very profitable – look at the Apple stores. They are very profitable due the products they are selling, and also due to the great customer experience they are providing. They have followed the old retail truth “Retail is detail”.