Reimagining Retail: Why Experience Is the Key to Survival


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A young woman laughing and shopping
Millennials like 22-year-old Serena are helping to redefine retail experience. Photo by Asa Aarons Smith
Nothing drives home the retail apocalypse more than a millennial in pajamas, using her phone to simultaneously search for a swimsuit, a formal gown, and shoes.

“What would it take to get you off the couch and into an actual store?” I asked my 22-year-old-daughter.

She paused only momentarily.

“A glass of wine,” she said.

Before I could say “Seriously?” she continued. “It’s about the experience. Feeling pampered, getting great service, easily finding what you need.

“If they also offer me a glass of wine while I shop, even better.”

And then it all makes sense.

Comfort and Convenience

Don’t tell Serena but I’ve often viewed her through the lens of a marketing persona.

She’s young, educated, and opinionated. She’s fashion forward but craves the comfort she enjoyed in college.

Her entry-level salary has yet to catch up with her executive tastes. She wants to look professional, fun, and good on Instagram.

It’s a tall order, but one she seems to manage quite well … buying pretty much everything she owns online.

For shoppers like Serena, brick-and-mortar stores have lost their allure. It’s not that these young adults dislike shopping: They do.

But they’ve been reared on ideals like comfort and convenience, nurtured on the concept that anything they want is as close as a Google search.

And in their informal cost-benefit analyses of going shopping versus buying online, they struggle to find enough differentiation to justify the added costs of transportation, parking, and time.

The Retail Experience

For Serena, a glass of wine is a metaphor for a celebration — a token of friendship from a merchant who appreciates her business.

What she wants from brick-and-mortar retailers are feelings of inclusiveness and conviviality … a sense she’s welcome in the store.

She gets it every time she visits this one boutique in midtown Savannah, Georgia, not far from my home.

The sales clerks are energetic, friendly, and warm. They’re helpful without being overbearing — and offer genuine feedback on style and fit, rather than automatically claiming everything you try on “looks great!”

We’ll make a special trip there when she visits because she always leaves feeling happy and satisfied.

Dead Department Stores

It’s the opposite of the feelings she gets when she visits a major department store in a mall near her suburban New York City home.

This particular store has long been a disaster and has become even more of one in the past few years as management has embarked on a questionable off-price strategy.

The store is beyond cluttered. There is no organization to the merchandise. The sales clerks duck into storage rooms rather than respond to a signal for help.

There are constant blaring alarms, ostensibly to call managers (who never come), making the store dangerous for people with epilepsy and annoying for everyone else.

Every visit ends with a proclamation, “Never again.” The last time I said it, I meant it — and have not returned since.

‘Good Experience Grabs Customers’

No one understands the business imperative of creating meaningful experiences better than Brian Solis, futurist and author of X: The Experience When Business Meets Design.

He explained:

“Experience is something you feel, something you sense and interpret and, more importantly, what you commit to memory, either good or bad. You won’t remember those moments otherwise. Brands don’t know their customers and how they’re evolving. To truly embrace human-centered design, brands must think beyond the traditional quarterly focus and think about what matters to ‘humans.’ The most successful brands in experience design prioritize people (of course) because otherwise, nothing else matters in the long-term.”

Good experiences grab customers. Bad experiences push them away. It’s that simple — and that complex.

Solis defines empathy — the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings — as the secret ingredient in creating meaningful experiences.

“Seeing the world through the eyes of others gives you a competitive advantage because so few businesses truly have a disciplined method for doing so.”

Retail Experience Matters

One of my earliest memories is going shopping with my grandmother.

I grew up in Pittsburgh, so these excursions “Dahntahn,” as locals say, involved circuitous routes via streetcar or a bus through neighborhoods where steel mills still coughed thick fogs of soot.

Two views of a long soda fountain at a S.S. Kresge store, 1954.
A trip to the soda fountain was once part of the retail experience. Photo from University of Louisville archives.

And yet we wore our best clothes on these outings, which typically ended at a lunch counter at a five-and-dime store. Decades later, I can still describe the taste of the chocolate ice cream soda I would invariably order.

My grandmother had little use for the malls that were already transforming suburban landscapes. But it seemed everyone else did, including my dad, who somehow literally got himself off his deathbed for a trip to the area’s first fully enclosed mall.

Malls: The New Town Centers

As a teenager living in a place where the sun rarely shines — and where the winter winds and snow make it treacherous to socialize outdoors from November to March — malls were magical.

Before Instagram, teens had two places to show their cute outfits (or football jerseys) off to their friends. One was a damp, dark basement where someone would host a “party.” The other was the bright, shiny, bustling mall.

I’d more often head to the mall, even as I hummed Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and fleetingly acknowledged that, yes, we were paving paradise.

It was a place to meet friends and serendipitously bump into your high school crush. You could also enjoy a variety of the most basic experiences: a free battery at Radio Shack, a scoop of sunflower seeds at GNC.

In those innocent days — before I learned about the horrors of puppy mills — I’d even stop to play with the pups in the mall pet shop.

What Happened to the Retail Experience?

A trip to the mall now triggers a lot of mixed emotions. “When your kids are your age, malls, as you know them, likely won’t exist,” I recently told Serena and her sister.

We were walking through the most upscale mall in Westchester County, New York, a place that draws on a demographic that pays an average $16,500 a year in property taxes (and often much, much more). Despite the area’s affluence, the mall is struggling. There are a lot of vacant storefronts and a certain lack of energy.

I was no longer humming Joni Mitchell but thinking of Henry David Thoreau. Yes, it seems, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Except for the unexpectedly large throng in front of Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, who seemed to be having quite the time.

Should we add pretzels with that glass of wine?

New Retail Experiences

It’s easy to make the case retail is dying. As the Atlantic recently reported:

“There have been nine retail bankruptcies in 2017 — as many as all of 2016. J.C. Penney, RadioShack, Macy’s, and Sears have each announced more than 100 store closures. Sports Authority has liquidated, and Payless has filed for bankruptcy. Several apparel companies’ stocks recently hit new multi-year lows, including Lululemon, Urban Outfitters, and American Eagle, and Ralph Lauren announced that it is closing its flagship Polo store on Fifth Avenue, one of several brands to abandon that iconic thoroughfare.”

But it is just as easy to make the case that retail is not dying but evolving. Humans will always have a need and a desire to buy things for themselves, their homes, their families, their pets. They’ll have to make these purchases somewhere.

And while we can all bow down before the Goliath that is Amazon, we also need to recognize other options.

Smart retailers recognize digital retailing and brick-and-mortar are complementary. As Robert K. Futterman, chairman and CEO of RKF, a leading retail real estate brokerage firm, recently noted:

“These brands recognize the new world of engagement, entertainment, excitement, and experience that the new shopper seeks. Experiential retail is key, particularly for the highly coveted millennials who seek inspiring shopping experiences.”

How do you reimagine retail? Share your inspiration in the comments below.


  1. To what is arguably the key point of your post – “Smart retailers recognize digital retailing and brick-and-mortar are complementary.” – the challenge for too many retailers is that they haven’t been able to effectively and/or consistently meld value and experience, or make employees a more central and desired component of what they provide. So, customers, wanting a product or service in real-time, will often take the path of least resistance and most convenience. Increasingly, that path is digital or mobile.


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