What is Experiential Retail?

Experiential retail or experiential commerce is a type of retail marketing whereby customers come into a physical retail space and are offered experiences beyond the traditional ones such as browsing merchandise, talking to salespeople, touching products, and checking out. Experiential retail amenities may include interactive art, live music, virtual reality, cafés and lounges, and video display walls.

There’s a short, often-overlooked scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo that’s always fascinated the retailer in me. I’m going to avoid spoilers and simply say that Scotty (Jimmy Stewart) takes his new fling Madeline (Kim Novak) shopping, in search of the exact suit worn by his previous love earlier in the film.

There are a lot of complex psychological layers at play here, and — aside from the painfully-dated line “the gentleman seems to know what he wants” — it’s not typically considered a comedic moment. However, as someone who’s spent the first 10 years of their career in Retail Experiences, this scene cracks me up.

While Scotty and Madeline sit in the store — attended to by two sales reps — a woman comes in and out of the dressing room wearing various suits like an animatronic mannequin. She’s modeling clothes for the very customer sitting in front of her. As in don’t experience our product, experience someone else experiencing our product! This has always been both interesting and absurd to me, made all-the-more comical by Scotty’s response once the model comes out in the right suit: “We’ll take it. Uh, will the thing fit?” 

Okay, that was a whole lot on Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece. But this is a Retail Transformation blog, so, what’s my point? Well, there are a few:

1. Experiential retail is not new. So much of what I see and read on modern retail transformation makes it seem like all anyone thought about prior to 2010 was merchandising. I hope this scene in Vertigo showcases how wrong that thinking is. While Madeline is distant from the product itself, the retail interaction is purely experiential: she experiences the outfit while hardly lifting a finger. Sound familiar? It really is the analog version of those 360-degree image galleries that retailers use on digital storefronts. The means of implementation have changed, but the concept of curated experiences is as old as retail itself.

2. If you listen, they will come. What’s evident in this scene — and would be clear if you were to walk into any major department store in the 1950s or 60s — is that customers were expected to listen to brands, not the other way around. Purchase decisions were based on wanting to be rugged like the Marlboro man, or elegant like the model standing in front of you. Brands put their version of perfection in an advertisement or experience, and customers aspired to it. In today’s world, retailers actually need to aspire to their customers. Think of Apple’s original iPod commercials. Instead of featuring cool, beautiful people with iPods, it featured silhouettes. The message being: you are already the cool, beautiful person, we’ll just help you find your groove. The script flipped even more dramatically with social media, where brands must constantly listen and adapt to their fans to stay relevant.

3. Customer satisfaction is simple, consumer behavior is complex. This one is all about that last line from Scotty: “We’ll take it. Uh, will the thing fit?” I don’t know, Scotty, maybe Madeline should try it on? Every time I watch this film, I half-expect the sales rep to have an epiphany: we’re doing this all wrong…the customer should be going into the dressing room! But more importantly, what does this say about consumer behavior? Working backwards it’s easy: customers will be satisfied if they wind up with the right product at the right price with the greatest convenience. But what gets them to your store instead of your competitor? What influences their behavior in defining the right price, or the acceptable amount of friction? The exciting thing is that an agile digital team armed with analytics can demystify these questions.

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