What is Experiential Retail?

You may have heard the term “experiential retail,” but do you know what it means exactly? Not merely a buzz term, the concept has spurred brands to rethink their approach and you, the customer, has responded positively.

But to understand what experiential retail is, we have to take a step back and understand the bigger picture, as well as discover how we got here.

When the recession occurred in 2008, obviously, retail took a big hit. A culture defined by consumption and instant gratification that was here for decades was gone almost overnight; a paradigm shift transpired in which shoppers would begin to understand value differently.

The new mindset was quality over quantity, and price no longer equaled value, as noted in The New Rules of Retail: Competing in the World’s Toughest Marketplace written by Robin Lewis and Michael Dart. Even more, consumers were less likely to purchase “wants” and instead spent only on “needs.”

Taking this into consideration, retailers had a problem on their hands: how do they attract customers who were spending less and visiting less frequently? How do brands not only bring in the customers, but separate themselves from competitors?

The result was an improved shopping experience that set out to establish psychological connections with clientele. To illustrate, ask yourself what you think of when you get a whiff of coffee? You might instantly think of Starbucks or Barnes & Noble. This “neurological connectivity,” again, as Lewis and Dart refer to it as, is a valuable asset.

A pleasant aroma that is perhaps tied to an enjoyable experience at one of the aforementioned stores will make you think of that brand time and time again, and keep you coming back when you’re hankering for a cup of joe.

This example portrays how powerful the senses such as smell can have on our behavior. But it can extend far beyond smell, sight, sound, touch or taste. Combine them and you’re talking about creating a very deep and meaningful connection with huge implications on your actions.

BeForever at American Girl Store | Copyright Orlando Mall Guide 2014

American Girl stores are a prime example of experiential retail, as seen here at The Florida Mall location.

When these combinations produce a subconscious reaction, it can be very powerful. And that is what brands aim to do when designing the customer experience at their stores. You’ve seen it if you have ever visited American Girl. You’re not just buying a high quality doll that is associated with expressionism and educational components — you’re also going to the Doll Hair Salon to give her a new “do,” grabbing a bite at The Bistro and coming back for special events like a date with dad for Father’s Day.

That whole experience is known as experiential retail.

Let’s take a look at another example with the Apple Store. It’s not just a place to buy your Apple products. Instead, you’re able to chat with Geniuses at The Genius Bar. These product evangelists help you find the device that makes your life easier and fix it when things go awry.

Or how about Build-A-Bear Workshop? You won’t just buy your next stuffed companion but rather make it yourself. And helping you isn’t merely a sales associate as these folks are known as Bear Builders. These small designations result in big-time dividends.

Do you notice a correlation? In each of these examples, the emphasis is on the individual’s shopping experience. While it’s not easily scalable, the circumstances are highly controllable. By treating the customer as a friend in your own home, as Lewis and Dart put it, the effects are similar. A fun outing at a friend’s home is a personal, one-on-one experience. But it’s what deepens your relationship with your friend and creates that positive psychological connection that makes you want to go back.

Again, experiential retail isn’t just a buzz term: it’s a new way to look at retail. And before you consider holding it against brands, try and realize that you’re only going to connect with the products and services that you like. It’s not a form of mind control or anything of the kind. The positive associations you’re bound to have are only because you were meant to feel good because it satisfies an inner want or need.

Isn’t that good customer service?

Can you identify any other experiential retail examples? What’s your favorite experiential retail store? Share in the comments below.

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Mark Schaub

My name is Mark and I’m a mall-aholic. As a native Orlandoan, I’ve been visiting them since I can remember. I’ve also worked in a couple and consider myself a self-appointed expert. There’s been a lot of change when it comes metro Orlando’s mall landscape, and I’ve taken it upon myself to chronicle it. Each mall has a story to tell, and having graduated from the University of Central Florida and double majored in journalism and radio/television, I feel I’m best equipped to make those stories come alive here at Orlando Mall Guide. So whether you’re a local or a tourist needing a shopping break from the attractions, I’m your hookup.