Store Visits: Apparel Flagships Try and Figure Out what Experiential Retail Really Means

Making the in-store experience more “experiential” is an oft-discussed retail strategy as consumers continue to rely on the internet for more of their purchases. After all, what’s the point of a seamless omnichannel operation if people don’t want to come into the store in the first place? Giving shoppers something to experience that they can’t online is a great start, but an ill-defined one. What retailers need is to figure out how to create a shopping experience that adds real value to the traditional shopping trip.

This holiday season the Euromonitor Retailing team was pleased to visit two flagships in Chicago, Under Armour and The North Face, to catalogue their attempts to add some depth to the average store experience. Here we will tease out the broader themes of these stores that other retailers can draw on to create their own in-store experiences.

Experiential tactic #1: Larger-than-life visuals organized by lifestyle

Humans are visual creatures, making store layout particularly important. Retailers should move past the era of stores that make use of utilitarian signage to simply denote which products are where. Bold visuals should be used to espouse lifestyles that potential shoppers will want to emulate. At the very least the biggest and most visceral items can be placed within viewing distance of the outside, drawing in curious passers-by like Under Armour’s giant male bust does. This particular item is pitch-perfect for impromptu photoshoots.

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The first thing you see when you walk into the Under Armour Store

More practically, stores can be organized with more visual flair in mind to make it easier for shoppers to fantasize that they too can push the limits of their everyday life and become true enthusiasts in the activity of their choosing. Under Armour painted an entire wall with one of their most famous athletes, basketball star, Steph Curry. Giving him his own section to help promote his shoes indicates the importance of highlighting the best products and their spokespeople. The North Face took a different tack. In addition to a number of high-definition photos of extreme outings, it physically populated its outlet with set-up tents and more mannequins per square foot than most stores, giving them a more crowded and functional look.

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Left: Stephen Curry’s shoes and portrait grace an entire wall in Under Armour

Right: One of the most impressive tents set up and in use (by mannequins) in The North Face

Experiential Tactic #2: Expert opinion to enable on-site learning

When done correctly, it’s tough to beat a positive social experience with another human. This is whatmakes in-store experts so appealing. The presence of online help is growing as well, but it will never replace person-to-person conversation, especially when the shopper can walk out of the store with superior knowledge to go along with their new product. Under Armour had in-store salespeople that would not only demonstrate equipment, but give interested users brief lessons for home use.

The North Face had a desk which implored people to “never stop exploring” behind which there were maps and guides to help make the most of the brand’s equipment in the local area. Oftentimes biggest gap between fantasy and reality is a solid plan of attack, but by providing in-store experts to help with that, these flagships make it easier to justify a new purchase.

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Left: The North Face’s guidepost to exploring in and around Chicago

Right: A helpful sales associate trains a customer on a featured product inside Under Armour

Experiential Tactic #3: Technology to impress and inspire (but give it appropriate context)

There were also appeals to technology, with Under Armour using a number of initiatives to excite shoppers and get them thinking about their own personal improvement. Two allowed for in-storetraining and measurement. One gauged general athleticism (with a scoreboard) and another focused on improving golf swings. Easy enough to run without the presence of an associate and fun enough to draw a crowd, these items added a bit of interactive fun to the shopping experience even for those without a passion for fitness or golf. Reminding people how much room for improvement they have might be enough to get them to make a new purchase, but be careful not to confuse or frustrate the users in the process.

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Under Armours golf simulation allows for personal improvement and social entertainment

The store also made use of its modern appeal to sell the most modern of devices—wearables. The company had an entire shelf dedicate to its new wearable system. The wearable system consists of a wristband, chest tracker and a smart scale. For an additional cost, the shopper could purchase a smart shoe with a chip. All devices link to Under Amour’s app, called UA Record App where the user can track nutrition, sleep, fitness and activity. By itself, these products are as attractive as they might be online, however with the presence of more impressive technological tracking tools throughout the store and associates on-hand to answer any questions, it made them more appealing as options from a company a shopper might trust for fitness products, but might doubt more for consumer electronic purchases.

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Under Armours advertises its new shoe as part of its consumer electronics wearables system

The North Face, with its rugged outdoorism had no notable tech presence at the time of our visit. It had recently finished an experiment in letting visitors put on virtual reality headsets which allowed them to explore far away locals, like rock climbing in the Mohave Desert. The absence of this tech at the time indicates that technology for the sake of itself might not be good enough to help move product, and that retailers need to consider how to convince users that these initiatives make the decision to buy easier.

Experiential Tactic #4: Social media call outs to encourage brand engagement

Anything that is popular at all today has a social media aspect. The easily sharable nature of everything gives everyone with a smartphone the ability to talk about what they are experiencing at that moment. Smart retailers will insert themselves into this conversation by giving users something to talk about and interacting with them directly.

At Under Armour, a store specific hashtag was displayed not only to help index the social media conversations online, but so that the store could display tagged pictures on a large screen on the second floor. The vast majority were pictures with the bold bust that occupied the store’s entryway, where the hashtag was prominently displayed from multiple directions, indicating that people are actively engaging the store and by engaging back, Under Armour has created even more incentive for people to share its hashtag. The North Face took a more laid back approach to social media, giving Snapchat users the ability to add custom store-based filters to their pictures. Both of these stores encouraged shoppers inside to engage with store itself and most importantly, did so in a way that was in line with current social media habits.

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Under Armours gives its shoppers a hashtag from which to display their pictures in store.

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Being experiential isn’t about competing with online sales, but supplementing your brand’s strengths alongside online growth

The internet may be making things more convenient, but it’s not nearly as exciting as visceral displays and helpful experts are. In an omnichannel future where brands stop caring where things are purchased and only care about who they are purchased from, stores will focus on what they are best at, interacting with real live humans. The nuance here is that not all interaction is equally valued. Technically, everything is an experience. To be “experiential” in the forward-thinking sense, stores need to be adding value to their shoppers’ lives, with the shopping journey constantly top of mind. New-fangled technology and layouts are only good if they help the customer better frame their purchase in their mind or help with some practical aspect, like figuring out how to use their purchase.