Experiential Retailing: Done That…But Not Anymore
Warren Shoulberg - coronavirus - Showfields

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The retailing industry is going to have to look for another savior. At least for the time being. In what amounted to a near-non-stop barrage, every expert and his brother has been talking about how physical retail stores need to become more experiential to combat the move to shopping online. No matter that hardly anybody could truly define what experiential retailing actually was, but everyone knew that was the ticket to retailing nirvana.

That is, until that ticket got punched with the coronavirus. All of a sudden – and it really was all of a sudden, wasn\’t it? – the whole idea of in-person experiences became quite inhospitable. All that touching, all that close talking, all that interaction between store employees and customers and all that interactive activity of trying things out, trying things on, cooking up stuff, pressing buttons and generally experiencing stuff became very uninviting. In fact, the further away you could be from all of that the better. When and if close to the two-thirds of all the closed stores in America reopen, it\’s going to take a new model to get people back into the dressing rooms and personalized experiences.

Nothing to Show at Showfields

Consider one of the most high-profile poster children of the entire experiential movement: New York City\’s Showfields. When it opened last year, retail gurus (and semi-gurus such as your humble correspondent) tripped over themselves singing the praises of this place. With its engaged salespeople, clever displays and hands-on shopping, it was everything experiential retailing was supposed to be. But now, that\’s not such a good thing. Salespeople who urge you to try out things, some of them inches away from you playing character roles promoting the product? No thanks. Densely packed mini-showrooms, chock-a-block with products and potential customers in spaces not much bigger than a Starbucks restroom? Nope. Displays featuring slides and hidden passages you felt your way through? Not a chance.

Today Showfields is closed, opening date unknown, and while it is pulling out all the stops to recreate itself online (anybody else see the irony here?), when it opens it will have to radically remake itself in the PostPand world of social distancing and health and wellness procedures.

[callout]All that touching, all that close-talking, all that interaction between store employees and customers and all that interactive activity of trying things out, trying things on, cooking up stuff, pressing buttons and generally experiencing stuff is very uninviting.[/callout]

Showfields is not alone. Retailers trying the experiential route are – in the spirit of the most overused expression of the past three months – \”all in this together.\” Whether it\’s Macy\’s trying to make Story and Market by Macy\’s work, Williams Sonoma and Sur La Table doing in-store cooking demo and lessons, Bass Pro Shops with its full-size dioramas and interactive try-out areas or just about any apparel retailer in the country with dressing rooms, all the old rules are out the window to be replaced with…well, we\’re not sure.

So, Now What?

How will legacy retailers try to get customers into their stores now that the whole experience thing is on hold, permanent or otherwise. Some possible theories:

  • Curbside pick-up, giving people a fast way to get their purchases in an era when delivery services are overwhelmed and Amazon Prime has become very much sub-prime, will be one tactic. Same for local deliveries, be it through Shipt, Uber, Door Dash or some new service that somebody is cooking up even as we speak.
  • One-on-one customer service, now being offered by some retailers, could evolve into the kind of customized shopping experience (there\’s that word again) retailers have always talked about. A customer is let in the store by one person who handles their entire shopping process including ringing up the sale and carrying their purchases back out to their car. Obviously not something Walmart can do but for smaller and specialty stores it has appeal.
  • Shop in home, which went out with Macy\’s custom drapery service 50 years ago, could make a return as a way for a retailer to bring product to a customer\’s home. For apparel to be tried on, decorative products like couch pillows, towels and even wall art and hard-to-fit footwear this could be an approach truly giving a new definition to the word personalized omnichannel. Think of it as a physical subscription service.

Creative Thinking

No doubt enterprising retail minds will find other ways to make this new non-experiential retailing experience work. As most retailers struggled with this whole concept before the pandemic, it\’s not going to be any easier than it was before coronavirus. But it may not be any harder either. The new creative competition will be to see which retail innovations work…and stick.

There is also the bigger question of whether this is a short-term development and at some point, experiential retailing comes back into vogue, concerns about social distancing and safety being gradually diminished as society adapts and we are all inoculated. It\’s entirely possible but looking at the situation now it\’s difficult to see that far out. Social distancing shopping would seem to be something we\’re going to have to deal with for some time. That said, one thing is absolutely clear about the physical store shopping process: As with virtually everything else in our lives as we start to come out of this, it\’s going to be different…very.



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