Analyst Corner

What Does It Mean to Focus on Customer Experience?

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Earlier this month I attended the Retail Innovation Conference.  The weather is beautiful this time of year in NYC so I was also able to mix in some store tours and check off a bucket list item, running a 5k in Central Park!

A big topic in retail today is the customer experience but what does that really mean? When a retailer is focusing on the customer experience, are they thinking about adding coffee shops and manicure stations? Is it faster checkout? Is it premium parking or perks? In our time-starved world, is that really what consumers want? This was a key theme of RIC and the answer is quite different by type of retailer.

During the conference, West Elm’s VP of Innovation & Digital Product, Luke Chatelain, spoke about their real use case of AI. Customers can connect a Pinterest board to West Elm and they use image recognition technology to suggest West Elm furniture that matches. How often do we build up our Pinterest boards, dreaming about how our house could look? I was in love! I connected my “Home Office” board and within 10 seconds, West Elm offered up lots of options for purchase. Instead of needing to look at each picture and hoping I could find the retailer offering the item, West Elm puts it all in one spot for you. Again-it saves me time in my hectic schedule. It looks like my remodeling project timeline has just been moved up!

Other brands like KIDBOX, Stitch Fix, and Rockets of Awesome use AI and personal stylists to curate a collection of clothes that arrive at your door. In these cases, the presentation and the saving of time for busy moms is a key part of the experience.

But we must keep in mind that experience also means something different at different income levels.  Erin Estelle, Marketing Director of 99 Cents Only Stores, talked about trying to give customers that feel good moment, even in a discount store. As more and more of consumer dollars go to necessities for many families, they are focusing on bringing quality items that can bring joy to a child. Whether it is finding the items for a kid’s birthday party or simply a toy that brings a smile to their child’s face after a long day, providing that joy for the parent is a key part of a positive experience.

Each retailer must define what a great customer experience is for their format.  The days of stack ‘em high and watch them fly are over.  We used to HAVE to shop and now must WANT to shop.  Those retailers that ignore this do so at their own peril.

Some Examples From Store Tours

Where else does a wanna-be fashionista start her store tours? Rent the Runway’s store in NYC, of course. The store is small in comparison to most retailers but they efficiently use every inch of space. Their business is growing exponentially and the wall that used to hold pick-up orders from A to Z only held A to J after being open for 6 months. As Ken Hughes, Shopper Behaviorist shared we are now part of the “Weconomy”. Many customers want access to rather than ownership. Think Uber/Lyft, Airbnb and of course, Rent the Runway are great examples of this.

Quite a bit different in size, The Adidas Flagship store on 5th Ave offers four levels with an exclusive fitness club vibe. There’s the fresh smoothie bar, indoor track, bleachers and of course-racks of clothing and shoes. If you aren’t finding the design of shoe that speaks to you, feel free to hop on one of the available Macs and customize your own Adidas shoe. It was a showcase to their brand that points to “all of what you join when you choose Adidas”.  Fun fact: all the mannequins and hangers are made from recycled Ocean plastic. Very cool Adidas.

Then Sephora on 5th Ave had the ambiance of walking into a party. The store staff was smiling and engaging customers in all parts of the store. When I stopped to look at some products, I was approached and asked if I needed any help and the associate asked if I wanted to try the “Perk” machine.  It’s like a mini vacuum that sucks gunk out of your facial skin. They offer a free experience with any $75 purchase.  Since I had just arrived via airplane I figured it would be a great opportunity to purge the travel slime. It was WONDERFUL!  The associate was friendly and continued to ask more questions to learn about me. In today’s world of “let me tell you all about me or about how great our store is”, it was refreshing…and so was the “Perk” treatment.  I left spending more than I planned going in.

I appreciated the time at RIC. At a time when there are so many options for conferences to attend, it’s important to choose the ones where you are going to be stretched by the content, the speakers, and make great connections. Debbie Hauss and her staff at Retail TouchPoints put on a great conference and I look forward to being back next year (except this time, I will make sure to train better for the 5k).