Mind talk: How to craft your own retail theatre

Tim Manning, experience director at Swarm Group, discusses how to craft your own retail theatre in store.

Why is the Apple Store jam packed with people yet Microsoft in the same mall location is almost empty? Apple has created Retail Experience, a theatre where we can play and are entertained. In psychological terms, Apple has very deliberately changed the 'script' of device shopping.

Let us begin by explaining 'scripts' These are the rules of thumb that we use to navigate our daily life. These ‘heuristics’ (the correct name for these rules of thumb) have been studied for years. Psychologists noticed that there are shared rules that administer the way we act. These scripts are unwritten and unspoken, yet they run our day-to-day behaviours and interactions.

Scripts are why we know how to navigate a website, how we know to join the back of the queue for the hottest ticket in town even though we can't see the front of the line. Unfortunately for retailers that script includes many of the challenging customer behaviours.

For customers, the rule of thumb works the same for retailers. Even though we all use our phone in our journey to purchase, most still fail to embrace a new customer journey that includes the phone. We expect to sign up to a brand's newsletter online but most haven’t adopted a system to allow sign-up in store.

Retailers, it really is time to start to do things a little differently and realise that the consumer's heuristics for shopping have moved. The retail store and online experience have a need to merge together, to become seamless, to allow consumers to shop where, when and how they want.

In-store customers are demanding experiences. In the mundane routines of our lives, experiences that stand out are often those that change the existing scripts. Mini Cooper, for example, replaced the 'cheap small car' script with one that leverages the fun aspects of driving a rally car.

To truly design a great experience that’s right for your retail operation, we need to look beyond the field of design to psychology, economics, organisational behaviour, and even theatre. I have put together (or scripted!) these seven principles that will help you be strategic about the experiences you design and choose the right script for your company:

1. Experience design isn't premium
Experience design in-store is the new normal heuristic. We are going to expect it and those brands that don’t deliver will wither and die. NO argument about 'flagship' or 'premium' idea will wash anymore. The truth is that a new customer experience needs to be central to value-based businesses. It's table stakes.

2. Start with empathy
Understanding your customer. What, how and where do they shop and how can you challenge your own service delivery to place the correct service solutions in the right place? Challenging social scripts requires a simple step into your customers’ shoes. Harley-Davidson has a strong community of riders as brand ambassadors precisely because its employees are the kinds of people who equate biking with life and freedom, and regularly hit the open roads.

3. Build a new tribe
Be consistent and authentic to a group of customers or tribe who have shared beliefs. Find a way to connect and empathise with them to find a ‘sticky’ connection with your customers. People will value originality if you continue to add value to their lives in a frictionless way.
Lidl was a discount retailer trying to the UK’s Big Four on price before it realised it could create a destination for a different type of shop.

4. Make theatre
Make your store into theatre. Examine the many touch points in store, break them apart and re-engineer them with your brand values to always be making it easier, quicker or cheaper for the customer. Use these three checks and you will win the high street battle. To create a theatrical experience your store must gently morph into an immersive world with consistent rules. To reinforce the script, think of the whole experience as a 'play', including the cast (staff), costumes (everything from uniform to hair to badges to accessories), set (the store design), and props (the technology that sits hidden below the hood but powers the journey). Starbucks employs these elements in its coffee shop experience – everything from the interior design to how the names of the drinks are considered in delivering the experience Howard Schultz envisioned when popularising the 'coffee shop' script in the U.S.

5. Join your touch points
Don’t look at any touch point in isolation. The data must connect from point to point, whether its sending an email via the cloud because the tech knows my proximity or allowing a customer to browse at home online and continue and complete the same journey in store without starting again.

6. Your brand is the winner
The experience you offer should will have a clear voice leaving the consumer with the feelings, emotions and likes that you have planned to communicate as a brand. What you leave out often says as much about your brand as what you leave in. Stand up for your values and be sure you say why both digitally and in store. Make the communication consistent between these channels. Whole Foods, recently acquired by Amazon, will only stock foods that promote a customer’s health. Managing trade-offs tightly is essential to creating a script with character that inspires people and elevates your brand from the pack.

7. Evolve to stay relevant
Never stop prototyping and testing. Keep evolving but stay focused on what your brand stands for. Keep an eye on the customer and your tribe. Changes may be needed to stay in step with your audience who themselves change and evolve their needs. McDonald’s has proved surprisingly resilient through market ups and downs. It constantly experiments with its experience – like its wildly successful salad and fruit juice which are miles away from its burger origin.

Designing great experiences is a blind spot for many retailers. It’s time to change. Even baby steps will be welcomed by your customers. It’s an area of expertise that needs just as much attention, rigor, and patience as the other aspects of business. Look inwards, find what you stand for and evolve.


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