Brick-and-mortar retailers need to make customers feel they’re walking into a website

Now say this in 140 characters.
Now say this in 140 characters.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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The best retail firms have always been great at storytelling. I remember my first weekend in New York City, 15 years ago, when I stopped dead in front of a Saks Fifth Avenue display window and was enveloped by a fantasy woodland tale. Yes, they were selling the evening gown, shoes, and clutch, but they were accessories to a story of luxury, confidence, and power.

These days, that kind of retail story bleeds into more than a display window.

While less than 10% of US retail purchases are made online, given how many online shoppers use websites for research and exploration, creating a compelling and cohesive experience can make financial sense.

There’s also a more porous customer experience emerging. In a world with an increasingly shorter attention span, the retail experience means being inspired around the dinner table, starting a quick search on a mobile phone, followed by deeper online research at home, and then possibly a visit to the store over the weekend to test it out … and that may not even be the end of the line. Sometimes, there’s the urge to do more research or price comparisons, which often takes the customer back online. It’s a dizzying world out there. How’s a retailer supposed to keep up?

Current research on US retail trends shows that around 68% of online carts are abandoned, and 25% of customers surveyed say that’s because the navigation was too complicated. Creating a sticky, productive online experience is not a simple task, but is possible if companies don’t truncate their marketing into channels, but focus on the customer story and customer needs.

I’ve written before about Uniqlo, my favorite example of a company that achieves a consistent, yet differentiated storyline. Walking into the New York flagship store of this trendy retailer, you’re reminded by embedded screens everywhere that this is all about fashionable, affordable clothes and outerwear made of innovative fabrics. The website-like experience is underscored by the subtle use of color and space—each step takes you into a new color zone and related line of clothing. Customer service is always a “click,” or step, away—the store attendants carry handheld devices and can tell you where your dream Uniqlo coat is—downstairs or on the web.

Apple has perfected this as well, though its incursion into partner accessories has been a little less coordinated. There’s a sense of dependability and style in the shops that reflects Apple products, but the coup de grace is the inspired Genius Bar, which underscores the brand’s storyline: technology first, customer pretty close behind. All eyes are peeled to see how Apple will evolve, having hired former Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts to lead its retail operations.

Ahrendts was at the helm when she and her chief creative officer Christopher Bailey transformed Burberry from a tired, remote brand to a compelling luxury leader, and she’s been quoted as saying that the flagship “store of the future” in London’s Regent Street “brings our digital world to life in a physical space.” They have used social media to round out this experience, with more than 10 million Facebook fans who they engage, entertain, and interact with around “the ultimate online luxury shopping experience.”

More companies need to follow the lead and bottle what makes them special. I’d like to see Saks add its special sauce to their website: Could they bottle Jasmine, the woman who got me hooked on a skincare regimen 15 years ago, which almost broke the bank of the young analyst I was then? Will Ikea step up and transform engagement with its social media and website and walk me through my needs online the way they do so well in stores? Ikea outlets are arranged around a set of clear stories, scenes of kitchen, dorm rooms, living rooms and picnics that you can see yourself in. Meanwhile, the sites are stuck in a search format that replicates the printed catalog.

Retailers have access to customer behavior data, like never before through cookies, loyalty programs, and mobile connections. These can and should be harnessed for effective segmentation and for developing elements of the storyline. The core of the story needs to be one, online and offline, anchored to the value provided to the customer. Around that value is the brand, the style, the retailer’s history, and the customer’s lifestyle aspirations. Around that brand is a story.