The immersive retail experience is getting in the way of the purchase

This piece was originally featured in AdAge on June 11th, 2019

The other day, I stopped by a Soho store. My visit was meant to be quick, but it turned into an ordeal. It took me forever to find an available store associate, outdone only by time it took to retrieve the item I bought. This didn’t happen at Kmart. It happened at Apple.

I expect a high-level of service from the brands I buy from. In this, I am not alone. Service has become the key competitive advantage in demand-driven markets. We have abundance of options from which to choose and an abundance of information about these options. If we can shop wherever we want, we are going to choose retailers that thoughtfully and consistently build relationships with us, based on intuitive, flexible and anticipatory service.

At Apple, instead of quick and seamless service, I got a lot of things that I never asked for. I don’t want to “spend time with the brand” at a Town Square. “Today at Apple” won many advertising awards, but satisfies only a few customers. Geniuses, once unmoored from their Genius Bar, are impossible to track down for a meaningful conversation.

Immersive store experiences are the micro-sites of physical retail
A decade ago we were asked to Elf Ourselves or play the Got Milk? game that took forever to render and had no obvious purpose. At the same time, Craigslist had no graphics and was growing like a weed. Maybe all people ever wanted is to have websites that worked fast and let them buy, quickly and easily, an air conditioner and whatever else they needed.

Just like with early digital marketing, retail is at the center of the experience wars. From showroom-ing to museums of ice creamto using fried chicken to sell makeup, it’s hard to find a store where you can actually go in for the sole purpose of buying something. The appeal of experiential retail is understandable: it promises sensory, tangible, selfie-friendly immersion to customers used to living their lives online. The problem is, there are too many retail experiences — and they are all alike.

Lauded as the ultimate expression of a brand’s lifestyle, experiences rarely convey what that lifestyle is meant to be, mostly because brands fail to clearly define it. The outcome is a Disneyland without themes, pure story-less razzle-dazzle and thrill.

Building an Instagram installation is easy. Fixing retail service is hard
Hospitality can help. To fully capitalize on its promise, retailers have to think beyond opening a branded hotel. Shinola can have the slickest and the most visually appealing destination in Detroit, but if it fails to provide a high level of service to its visitors, it will soon close its doors.

Concierge-like, personalized customer service is the backbone of every good hospitality experience. This service entails a combination of data, AI, and the human touch, and is as anticipatory as it is human and personal. The most successful hospitality services are those that are built around their customers. The same is true for retail. Fashion retailers like Matches Fashion double down on hospitality-like services, such as 24/7 concierge and a holistic approach to their customer needs and lifestyles. Others should take note and invest in hospitality-like customer relationship management, starting with hospitality hires.

The demand-driven market is changing what it means to be a successful retailer. The business model of the future is the one that seamlessly integrates the best of hospitality and retail services. There are already stores that aim to double as community gathering spots, where customers can hang out. And during this “venture-capitalization of belonging” era, this may be a welcome proposition. To succeed, stores should look at the local community joints of old, like pubs or bistros. They were popular because the bartender knew your name and what you liked to drink, and there’d always be one round on the house.