7 Types of Retail Experiences That Keep Customers Coming Back

Advice on “improving the retail customer experience” gets thrown around a lot these days, mainly because consumers can literally shop from anywhere. In an age where players like Amazon are enabling people to purchase products with a tap of a button, brick-and-mortar retailers need to step up their game and offer experiences that people can’t get online or on their phone.

But what exactly does a great retail experience looks like?

The answer will vary from one retailer to the next. The “right” customer experience strategy will depend on your products, your store, and your shoppers. It’s essential that you know all three like the back of your hand so you can come up with the best retail experiences possible.

Need inspiration on how to do that? Here’s a roundup of the types of experiences that keep shoppers coming back. Check them out and see if you can find ideas to implement in your own stores.

1. Treasure hunts

One thing that gets people into a store is the excitement that comes with seeing a great product or deal. That’s why treasure hunt experiences are so powerful (and addictive!). When people know that they’ll come across amazing offers and products and that those items won’t be around for long, shoppers will be more likely to convert on the spot.

One example of a company that’s mastered the treasure hunt experience is TJX. The off-price retailer continues to grow and thrive, and that’s mostly because TJX stores always have new and limited assortments at unbeatable prices. Shoppers know that TJX’s offerings won’t be around for long, so they’re motivated to buy right away.

The supermarket chain Lidl is another example of a retailer leveraging the treasure hunt experience.

Mike Paglia, director of retail insights for Kantar, told MediaPost that “Roughly 20% of the center store is devoted to ‘Lidl Surprises,’ an array of unexpected nonfood items, such as diaper bags and dress shoes. These items are available in limited quantities and rotated weekly with the aim of driving a treasure hunt mentality. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”

See if you can do something similar in your business. If “treasure hunts” are appropriate for your stores, find ways to incorporate them into your retail experience strategy. You can, for example, keep your assortments fresh by rotating merchandise more often.

The end game is to keep customers on their toes by constantly giving them something new to look at and buy when they’re in your stores.

2. Face to face customer service

What’s the one thing that people can’t get from online pure-plays? Face-to-face customer service. Sure, online reviews and live chat can give shoppers information to help them make a purchase decision, but nothing beats interacting with knowledgeable store associates who genuinely want to help.

Case in point: a few weeks ago, I was shopping around for dry shampoo, and I decided to take my search offline. As someone who’s never used dry shampoo before, I didn’t want to rely on online product descriptions or reviews; I wanted to touch, feel, and maybe even test products in person.

I decided to visit the Birchbox store in SoHo to see what they had to offer. Birchbox had a great selection, but ultimately, it was the store’s customer service that made my experience stand out.

When I walked into the store, someone asked if I’d like a glass of champagne. Then, as I was looking around, another associate approached me to see if I needed help. I told her I was looking for dry shampoo and she led to the right part of the store, where we talked about what I needed and what they had in stock.

The girl was knowledgeable and helpful; she told me which brands she liked best, what their top-sellers were, and she explained the distinctions between different products. Then when she found out that I’ve never tried dry shampoo before, she recommended I purchase a travel size bottle instead of pushing me to buy a full sized product. She even showed me how to apply the product to my hair. 

I walked out of that Birchbox store with a product that I was excited to try, and I was reminded of just how powerful in-store customer service can be.

Strive to offer that same level of service in your stores. Evaluate the performance of your associates. How well do they know your products? Can they effectively recommend items to your customers? Can they offer product insights or stories that shoppers won’t find online?

If your staff’s performance falls short, take immediate steps to improve. Provide ample training. Make sure they know your merchandise inside and out (have you considered “unboxing sessions”?). Finally, instill a deeper sense of service in your employees. Help them realize that being genuinely helpful is the best way to earn the trust (and business) of your customers.

3. Constant reinvention

If you’re ever in Manhattan, be sure to stop by STORY, a “retail concept that takes the point of view of a magazine, changes like a gallery and sells things like a store.”

Every six to eight weeks, STORY reinvents its entire space — from store design to inventory — around particular themes.

For example, when I visited the shop in January, STORY’s main hook was “Home for the Holidays,” a theme inspired by the film The Greatest Showman. At the time, the store featured “vivid jewel tones, a marquee-like wall of hundreds of glowing light bulbs, a tented ceiling, colorful bunting, [and] wide awning stripes,” which gave it an almost “circus like” feel.

The store itself sold gift items and unique trinkets around themes of magic and wonder, which made it an excellent destination for holiday shoppers.

Prior to “Home for the Holidays,” STORY’s theme was “Beauty,” and the shop was transformed into a space where people can test and buy cosmetics.

First launched in 2011, the concept has proven to be quite successful, with brands, corporations, and retailers paying STORY $500,000 and up to be featured.

One of the reasons why the store does so well is it’s constantly reinventing itself. 

Walking into a shop and seeing the same old things is one of the most disappointing experiences a shopper can have. STORY prevents that by revamping its space every few weeks, so there’s always something new to see.

Consider implementing a similar strategy in your business. While it might not be practical to completely transform your store and merchandise every two months, there are still several steps you can take to switch things up. Showcase new products. Move things around. Keep your window displays fresh. Do what you can to ensure that people come across something new with each visit.

4. Community

Physical spaces can bring people together in ways that websites or mobile apps can’t. As a brick-and-mortar store, that’s one of your most significant strengths. Use it to your advantage. 

Figure out how you can use your shop to build communities. Can you hold classes or events? Are there spaces or elements in the location that would encourage people to meet and get together?

Take, for example, Solfire, an athleisure apparel retailer in Brooklyn. Solfire wanted to bring about a sense of community in its store, so the team set up a juice and smoothie bar and a “fitness oasis” — a space for clubs to meet and classes to exercise. Solfire also added community board to showcase “all the studios, all the places people sweat, all of that within the area around the store.”

Further Reading


Want to learn more about how Solfire builds a strong community? Read their story here.

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Here’s another idea: consider creating a space where people can use your products. This was the intention behind the Levi’s Stadium in California. At NRF 2018, Levi’s president James ‘JC’ Curleigh said that they built the stadium because they wanted to promote amazing experiences and build a space where people can wear Levi’s jeans.

You may not have the capabilities to build a stadium, but use that same mentality in your customer experience strategy. Ask yourself, can you create a space where your customers can use and experience the things that you sell?

One retailer that’s doing this right is Books@One, a bookshop in Ireland.

You’d think that with ebooks and Amazon, anyone would be crazy to venture into physical book sales. But, as Books@One proves, running a brick and mortar bookstore can be very rewarding.

What’s the secret behind the company’s success? One word: community.

“Here, we don’t just sell you a book. We’re a place to visit and become immersed in, a place where you can participate in community events, find out what’s going on in the area and the world, or just relax and enjoy a coffee and a chat,” says owners Brid Conroy and Neil Paul.

“We’re creating an atmosphere where people engage with books in a communal way again,” they added.

5. Product-building

Enabling your customers to “build” their products can be a fascinating experience. People love the concept of personalizing an item and making it their own, so if it makes sense for your business, consider letting them do just that.

An excellent example of product-building in action comes from Dresden, an eyewear retailer and healthcare provider.

Dresden takes plastic waste from Australian beaches and discarded fishing nets and upcycles them into affordable frames. Dresden lets shoppers create their own pairs of sunglasses by enabling them to interchange the lenses and frame parts (which come in a variety of colors and sizes).

The result? Shoppers can purchase eyewear that’s unique, stylish, and environment-friendly.

There’s also Birchbox, which lets customers build their own boxes. Shoppers can browse through a wide selection of beauty samples then pick five products to put in their box. The whole experience is easy, fun, and affordable (a retail trifecta!).

6. Bundling products and services

Bundling products and services in retail is becoming increasingly popular, and for a good reason: it just makes sense. If a customer is already in your store buying your products, wouldn’t it be great if they can get a related service while they’re at it?

Beauty retailers such as Sephora and Ulta have recognized this since… well, practically forever, but the trend is catching on, particularly in homeware retail.

Furniture stores such as Wayfair and IKEA have started incorporating home installation services into their offerings. IKEA did this by purchasing TaskRabbit, a platform that connects consumers with service providers who can do things like assemble furniture and install appliances.

Wayfair, on the other hand, partnered with Handy, an on-demand home service platform that connects consumers with household professionals.

Ask yourself, can you make your customers’ lives easier by offering a related service? If so, would you be able to provide that service in-house, or do you need to team up with a third party?

Explore the idea, test it, and then see what happens.

7. “Retailtainment”

As the name suggests, “retailtainment” is all about fusing retail and entertainment to enhance the shopping experience. In many cases, retailtainment involves spectacles or attractions to grab the attention of shoppers.

What kind of retailtainment should you offer? That depends on your store and customers. In some cases, bringing in celebrities or industry professionals could do the trick.

In 2016, for example, Walmart stores in Little Rock Arkansas brought in professional bullfighters to sign autographs in-store. The stunt not only attracted a ton of foot traffic, but it got Walmart plenty of coverage from the local press.

Retailtainment could also mean giving people something they don’t see every day. Consider what clothing store New York & Co. did. In 2015, the NY&C store in Cerritos, California used real people instead of mannequins in their window displays.

The attraction got passers-by to stop and actually check out the store, because, let’s face it, how often do you see real-life “mannequins”?

Your turn

What type of retail experiences would keep you coming back to a store? Let us know in the comments.

About Francesca Nicasio

Francesca Nicasio is Vend's Retail Expert and Content Strategist. She writes about trends, tips, and other cool things that enable retailers to increase sales, serve customers better, and be more awesome overall. She's also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Google+.

  • Concept2Completion

    Outstanding read. Number one and two are so good. The small retailer can actually thrive in this environment. #2018 will be an amazing year for small biz

    • “2018 will be an amazing year for small biz” — Completely agree. Small businesses have a lot of things going for them.

      Thanks so much for stopping by, and I’m glad you like the post!