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Long live the brick and mortar

Pirch, recently on the Forbes list of most promising American companies, is a chain of stores that sells high-end kitchen, bath and outdoor products. The CEO and founder Jeffry Sears uses the philosophy of, ‘Stop thinking digital and start thinking human.’ Amen, brother. Pirch hits all the right notes, tapping into our natural drivers of human behavior in their store experience… Connection, growth, assurance, variety. Walk into any of their spaces and you’ll immediately understand. It has that welcoming, ‘I could hang out all day here’ kinda vibe. Built around the ‘try before you buy’ ethos, it allows customer to test, learn and engage with products enabling the person to get lost in world of possibilities and also leave with the confidence that they made the right choice. They’re obviously doing something right since the average person stays in Pirch for 2 hours, testing the aromatherapy showers or attending a cooking class. Whether they know it or not (and they probably do), Pirch is fast becoming that 3rd place in people’s lives which bodes well for their future.

Shopping in store can be an emotional, visceral experience, with the potential to be far more memorable and exciting than anything found online, behind a screen. And yet, still, too many people are having too many poor experiences too consistently that they’re choosing the screen! And I get it… bad customer service, incredibly long lines, unintuitive wayfinding, too little information or worse, confusing information. It’s no wonder people would rather research/browse/ shop online. My question is why would any company want their customers to feel hassled by any experience with their brand even if they’re shopping with them online? Why wouldn’t you try and make every point of interaction with your customer amazing? A happy customer is a returning customer.

It seems that over the last hundred years or so, retail has gained in size and lost its humanity. What was once an industry with great disruptors and leaders in innovation are now the bane of people’s existence. That may sound harsh but I don’t think it’s too far from the truth. Get this, 60% consumers have bailed on a transaction or not made an intended purchase because of poor customer serviceand65% of consumers said they’ve cut ties with a brand over a single poor customer service experience. I think it’s quite easy to understand the impact of a bad customer service experience on a brand’s bottom line with statistics like that. Not only the loss in sales but the effort and investment it will take to win back that customer is no easy feat. In fact it will take more than 10 positive customer experiences to make up for that 1 negative experience. And those dissatisfied people talk! Clearly when the perception and affinity for one’s brand could change in a blink of an eye, it’s something worth investing in.

Customer service is just one piece of the overall in store experience, but a pretty important one. What about how people actually explore, discover, learn, and interact with the products? Oftentimes I feel like companies have taken the lazy approach to designing the in store experience which doesn’t take into consideration the customer’s needs at all. Apparently two in three shoppers who tried to find information within a store say they didn’t find what they needed and 43% of the left frustrated (Google/Ipsos Media, 2014). Companies should use the floor (literally) and leverage it as a platform to tell their story and build a relationship with the customer. If people are taking time out of their day and making the conscious decision to spend it with a particular brand, wouldn’t you hope it would be simple to find what you’re looking for or even better yet, be inspired by something you saw? Luckily there are brands that are putting the customer at the heart of their experience, designing for their needs, wants and intrinsic human desires.

At Wolff Olins, we’ve worked with a wide variety of brands that wanted to step up their retail game. From apparel to tech and consumer goods, we helped them define the consumer experience and deliver it with clever and innovative design. If what you’re looking to do is create a more meaningful and valued relationship with your customer, I would always keep these principles in mind:

1. Put the individual front and center of any decision you make. Truly understand your customer, not just their needs but also their underlying human desires. Solve their problems, make their life easier and as a result become their trusted, go-to brand.

2. Design for the total and complete experience across physical and virtual touch points. Make sure every interaction is genuine, seamless and delightful. Remember, one bad experience can unravel any trace of a good one.

3. Make it fun! Put the joy back into shopping. Engage all the senses and find ways to inspire, educate and excite people. Don’t be afraid to make it fun and make people smile, they’ll surely come back for more.

Pirch is just one example of a company who’s taking actions and disrupting the ‘brick and mortar’ retail experience. Others like West Elm, LuluLemon and REI are also taking the shopping experience to new heights by engaging staff and customers in inventive and creative ways. These companies are pioneering a new way to do retail and personally, it makes me very hopeful for the future of my shopping adventures.

Illustration by Steve Reinmuth.

Danielle Horanieh is a Senior Program Manager at Wolff Olins San Francisco.