The Rise of Experiential Retail


In recent years, e-commerce has gained significant momentum, establishing an ever-increasing foothold in the retail industry as shoppers increase online purchas­ing and decrease store visits. According to Elite Wealth Manage­ment, there were 34 billion visits to U.S. stores in 2010; by 2013, that number plummeted to an alarming 17.6 billion.

As consumers purchase more and more goods online, traditional retailers and online retailers alike are struggling with the integration of online and brick-and-mortar com­merce. Today, most retailers under­stand the importance of a seamless omnichannel experience that mar­ries online and in-store purchases, exchanges and returns. Many have made significant changes in their marketing, advertising and social media efforts, as well as their ac­counting and inventory systems, to allow for this integration.

Some clarity seems to be emerging about the types of goods and ser­vices that people purchase online versus in a physical store. While most goods can now be purchased online, many service-based activi­ties such as dining, exercise and theater involve in-person interac­tions (experiences) and thus can best be purchased or transacted at physical locations. And although people can and do buy goods like furniture, sporting goods, clothing and cosmetics online, they often prefer to touch, try on or interact with those goods before committing to them.

Thus the term “experiential retail” has become a popular way to describe the forms of physical retail spaces that are thriving and becom­ing even more popular in today’s omnichannel retail world.

The Experience

The bottom line seems to be that while most “stuff” can be bought online, people will still go to brick-and-mortar locations to have “experiences.” These experiences can be wide-ranging, and include the following:

  • Personal services such as nail and beauty salons.
  • Health and fitness facilities such as yoga, massage and meditation studios, as well as traditional gyms.
  • Restaurants.
  • Cinemas and theaters that present plays, concerts, comedy shows, lectures and more.
  • Art galleries and stores.

Many retailers, recognizing the need to offer hands-on, authentic experi­ences that will draw shoppers into their stores, are adapting their store formats in order to do so. These include:

Arts and crafts and hobby shops that offer classes in activities like quilting, knitting, model making, paper art and more.

Home improvement stores that offer “do-it-yourself” classes.

Appliance stores that offer cooking classes or simply allow shoppers to try out a cooktop, dishwasher or washing machine before they purchase it.

Grocery stores that have incorporat­ed food and wine bars where people can enjoy a meal or a drink as well as a social experience before or instead of shopping.

Sporting goods stores that incorpo­rate climbing walls, golf and tennis simulators, etc. that enable shop­pers to “test drive” equipment.

Outdoor outfitters that offer lectures, classes and even travel adventures to deepen customer relationships.

Clothing retailers with high-tech fit­ting rooms that enable shoppers to see what an item of clothing would look like in different sizes, colors, styles and so forth.

Retailers of all types that offer shoppers refreshments, free sam­ples, social gatherings and more.

What do all of these experiences have in common? They all make real world shopping more personal­ized and appealing. They give shop­pers opportunities to touch, feel and/or taste items, allowing them to try out the goods before committing to buy them.

Key Questions

What does this shift to experiential retailing mean for retail developers and property owners? It is having enormous impacts on the formats of retail spaces, resulting in both smaller and larger stores for differ­ent types of goods and services. It has created tremendous challenges for retail developers and landlords, who struggle with several key ques­tions. These include “what is the right type and mix of retailers for a particular venue?” and “what bay depths and widths and layouts are optimal for today’s retail environ­ments?”

While the idea of experiential retail­ing may bring to mind entertain­ment, in-store electronic displays, interactive mirrors and new tricks of the trade, it really boils down to cre­ating pleasant, memorable, interac­tive experiences that appeal to all five senses. It also requires a deep understanding of the shopper’s jour­ney, in order to integrate strategies across marketing channels.

Westfield’s “How We Shop Now: What’s Next” survey of 20,000 consumers in the U.S. and the U.K., conducted in fall 2015, confirms that shoppers employ all five senses in the search for goods. We know that shoppers rely on sight and touch, and that retailers often use fragrances to create a calming environment. However, as this and other surveys have found, shoppers are increasingly seeking a multisen­sory experience. This is giving rise to “inside-out” retail experiences in which all of the senses are stimu­lated to provoke positive feelings within the shopper, creating a deeper attachment to the brand.

Italian architect Antonio Cardillo, for example, redesigned the Illuminum London flagship perfume store, employing a combination of sight, scent and texture – walls coated in volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius – to evoke the senses and create an immersive experience. Westfield retail expert Ryan Mul­linex explains inside-out retail this way: “It’s between the conscious and the subconscious, that’s where we like to be.” Fragrances at Illumi­num London are contained in clear glass globes suspended from the ceiling. All products are located in the back of the store; clerks retrieve them for customers.

In January 2016, JLL completed the acquisition of Big Red Rooster, a firm that employs specialists in consumer behavior, design and en­gineering, and provides go-to mar­ket strategies for multiunit retailers. In order for a store to succeed today, Stephen Jay, chief strategy officer for Big Red Rooster, says re­tailers must ask themselves, “What is the role of the store?” Forecast­ing and designing the future state of the brand typically requires a significant capital investment.

How Should Retailers Respond?

The National Retail Federa­tion (NRF), in collaboration with FitForCommerce, published its inaugural “Omnichannel Retail Index” in October 2015. The index describes how 120 U.S. retailers are performing on a wide range of criteria across online, mobile and in-store services. It also provides a benchmark that allows retail­ers to evaluate and compare their omnichannel strategies against in­dustry standards. While the retailers surveyed for the index have begun developing ties between their online and physical stores, there is still room for improvement.

A prime example of low-hanging fruit is the buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS) model. Only 28 per­cent of the retailers surveyed offer BOPIS as a service. Yet another ex­ample is making Wi-Fi available in store, which only 26 percent of the retailers offer. Wi-Fi allows shoppers to research a product while in the store and may influence purchase decisions.

Interestingly, NRF has collaborated with Forrester and Bizrate Insights on the report, “The State of Retail­ing Online,” which found that while mobile remains a priority as a sales channel and is rapidly growing, it does not necessarily drive sales growth; it simply moves sales from one channel to another. The impli­cation drawn from these findings is that building customer loyalty and providing a seamless shopping experience is more important than simply having a mobile app.

As Mark Mathews, vice president of research development and industry analysis at NRF puts it, “technology is merely an enabler; creativity in gaining customer loyalty is equally as important as technology.” Mathews describes with zest outdoor sporting goods retailer REI, which allows potential buyers to “road test” kayaks before purchasing them. REI also offers a wide range of classes and outdoor adventures such as snowshoeing and cross country skiing that enable novice customers to test equip­ment — and the experience — in real-world settings.

Who’s Doing Experience Retail Well?

Great examples of retailers that are leading the experience retail revolu­tion can be found in every sector, from grocery chains like Whole Foods Market and Wegmans, and fast food chains such as the Star­bucks Reserve Roaster, to financial services providers like American Express.

The success of Whole Foods is largely influenced by its creation of a unique customer encounter. One well-known element of this experi­ence is its wide array of organic and local food offerings. Springboarding off this nationwide fundamental, it has gone one step further in main­taining loyalty by creating personal­ized rewards and in-store experi­ences, including cooking classes, juice and coffee bars, and consulta­tions with nutritionists, all of which appeal to millennials. It also offers online ordering and delivery in 15 markets through InstaCart.

Starbucks opened a 15,000-square-foot Reserve Roastery in Seattle in December 2015. The Roastery offers small-batch reserve coffees paired with a coffee-inspired menu created by chef Tom Douglas, including a “light lunch” op­tion. Starbucks makes a point to partner with local food suppliers to maintain ties to the community and rotates seasonal products to encour­age return visits. Meeting customer needs allows Starbucks to maintain its position as a market leader and further expand; it plans to open an additional 100 locations globally over the next five years.

Big Red Rooster client American Express’s Centurion Lounge concept offers a luxurious airport lounge in six U.S. airports, with a seventh opening this year, providing a true brand experience. These elaborate lounges offer services and ameni­ties to differentiate members’ travel experiences and isolate them from the frenetic airport environment.

The true “winners” in the experi­ence retail game, as Big Red Rooster’s Stephen Jay describes them, have four characteristics in common. They:

  • Are consumer-centric.
  • Know how to win versus compete.
  • Are technologically nimble and decisive.
  • Are culturally ready to accept change.

Jay stresses that the cultural shift is inherently a leadership issue and must be driven by the CEO.

One need look no further than the Under Armour Brand House on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile to see how a successful retailer has drawn from a deep understanding of the customer journey to create an exceptional example of experi­ential retail. Under Armour (UA) partnered with Big Red Rooster on this 30,000-square-foot gem, the largest of six such Brand Houses in North America. (More are planned, and UA is also adding Brand House elements to its other stores.)

The store design is sleek and mod­ern, with an emphasis on digital interactivity. Shoppers enter a two-story rotunda with a ceiling lined by large-scale digital screens that activate the storefront. A centrally located, five-sided LED display promotes and reinforces brand con­tent. The store is organized into im­mersive zones dedicated to specific sports such as “Hunt and Fish.” Each zone surrounds shoppers in an experience of the respective sport. In this context, the store becomes more like a clubhouse for members, those dedicated customers who become loyal to the brand.

How Developers and Owners Are Getting It Right

As noted earlier, retail developers and property owners are struggling to determine what mix of retailers, store sizes and formats will attract today’s experience-seeking shop­pers. Traditional mall owners as well as other retail property owners are experimenting with multiple dining options plus various forms of enter­tainment, including outdoor con­certs in summer and skating rinks in winter. Suburban shopping malls and urban shopping districts alike have become community gathering places for families and friends. One key component of the most vibrant settings is a tenant mix that has a connection to the community. (See “Specialty Events and Community Engagement” on page 59.)

Malls are moving toward becoming collections of specialty stores; department stores as anchors appear to be a thing of the past. In appealing to millennial shoppers, developer Rick Caruso’s Caruso Affiliated is “on the leading edge,” at The Americana at Brand and The Grove, two well-known Southern California retail and entertainment districts, notes Bill Asher, executive vice president, Hanley Investment Group. Apparel retailers H&M and Zara are “great success stories” due to their inexpensive yet stylish clothes, which are in high demand by millennials. Other desirable tenants are redefining the shopping experience with creative concepts. Asher cites Lululemon’s in-store yoga classes and Topshop’s celebri­ty shopper and runway show events as key experiential retail lures.

David Kitchens, a principal with national design firm Cooper Carry, is adamant that all design formulas should be thrown out in today’s retail environment, as the mix of uses combined with more diverse retail does not lend itself to a traditional “30×30 grid with two 120-foot-deep buildings divided by an enclosed 60-foot-wide com­mon area.” Specialty uses may be smaller but they may be larger as well. He notes that some expe­riential retail venues — including health clubs, movie theaters and grocery stores — require 50,000- to 100,000-square-foot floor plates, while diverse restau­rant options range from 2,500- to 5,000-square-foot sit-down dining to tiny “pop-up” markets.

How, exactly, are retail developers providing a multitude of experiences for shoppers? Two examples, Edens’ Mosaic District and North American Properties’ Avalon — both of which are open but still under develop­ment — offer some lessons.

Mosaic District, a 27-acre, 576,000-square-foot mixed-use development in Fairfax, Virginia, near Washington, D.C., includes retail offerings ranging from the tiny (650-square-foot) Artisan Confections chocolate shop to a 16,520-square-foot Great Gather­ings store featuring indoor game room and outdoor furniture to a 168,000-square-foot urban-style Target store above ground-floor specialty retail and three levels of parking. Mosaic also features an eight-screen Angelika Film Center, numerous dining options, a hotel, two apartment communities, for-sale townhouses and office space occupied by online t-shirt retailer CustomInk, which has opened its first brick-and-mortar store there.

A walkable neighborhood in its own right, the Mosaic District offers visitors a wide range of experiences, including bread baking classes, fragrance workshops, wine tastings, craft classes and silhouette cuttings at various stores and restaurants; outdoor story hours, family movie nights and Sunday morning yoga classes in the neighborhood park; and indoor fitness, cycling, yoga and children’s dance classes at a variety of studios. (For more on Mo­saic District’s first phase of develop­ment, see “The Mosaic District,” Development, fall 2013.)

Avalon in Alpharetta, Georgia, roughly 23 miles north of Atlanta, is an 86-acre mixed-use community. Its first phase contains more than 365,000 square feet of best-in-class retail (100 percent leased), a 12-screen cinema, 105,000 square feet of Class A office space (100 percent leased), 101 single-family homes (half of which have been constructed) and 250 luxury multi­family homes (95 percent leased). The walkable community offers seamless connections between liv­ing, shopping, playing and working. Amenities include a children’s play area, dog park, bocce court and community fire pit. But perhaps the most important amenity is an ultra-high-speed fiber optic broadband network, which brings Internet connection speeds more than 100 times faster than other services to the entire community.

Ron Pfohl, North American Proper­ties’ director of leasing, nails the experiential paradigm shift when he articulates the developer’s strategy: “In developing Avalon, we carefully curated a merchandise mix that would resonate with the affluent North Atlanta community. We in­tentionally designed Avalon’s retail component to offer smaller spaces …. Our square footage reflects the shift in less demand for quantity of product and more demand for qual­ity of experience.”

Store sizes range from a 748-square-foot Pinkberry frozen yogurt shop to the 54,000-square-foot Regal Cinemas; the average store size is 5,160 square feet. Retailers offer a variety of experiences, including yoga classes at Lululemon; fly fish­ing demonstrations at Orvis; an in­teractive color bar where guests de­sign personalized jewelry at Kendra Scott; a touch-screen, interactive mirror at Whole Foods that reads a shopper’s “aura” and recommends products; and a 921-square-foot Bonobos Guideshop where men are treated to custom clothing fittings.

Improving the Retail Journey

Shoppers are looking for a bet­ter, cheaper, faster and seamless journey. Developers, property owners and retailers alike must rethink their strategies to create experiences that draw consumers in — to a website, a mall, a shopping district or a store — and keep them coming back.

Paco Underhill, author and CEO of Envirosell, a research firm that advises retailers and designers, puts it this way: “Physical design and culture must work hand-in-hand. … The physical design is easy, understanding the culture is the hard part.”

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