Experiential retail is the immersive experience that brick-and-mortar retailers give shoppers. Pop-up shops, in-store masterclasses, and hosting community events are all examples of experiential retail.
Shoppers are more prepared to open their wallets if those expectations are met. The same report found that globally, 81% of consumers are willing to pay more for experiences that upgrade the shopping experience.
So, how do you deliver those incredible in-store experiences to shoppers? This guide shares the benefits of experiential retail, ideas for you to try out, and examples of brands that use experiential retail as a way to drive foot traffic to their stores.
Table of Contents
What is experiential retail?
Experiential retail is the process of creating memorable shopping experiences for shoppers. It directly engages customers, inviting them to experience your brand live and in-person.
As customers become more selective about the brands they shop with, the in-store experience needs to stand out from the pack. The catch? It can’t be gimmicky and forgo the transactional element entirely. At the end of the day, shoppers are still there to discover and buy products.
According to a commissioned Forrester Consulting study conducted on behalf of Shopify, more than a third of consumers (35%) plan to engage with brands via experiential moments over the coming year. It’s therefore no surprise that 40% of brands said that offering experiential retail would be a top priority for them in the coming year.
The best kind of experiential retail are the experiences that are repeatable—not one-off gimmicks, where you take an Instagram selfie and call it a day. Meaningful experiences are where you want to go back time after time after time because the service is great, or you have a relationship with the person who works there. Repeatable value that’s different from your online experience.
Experiential retail vs. traditional retail
Where traditional retail puts the consumer in the role of spectator, experiential marketing uses hands-on activities to create personal interactions. It includes everything from free classes to food and beverage tastings, to pop-up shops, art galleries, and parties.
The main difference between traditional and experiential retail, then, is that customers get to do something in-store rather than buy something. Sure, there’s always the option and incentive for store visitors to head for the checkout desk with a product in-hand. But experiential retail gets shoppers involved by doing something interactive.
As a result, it’s a more engaging shopping experience—one that helps people remember your brand for months to come.
The benefits of experiential retail
Three out of four brand marketers rated experiential marketing “very or somewhat” important, according to a study from Crossmark. Retailers in some countries are seeing the positive impact of experiential retail faster than others. In China, for example, 78% of department stores have already added experiential elements in their stores.
Let’s take a look at why experiential retail is on the priority list for many retailers.
Cater to experience buyers
The retail landscape is always changing. Today’s customers don’t just want to buy products; they’re looking for memories. And they’re willing to spend more money on them: some 76% of shoppers would rather spend money on experiences than products.
Experiential retail combines both products and experiences for the best of both worlds. A haircare brand’s physical store complete with a barber shop, for example, offers experiences younger audiences are willing to splash the cash on, while still having products available to purchase normally.
Highlight community and charitable causes
Quality, price, and convenience are three components of many consumers’ mental checkbox when searching for brands to buy from. However, there’s one box retailers often forget about: purpose.
Research shows that 77% of people feel more positive about brands that make an effort to support society. Plus, for some generations—like Gen Z and Millenials—community is essential. Labelled “the loneliest generation” after being raised in the midst of a digital revolution, half of Gen Z consumers want brands to have a social impact they can be part of.
Three times as many Gen Zers said they shop most of the time in a store compared to the number who said they shop most of the time online.
Because of this, 31% of consumers would like more community-feel experiences at the stores they visit, such as organic produce fairs and book clubs. Experiential retail allows you to give those brand experiences to customers longing to support their local community.
Love Record Stores, for example, uses a physical retail store to host live music performances, DJ sets, and sell its merchandise. It uses experiential retail as a way to help a cause its customers support: #saveourvenues.
Build brand loyalty
Some 93% of customers are likely to make repeat purchases with companies who offer excellent customer service. This doesn’t just come in the form of helpful answers from store assistants, though. Gold-standard customer support can take several forms—many of which play into experiential retail.
Say you’re a handmade goods retailer and host a pottery class at your store. At the event, you walk customers through what a good clay vase looks like, how to paint one, and tips for taking care of their new vase at home.
All of that information is excellent customer service. You’ve won them over with your pottery knowledge so when they want to purchase a professional vase, your store is top of mind.
Increase foot traffic
Hands up if you’ve ever visited an IKEA store on a rainy day.
Many people visit the huge warehouses as a family day out. Its home furniture layouts give shoppers inspiration for decorating their own homes—not to mention the stunning merchandise displays it has everywhere you turn.
In a recent survey of European consumers, 75% of respondents said this type of immersive retail experience would convince them to shop in-store. The lesson: give them to your customers both to increase foot traffic and drive in-store sales. (It’s easier to push people to purchase a product when they’re already in the store.)
Create opportunities for social engagement
Consumers often talk about their shopping experience with friends. More importantly, they post on social media. The result is a loop of experiential marketing that drives word-of-mouth marketing, with previous shoppers convincing their friends to come and have the same experience.
Data by Buffer reveals that people are most likely to share quotes and multimedia (such as images or videos) of a live event on social media. This social media chatter helps create a buzz around your brand and the products you’re promoting at your event, helping you reach two audiences: the people at the event and the social media friends they’re sharing it with.
Here is a brand activation / retail experiential pop-up at Showfields in NYC. I took these pics in early Dec so not sure if it’s still there.— Michael J. Miraflor (@michaelmiraflor) January 22, 2021
(No filter needed, the colors really popped on this space) pic.twitter.com/pQMr3v6T6l
Differentiator from other stores
One of the most common misconceptions about retail today is that lean, online retailers are devouring the revenues of brick-and-mortar stores. While this may make for compelling headlines, it doesn’t tell the full story.
In many parts of the world, the retail landscape is becoming increasingly divided. At one end of the spectrum, there are the retailers that prioritize large, diverse inventories and low prices—a business model best exemplified by Walmart and similar low-cost chains. At the other end, there are the high-end retailers that prioritize luxury goods and superior customer service. For those retailers, exclusivity is the primary motivation for their customers.
It’s those brands “in the middle”—the ones that can’t compete based on cost or luxury—that struggle to differentiate. And it's these same brands that can benefit the most from experiential retail.
Driving unique in-store experiences will become even more critical than it has been to drive traffic, facilitate the omni-experience, and improve profitability.
Let’s say you’re looking for a new moisturizer. You have the choice of visiting two stores: one with Walmart’s pick-off-the-shelf approach, the other with an in-store skincare expert who gives you a free hand massage so you can experience how different products melt into your skin. Which store are you more likely to visit?
The store giving the experience is the most popular answer. Seven in 10 people would vote with their feet and visit another store if the retailer didn’t give them an exciting environment to shop in. Three quarters would spend more money at the experiential retail store.
Get direct feedback
Offline events give companies a chance to get immediate customer data and feedback. Not only will you be able to observe how consumers interact with your products and services, you can ask them questions to get insight on existing and future offerings.
Was the workshop hosted at a convenient time? Did shoppers like the products being demonstrated? How did they find the layout of products in the store? Answers to all three questions help you fine-tune your retail strategy for days you’re not hosting events.
Similarly, in-store events give you a chance to collect customer information for post-event traditional campaigns such as direct mail or email.
The store acts as the hook, promising a fun experience as an incentive to visit. Once consumers visit and you’ve got their attention (and email address), send segmented email marketing campaigns about upcoming events as well as the products highlighted at the previous one.
Experiential retail ideas to try
Ready to get started with experiential retail? Here are five ideas to try—even if you don’t have a brick-and-mortar store (yet).
Pop-up stores have become increasingly popular in recent years, but smaller retailers may still find it challenging to launch a pop-up shop on a budget. Opening a pop-up shop for just 30 days can cost more than $30,000, putting this effective means of reaching new customers beyond the reach of many smaller retailers.
A potential alternative is to launch a pop-up truck instead. Agencies such as Pop-Up Mob specialize in creating bespoke pop-up experiences for smaller retail brands.
Pop-Up Mob worked with a jewelry brand to create a pop-up truck to coincide with the Art Basel festival in Miami. The golden classic Volkswagen van conversion featured a number of items from Bittar’s collection and encouraged visitors to pose for selfies with the vehicle between shows. Merchandise was also available for purchase from the truck.
Two of the most significant advantages pop-up trucks have over their storefront counterparts are timeliness and mobility.
Alexis Bittar’s pop-up truck was parked strategically outside the Faena Hotel in Miami Beach’s historic district during Art Basel Miami. This allowed the brand to leverage the considerable foot traffic created by the event and appeal to a wide range of prospective customers between exhibitions during the festival, which attracts tens of thousands of people every year.
The van became something of an art installation in its own right, blending retail, brand evangelism, and artistic expression into a uniquely memorable experience.
Many retailers run events for members of their local communities. You can take this idea one step further and make a retail space available for individuals who could benefit from a place to meet. This is exactly what camera accessory and bag retailer Peak Design did when it made its flagship location in San Francisco available as a co-working space for artists.
Every Wednesday between 1:00 pm and 5:30 pm, Peak Design’s showroom and low-inventory store becomes a co-working space for local photographers, artists, and other creatives. It appeals to the 30% of city shoppers who would like to see more retailers offer in-store co-working spaces.
Peak Design’s co-working initiative positions the store as an ally to artists and photographers in the area, many of whom could become Peak Design customers in the future. It creates a place for creatives to discuss their work and share ideas, both of which can be difficult to do in isolation.
It also solves an urgent need in the artistic community. Co-working spaces may be plentiful in the Bay Area, but costs can be prohibitive to freelancers and working artists who may lack the financial means to afford a more traditional coworking membership.
Making its space available in this way aligns closely with Peak Design’s core brand values of inspiring positive change and being a conscientious member of San Francisco’s creative community.
In-store co-branding initiatives
For some brands, something as seemingly conventional as an in-store co-branding initiative can become an experiential event.
This is the approach that luxury accessories retailer Senreve—which takes its name from the French words for “sense” and “dream”—took when it hosted an in-store co-branding retail event with fine jeweler Aurate at Senreve’s San Francisco location.
Before opening its flagship location in San Francisco, Senreve showcased its designer bags at “pop-in” events at curated retail spaces, such as Fivestory New York. After opening its own store, Senreve began hosting pop-ins of its own, including an in-store co-branding initiative with Aurate, one of Senreve’s many brand partners.
At first glance, it may appear that pop-in events have little in common with some of the innovative examples of experiential retail above. However, the experience comes not from the nature of the pop-in event itself but in the curation of complementary goods sold by retailers that share similar missions and brand values.
Give Shopify POS a try at your next pop-up—no credit card required!
The fact that there is significant overlap between Senreve and Aurate’s target markets means that the two brands complement one another effectively and offer shoppers a more complete lifestyle retail experience.
You can start small by hosting in-person events at your brick-and-mortar location. Perhaps teach customers how to use your products or present a lifestyle-focused workshop on a skill relevant to your niche.
Educational events have become increasingly popular as a way for retailers to spread awareness of important issues as well as their own products.
Fellow is one brand seeking to help its customers understand more about its coffee. At the Fellow Store + Playground, its flagship San Francisco retail store, the brand offers short demos and tastings as well as in-depth classes on advanced brewing techniques taught by guest master brewers.
These events provide customers with an experience that teaches them more about coffee as a commodity and introduces them to Fellow’s extensive range of products.
Fellow’s model is monetized, too. For $3, store visitors can sample a coffee of their choice using Fellow’s products. About a quarter of people who do this demo end up purchasing something.
Fellow’s workshops and classes are a great example of how experiential retail can be applied in simple ways. Many people are familiar with the basics of brewing a cup of coffee, but Fellow’s classes elevate the experience from a simple demonstration to an engaging, educational experience with like-minded coffee aficionados.
It also helps strengthen Fellow’s brand as a company that’s as passionate about coffee as the participants in its workshops.
6 examples of experiential retail
Navigating experiential retail is tricky. Let’s take a look at six high-profile brands who do it well, and unpack what makes their experiences effective in terms of driving foot traffic, increasing sales, and building long-term loyalty.
Lingerie retailer LIVELY’s entire store experience is exactly that: an experience. Its founder, Michelle Cordeiro Grant, wants each store to feel like a clubhouse: “We want women to come in and feel comfortable. They can rely on us to come in here and not feel any pressure to shop.”
Part of its experiential retail strategy is its fitting sessions. Customers book a session online and turn up to their store appointment where a LIVELY retail associate helps them find their bra size.
The results are impressive, to say the least. Some 30% of LIVELY’s in-store revenue comes from customers who’ve booked a fitting session online. The average order value from those shoppers is also 60-80% higher than those who walk in.
“ It starts with us just offering them a beverage, because usually people are hustling in here; it's New York City. You want them to get to a place where it's like you're just hanging out with your girlfriend because now, all of a sudden, you're more honest, you're more open, and you're going to have fun.” explains Michelle Cordeiro Grand, founder of LIVELY. “The end result is that you walk out of here and you're like, 'Man, that was really fun.”
“We’re talking about a product that is very intimate, so the experience needs to match that.”
The ambience of your retail store contributes to the experience shoppers have when visiting it.
Jewelry retailer gorjana knew that. Instead of cramming its store with bestselling items and maximizing floor space, its founders prioritized scent, aesthetics, and the feeling someone got when walking through the door.
“I want to think about the woman that just wants to go in and shop by herself,” co-founder Jason Griffin Reidel says. “How does she feel? What's the woman that's in there with her kids; how do they feel? What's the person that walks in with their dog? What's the couple that walks in where the boyfriend doesn't really want to be there? What's the guy walking by himself looking for a gift? Who are all these little personas that are happening?”
Answers to all of those questions help the gorjana team design each retail store. Plus, in-store personal stylists and complimentary engraving are on hand to support people purchasing jewelry as a gift.
“If I’m a guy and I walk in and I'm looking for a gift, I want to be welcomed and educated on how I can get a great gift for my girlfriend, my mom, a sister or whoever.”
Manifest and Flow
Manifest and Flow sells crystals and journals to its customers. The brand dipped its toes into the experiential retail water through its ecommerce store.
“We started our business during lockdown when shopping in person wasn't an option,” says its co-owner Kate Manigold. “With increased stress and so many people stuck at home, we wanted to inject more playful energy into the online shopping experience and put experiential techniques into place.”
The brand created a crystal mystery machine as a way to do this. Anyone who places an online order over $20 gets a mystery pouch from the machine.
“We have a (real) custom Crystal ATM vending machine stocked with mystery bracelets and crystal kits. A customer orders the product online, selects their vending machine number, and we then film inputting their selected number and revealing the item from the Crystal ATM. We then ship it off to them along with their mystery pouch.”
“Some of our customers call them goodie bags and don't want them filmed because it gives them a fun surprise to look forward to when they receive their package,” Kate says. “Others can't wait to see what they will receive and love to get a sneak peek on TikTok or Instagram. We get requests for filming on social media and as notes included with their order.”
Building on the social media hype for the brand’s crystal ATM experience, Jane says, “We have decided to open an in-store experience where customers can come use the Crystal ATM or pick a crystal from the pink crystal cart.”
To encourage social media engagement at these events, Manifest and Flow prioritizes the store’s decor. “The decor is very Instagrammable with feature items and flower walls, and we encourage sharing on social media in order to get a discount,” Jane says.
“In addition to our high level of customer service, these experiential retail techniques have differentiated us and established a loyal customer base. It's been an amazing way to connect with our customers, and create fun experiences for them even when they are thousands of miles away.”
Canada Goose is a clothing brand known for its outerwear. It specializes in winter clothing for extreme weather, and is worn by people who do winter sports or plan to take a vacation to a cold area.
The only problem? Customers in many locations are unable to truly test out the product. You have to take Canada Goose’s word for it and pray you won’t be cold when the coat is put to the test. By that point, it’s already too late. You’re either freezing in the Arctic or outside of the return window.
To solve this dilemma for its customers, Canada Goose created a cold room in five of its retail stores. Shoppers could put on a coat and stand in a room chilled to -27 degrees Fahrenheit. The product benefit was obvious; anyone soon to be in a location that cold knew they had to have a Canada Goose coat to take with them.
No wonder it was named the “best retail experience of the year” by RetailDive.
Not all experiential retail strategies have to be outlandish. Footwear retailer Tecovas takes a simple but effective approach by offering services in its Austin, Texas store.
Shoppers can take advantage of beverages, shoe shines, and expert fitting advice during their visit. There’s also a selection of exclusive products that shoppers can only find in-store. You’d struggle to get that experience from other footwear retailers.
Sports brand Nike is no stranger to experiential retail. Its new retail concept, Nike Rise, is a store of the future.
The flagship store in Guangzhou, China, has been transformed into a Nike fan’s haven, complete with:
- A Nike By You personalization bar for customers to personalize their products with logos of their favorite sports teams.
- Weekly sports games and matches for members of the Nike Running Club app.
- Workshops hosted by sports influencers and Nike athletes.
- In-store shoe fitting services using Nike Fit technology to find their perfect shoe size.
The future of experiential retail
The future of retail is hard to predict. However, trends and changes in consumer behavior indicate that experiential retail is here to stay—just with a few changes.
Retailers can lean on emerging technologies to give shoppers the experiences they’re looking for. Augmented reality (AR) is one example. It works by overlaying graphics on a live stream of something—be that your store, a customer’s body, or their home.
Data shows 71% of people would shop at a retailer more often if it offered this type of AR technology. Another 40% would be willing to pay more for a product if they could experience it through AR.
With AR becoming more popular, experiential retail is already in full swing. I can imagine customers being able to cast a hologram into their homes to see the product in its full dimensions. It’s especially handy for the home decor sector.
📌 GET STARTED: Give shoppers a new way to experience your products when you add Shopify AR to your online store.
Virtual fitting rooms are the prime example of how brands can use AR for experiential marketing. Retailers like Charlotte Tilbury and Ralph Lauren have smart mirrors in their stores. Customers can choose an item from the store, take it to the virtual dressing room, and see what the product looks like on their own body—no changing clothes required.
It’s a huge selling point for in-store shoppers who want to see what clothes look like before buying them, but are concerned about potential exposure to COVID-19 when touching items.
As part of a Forrester Consulting study conducted on behalf of Shopify, we asked brands where their company is investing in improving the in-store experience over the next 12 months. The most popular answer (46%) was showrooming.
Showrooming allows customers to come in and experience the brand and product, while allowing them to seamlessly complete purchases online. The items they’re interested in-store can be emailed to them while they’re in-store for later purchase.
Retailers can also use QR codes. Shoppers can visit the store, learn more about a product, and scan a QR code that takes them to the product page on the ecommerce store. They’re able to complete the purchase on their smartphone with just a few clicks.
Unifying in-store and online data is key
Personalization is the heart of many great shopping experiences. Almost half of U.S. consumers have purchased something more expensive than they planned because of a personalized customer experience.
For any experiences you’re giving to in-store shoppers, personalize it as best you can.
With Shopify POS, you can unify in-store and online sales data and manage both channels from the same back office. If someone registers for your shaving masterclass two weeks after purchasing a men’s razor online, for example, you can personalize the masterclass by:
- Offering a free sample of your shaving balm
- Giving a coupon code for their next razor purchase
- Recommending your men’s grooming monthly subscription box
Training store associates is essential
Regardless of the type of experience you’re giving to in-store shoppers, make sure your sales associates are trained and know how to handle the event.
Data in a commissioned Forrester Consulting study conducted on behalf of Shopify, shows that 57% of brands rate “coordinating experiential retail” as a top challenge for their physical stores in 2022. Another 44% plan to increase their employees’ customer interaction time in order to improve the in-store experience.
So, how do you train store associates to deliver excellent experiences to in-store shoppers? It depends on the type of experience you’re giving. For example:
- If you’re hosting a workshop that educates customers on skincare formulas, give your retail team a refresher on which products suit popular skin types.
- If you’re planning a pop-up truck, remind staff on how to use your POS system to take orders from people waiting in-line.
- If you’re using AR technology in your store, train staff on how to reset a virtual fitting room between customers.
The COVID-19 impact
It’d be remiss of us not to mention COVID-19’s impact on experiential retail events. In early 2020, brick-and-mortar stores were forced to close. While half of all shoppers plan to return to in-store shopping as soon as restrictions are lifted in their local area, people are still concerned about their health and safety.
In-store safety protocols like mandatory face masks, limits on people in the store, and regular store cleaning are three safety measures that make shoppers more confident about in-store shopping after the pandemic.
Whichever experiences you’re giving to in-store shoppers, always make sure people feel confident interacting with them. Clean any touchscreens, disinfect high-touch surfaces, and consider appointment shopping for those concerned about large volumes of people within the store.
Creating unique experiences in your store
Experiential retail isn’t a passing fad—it’s the future of how, where, and when we shop.
Today’s consumers have higher expectations than ever before, and experiential retail is quickly becoming the new standard because it delivers the experience shoppers are willing to splash the cash on.
In addition to being a growing and welcome marketing method, experiential campaigns are a lot of fun. They help you interact with existing and prospective customers and get you out from behind a screen. Think of them as the way to create lasting relationships well beyond the initial experience.
Turn experiences into revenue with Shopify
Hosting an experience in-store is just one part of the puzzle. Shopify POS comes with customer profiles that unify in-person and online purchase history to help you recommend products, fuel your retention marketing, and lift customer lifetime value.