Upgrading Your Store: Expert Tips to Engineer a Great Retail Experience

Retail experience | Shopify Retail blog

The products in your retail store speak for themselves. That’s all the experience your customers need: the joy and delight of interacting with the incredible items that line your (physical or digital) shelves.

Many retailers slip into this line of thinking and then get stuck. As Doug Stephens pointed out in a blog post on his site, Retail Prophet, “most retailers assume customer experience is primarily an aesthetic concept and more about how stores and websites look and feel” than anything else.”

But settling for this definition of retail experience will limit your brand and cause you to miss out on opportunities to craft something truly great for your customers. Retailers and in-person sellers both big and small have the opportunity to create memorable, immersive experiences for their customers. Not only can these upgraded experiences facilitate more brand awareness, but also a higher level of brand loyalty.

But how do you get started? And what does a high-quality experience look like from a shopper’s perspective and a merchant’s point of view? We talked to a couple of industry experts who helped us dig deeper into what constitutes a memorable experience and look at how retailers can create them in their own storefronts and booths.

What Makes a Great Retail Experience?

Stephens says even personalized service—or even just customer service that’s “friendlier”—doesn’t cut it either if you want to aim for an excellent retail experience.

He believes that you need to deliberately craft and engineer experiences for shoppers to go from acceptable to great as a retailer who caters to your customers.

Truly remarkable customer experience is no different than stage production where cast, crew, set design and tech come together to bring every line, scene, and act to life.

“Every aspect of the well-written brand script is meticulously directed, rehearsed, and performed,” Stephens writes.

He breaks down retail experience to five key elements that retailers can consider when designing a custom production for their brands. You need to “deliberately engineer” customer experiences to be:

  1. Engaging: Find ways to engage with customers—both where they’re at, in the store, and everywhere in between (like the Internet). If you’re not sure what would engage shoppers, start by building a customer persona to better understand their preferences and pain points you could address.
  2. Unique: Think outside the box to provide something that no other brand gives to shoppers. From your signage or logo to the colors you use or the music you pipe through the speakers, a uniquely branded experience makes a lasting impression.
  3. Personalized: You could customize loyalty programs or create curated collections and special pop-up shops to tailor to specific customer needs and wants to design highly personalized experiences.
  4. Surprising: Brush up on your consumer behavioral psychology to engineer experiences designed to provide something expected (and hopefully delightful).
  5. Repeatable: A customer experience can fall flat if it’s just a one-time, happenstance occurrence. Make sure you create processes you can use to give every customer the experience you design, every time they interact with your brand.

Start Crafting Your Own Stellar Retail Experience for Customers to Enjoy

Stephens notes that providing an experience for customers that nails all five categories above is not easy.

But to help you start thinking about how you could do it in your retail business, we talked to two experts to get their best tips for you to put to work.

We talked to Nicole Leinbach Reyhle, the founder and publisher of Retail Minded. Reyhle founded the publication in 2007, and aims to deliver industry news and innovative solutions to independent retailers.

Reyhle also founded the Independent Retailer Conference and is a contributor to Forbes, Entrepreneur, IBM, and Fiverr.

We also got insights from Bob Phibbs, CEO of Retail Doctor, a retail consultancy based in New York. Phibbs is a retail expert who provides education and training for retailers. He’s internationally recognized as a business strategist, customer service expert, sales coach, and marketing mentor. 

Here are Reyhle and Phibbs’ expert tips for business owners who want to engineer a great retail experience.

Retail Experience Begins and Ends with the Customer (Not the Product)

Brick-and-mortar stores are hurting because most are blah, beige, and boring,” says Phibbs.

“So many retailers don’t value the work a shopper did to get off their couch, get out of their jammies, get in their car, find a parking place, and walk through their front doors. If they did, they would greet everyone in a consistent manner, with a smile.”

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But Phibbs points out the number-one complaint from retail shoppers has been and continues to be that no one greeted them as they entered the store.

“The carelessness that retailers exhibit on—this is telling. Online retailers are using sophisticated algorithms to track every nano-second, so they can do better—yet retailers seemingly can’t be bothered to train employees on the basics of retail sales training or more advanced nuances of dealing with shopper objections.”

Hire the Right People to Execute on Your Vision for a Retail Experience 

Retail experience, customer service | Shopify Retail blogWho you hire matters—even for your most entry-level positions. The way each employee interacts with customers can dramatically shape their experience of your brand.

“You have to hire the right person who is trainable,” adds Phibbs. “You need someone who, when you explain your philosophy and your high standards of retail customer service, can own it as their own.”

Phibbs points out that retail workers have to be prepared for both the best and worst in customers and their behavior. “Your employees need to be immune from judgment, snarkiness, or condescension. If they aren’t, don’t hire them,” he advises.

FURTHER READING: Need some help with customer service? Read up on 7 retailers who are embracing modern customer service techniques.

Most retail employees need to juggle the needs of more than one customer at a time, but are still tasked with the challenge of building rapport and trust with each. Phibbs believes that balancing act separates the top retailers from the rest. 

“The best way to achieve this is to have a retail sales training program that gives each employee the guidance on how to implement your customer service non-negotiables,” he suggests. 

Retail Experiences Aren’t One Dimensional: Include Visual and Physical Elements, Both Big and Small 

Reyhle says customers today expect to be engaged, informed, and entertained while they shop.

“Merchants must identify how they can accomplish this within their own store environments,” she says. “Every retailer is different, so there’s no black or white outline here for merchants to follow, but you should consider ways you can capture, keep, and strengthen customer attention in-store.”

Reyhle suggests considering every experience your customer could have—from the moment they see your store to their first steps into the building and every step they take in between and after.

“Physical and visual experiences are both key to consider,” she adds. “Aim to create experiences that customers can physically engage with while also creating experiences that customers can visually—and more simply—enjoy.”

Reyhle believes that collectively, this provides a balance for consumers to enjoy. To achieve this, focus on creating unique (but brand-consistent) signage to place throughout the store.

You could call attention to specialty endcaps or product displays, or you could get creative in helping direct customers around the store with signs that go beyond just pointing to where the checkout and the bathrooms are.

You can enhance the physical experience by giving customers something to engage with. That could be product samples or demonstrations. You could even go above and beyond and host events in your store or bring in experts to lead specialized, free classes relevant to your brand and what you sell.  

How to Brainstorm Better Ideas for Customer Experiences

As you start considering the experiences your customers have now, or the potential points during their journey at which you could engage them more, ask yourself critical questions to guide your brainstorming.

“Ask yourself what you want customers to remember about their shopping experience,” advises Reyhle. “Is it the inventory assortment? Merchandising experience? Hands-on opportunities? Customer service? Or even all of the above?”

She says when retailers put themselves in their customers’ shoes, they can better equip themselves to create more meaningful and memorable experiences for their customers.

Phibbs provides a list of additional questions retailers should work through before the start trying to design a great retail experience:

  • What do shoppers experience as they arrive at your store?
  • How long does it take to have an employee speak to them?
  • What is the first thing shoppers hear from your associates?
  • Does your staff engage shoppers before pitching the merchandise? (Or are your staff little more than warehouse workers fulfilling orders?)
  • Is there a method in place to help customers purchase more? Do you have an upselling strategy in place?
  • What is your send-off to the shopper? (Do employees say thank you or goodbye—or are they silent?) And how do you follow up with customers? (Do you engage on social media, email, text, or another method?)

Implement Ideas Now: Start With the Little Things

Retail experience | Shopify Retail blogLove all these ideas and the expert advice, but still not sure what to start? Don’t worry: You don’t need to overhaul your entire store to start making an impact with great retail experiences.

Reyhle says the little things and small actions you take can speak volumes about customer care.

“For example, if it's a hot, summer day and I’m weaving in and out of some favorite Main Street stores, I often remember the one that offers complimentary lemonade for their customers to help cool them down,” she shares.

In the winter, you can replicate that same experience can with warm beverages like hot coffee or hot chocolate.

“While not every customer will accept these gestures, it's still a nice way to separate yourself from other merchants,” she explains.

Reyhle adds that you can delight customers by helping them with the unique shopping needs. Ask how you can provide a little extra TLC to shoppers, or go out of your way in a small way that creates a big and memorable impact.

“Handwritten thank you notes are still a great way to nurture customer loyalty,” Reyhle says. “You can write these for every purchase made, depending on the size of your business, or make it a store standard to have them written out for purchases that exceed a certain amount.”

She also suggests using this gesture to communicate with customers for special occasions like their birthdays, graduations and more.

Combine These Tips to Create a Well-Rounded Retail Experience

Each one of these tips on their own might not be enough to create a truly great customer experience. But when you start piecing them together, you can engineer something that no other competing brand offers.

Train your employees and give them the support they need to engage customers in a genuine, personable way. Or give customers something to physically interact with, like snacks to keep their shopping energy up or seasonal drinks to make your store more inviting.

Then look for ways to make additional communication with customers personalized (which you could do with email or social media connections and follow-up). That will help keep customers engaged over time, too.

And make sure your store’s visual and physical elements reflect the unique nature of your specific brand. Don’t be afraid to do something completely unexpected, too, that incorporates some brand-appropriate humor or just something really delightful that the customer would not have normally expected from a retail store.

Finally, keep your retail experience repeatable by outlining systems and processes you—and every employee—can use to help recreate great interaction after great interaction with your customers.