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Setting the stage for retail theatre

As consumers continue to show great affection for the face to face, bricks and mortar retail experience, the big question for retailers is, how do we stand out in-store? Courtney Devereux finds out why creating remarkable retail experiences, sometimes in theatrical ways, is fast becoming the new holy grail.

By Courtney Devereux | October 4, 2018 | Design

From virtual reality, augmented reality, activations, social media, fit-outs, customer service and displays, many retailers are reinventing the physical retail store to focus on experience: creating ‘retail theatre’. Adopting a retail theatre perspective means the store and its design and layout is all about satisfying customer needs and inspiring the customer to come back. In other words, giving the customer a reason to come to the physical store rather than just shopping online.

So, what’s the scoop?

In-store theatrics are not only restricted to retail. In fact, theatrical service translates strongly into hospitality. Weird and wonderful ways of business often gain traction quickly with the help of social media.

Take for example Auckland-based icecream shop, Giapo, run by Giapo Grazioli and his wife Annarosa. The inner-city location is known for its intense twist on a modern classic, with the pair continuously looking for new experimental designs to turn into sweet treats.

Giapo Grazioli hosts a design studio on site where 3D models of icecream moulds are made and scrapped by the dozen until the artists are happy with the result. The kitchen upstairs is a creative paradise, with blueprints and machinery available for their team to work with. Downstairs an assembly area is integrated with the restaurant, where customers can watch their impressive orders be constructed.

“Everything made sense to us when we realised we were not just selling icecream,” Giapo Grazioli says. “What people were wanting from us or expecting from us was a more compelling performance. One that transcended the mere icecream.”

Annarosa Grazioli explains that having the assembly kitchen where the customers can see and interact creates an experience they wouldn’t otherwise get.

“The way the front of the house is set up allows us to have that conversation with the customer. When you go to a normal icecream shop you see the flavours, you may choose one, then you’re done. Here it is more of an experience, it’s a conversation that you’re having surrounded by that. Here, you’re talking to them, you’re guiding them.”

For industries such as retail, hospitality and even services there are categories that rely on repeat business and others which are more occasional. Giapo Grazioli acknowledges that icecream is an occasional purchase, which means more importance is placed on making sure the business remains in shoppers’ minds.

“You need a good experience and a good product, it is about balance, you can’t have one without the other. The focus on the product came first because that is who we are.”

The team of ‘Wannabe artists’, as it states on their business cards, say they learned to present a proper theatrical experience through 10 years of doing it wrong in their previous location on Queen St.

“It was pretty straightforward if we wanted to take the customer experience to the next level, we had to free our staff from the encumberences of scooping icecream, preparing, embellishing it; and get them to focus on the customer experience,” says Giapo Grazioli.

Annarosa Grazioli acknowledges that although the new premise is a huge step forward, the old space taught them what needed to be done, as seen in how the current store is run.

“The front of the house solely looks after the customer, so the kitchen below is designed just for assembling the product. All the production and cooking are done upstairs. The new layout helps us to deliver icecream to the standard that we like; even more compelling because now we are able to focus fully on customer service.”

But the layout isn’t the only way the product is presented differently. Part of the Giapo experience includes scientific tricks such as attempting to make icecream glow with bioluminescent bacteria and have experimented in how music affects taste.

“It is all happening in front of the customer, and we believe we are performing a lot better this way,” says Giapo Grazioli. “For us, success is defined by being better than yesterday. We are anything but complacent.”

Retailers take the wheel

While faster-moving retail categories such as apparel and grocery zoom ahead with ambitious in-store activations, car dealerships have idled in the slow lane. Traditional strategies, big-ticket items and stereotypes created by their sales managers mean dealerships have struggled to keep up with the pace of change.

Mazda opened a retail experience store in Silverdale in April this year, Mazda Connect, which aims to do just that – connect with its customers. The store goes beyond the traditional car retail space to incorporate augmented reality, customer service and virtual reality elements.

The small space is designed as a concept hub, where consumers can browse and immerse themselves within the products by using a touch screen and virtual reality experience. The option to become engaged with the store, rather than aimlessly wandering around a car yard, allows the hub to improve on consumers’ expectations of the industry. Salespeople, who have been rebranded as retail ‘ambassadors’, are trained to use the hub as more of a learning space rather than a straight point of sale.

Mazda national marketing manager Glenn Harris says retailers have become too transactional, and more magic needs to be brought back into the industry.

“Power has gone back to the consumer to do more of the discovery themselves, that classic role of presenting a product for the first time has now switched to digital. I think what’s happened is that these retail channels, they have kind of been left in a limbo state about what they actually do.”

“Retail has become this mass transactional point, so places in a large city environment don’t have the capacity to deliver those ‘wow’ experiences anymore. It gets harder and harder, with dealerships they’re often an inconvenience in large cities: they’re hard to get to, the parking is a drama, and as a result, you don’t really have time to enjoy the experience. Connect was a chance for us to take the part of this retail experience out of the classic model and actually create an environment where the customer will be impressed.”

In the case of Mazda Connect, the performative aspects are not just for show, they also serve a purpose. Allowing visitors to learn more about the cars at their own pace, as well as design and alter traditional cars which they can order direct from the showroom.

Harris says the immersive experience helps them to humanise the brand more than what they can achieve through a purely digital or physical.

“We need to understand where we add value for the customer, not try work against them or try to do what they can do themselves, better. Retailers need to know what they can do to enhance value at every opportunity. We don’t need to provide as much information for customers up front, but when they do decide to engage with our brand we do need to do our job so well that we want to come and see us again.”

Harris acknowledges the showroom with all its bells and whistles was an important step in helping the automotive industry move forward but hopes it continues to communicate not just what Mazda does, but why it does it.

“I think it’s part of the changing buyer environment, and as a retailer, we need to figure out where we can add value… What we’re trying to do is capture a little bit of that magic, while also being able to provide more of what traditional retail can do.”

Stand out

Retail theatre can help consumers distinguish your store against others in the same sector, but Studio Gascoigne architects founder Mark Gascoigne says it must also serve a purpose.

Gascoigne and his team have completed over 2200 projects both here and overseas. He says technology can enhance interactivity and it can create excitement in the store, regardless of its scale. Yet Kiwi shoppers value authenticity, and making sure your in-store activations create genuine engagement is half the issue. Gascoigne says the trick is quality over quantity when adding theatrics to your store.

“I think retailers can run the risk of being over-theatrical, but that completely depends on how well they pull it off. That’s always the issue, but you don’t have to be too over the top about it…”

Gascoigne references a common retail bugbear: technology for the sake of technology.

“I think if you make it theatrical to the point where it’s just a dark room and there is stuff flashing everywhere, and it is hard to buy something, that would be annoying for consumers. It needs to have balance.”

He acknowledges that if a store is a mess of gimmicks, customers who are inherently cynical will often bypass it. But as emerging trends are making retailers perform and look more or less the same, differentiation is becoming more important.

“What we are seeing these days is some very, very, similar retail: all the fashion shops are pretty much starting to look the same, there is very little differentiation between them. There is that type of commoditisation happening. In order to compete, the smaller guys now have to pull off something much more distinctive… If a retailer can capture you with their store, then they can keep the experience going.”

Gascoigne uses the example of virtual reality (VR) as a growing trend in adding theatrics to traditional retail.

“Since VR has taken off we’ve been seeing a lot more importance placed around its use,” he says.

“In some places now, you can go into a store and actually use VR to look through virtual shelves, to hold and touch the product… Stores have also been freed from having to keep every product instore, which is an old paradigm. It is very theatrical, but in a way, it demystifies the product. For example, if everyone is trying to sell similar products it gives them an edge. People will go to these venues, not just to buy something, but to become involved.”

Switching realities

As Gascoigne notes, differentiating between stores that may have a similar visual brand can be difficult. Using big screens to project a campaign may look create a similar in-store effect to the store next door if they’ve jumped on the same trend using the same technology. However, when it comes to digital brands, it’s important for theatrics to include demonstrations, which will always include some form of digitisation.

Auckland virtual reality specialty store, VR Junkies, is an arcade and storefront co-owned by Anthony and Martin Hall that’s aimed at enhancing the experience of trying and buying VR goods.

The store encourages customers to get involved, not just with the products, but with the brand. Hosting game nights and corporate events is all part and parcel to increasing consumer engagement, and not just about the product, says Anthony Hall.

After visiting a VR store in Hawaii, the two owners were blown away not just by the product and its potential, but by the customer service they received.

“The staff there were amazing and very knowledgeable about the product. When we started talking to them about wanting to open a store they brought me in to learn the basics of running the branch. What I learned was that 90 percent of the whole experience is customer service and how they react to those customers.”

Hall says that the experience they received internationally is something they have been working hard to emulate over here.

“We’ve had an amazing response from customers. From hosting events we’ve had amazing feedback from people who appreciate the effort we’re putting into our service. The big focus for us will always be on the service. For us, if the customer has a great experience in store then we have done our job.”

Hall says although VR itself can be theatrical, the experience of buying it doesn’t need to be to impact the customer.

“It is more about reading the customer,” he says. “If the customer has had a bad day you kind of have to try to relate to that and react to it. It doesn’t always have to be over the top.”

While VR is a relative niche market in New Zealand, Hall says we can expect more growth as the industry finds further footing. Going cross-platform has been an important way to grow for the VR store, with social media being a key way to engage with customers, says Hall.

“People have been coming into the store saying ‘We saw you on Facebook, we’d like to know more.’ We definitely rely on those channels… With all the different experiences we have, we’re hoping to create a stronger YouTube presence to review more products. We’re also looking into a podcast series, again, to look into different games and build the importance of that cross-platform. The more we stretch across channels, the more presence we will have, the better we will do.”

It’s coming home

Those in the international market have the opportunity to achieve bigger, more temporary retail theatre because of the greater buying power and heavier traffic conferred by bigger populations. Lizzi Whaley, chief executive of interior fit-out company Spaceworks, says overseas retailers understand that retail isn’t just transactional, but is more about the experience and engaging with consumers.

“We’re slow here to pick up theatrical trends because retailers here are very transactional, they haven’t adopted or adapted to the fact that consumer behaviour has changed so much.”

Whaley, who spends time overseas analysing international retail trends, says bigger retailers do have the opportunities to do bigger and better things but warns New Zealand retailers should remember Kiwis prefer authenticity over flashy stunts.

“Even what I’ve seen overseas is that gimmicks don’t stay around for long. There is an element of authenticity and tall poppy syndrome everywhere, but international consumers may enjoy the odd gimmick more. Authenticity is really important, people need to understand it’s about engaging with a motion rather than being just for show.”

Frugality can often hinder New Zealand retailer’s efforts to go above and beyond with retail theatre, but Whaley says investment in this area will more often than not result in a profitable outcome.

“Theatrics connect people with the brand, it connects people with the location, and it stimulates people. In a crowded retail environment, there is so much competition you need to stand out.”

Yet although retailers are encouraged to adopt certain ways to wow customers, Whaley says there are some aspects of international examples we cannot emulate, due to size, cost, and population.

“We have less of a population, so we will never achieve some of the sales coming from a huge international retailer. A larger sales revenue channel means they’re able to do more in terms of theatrics.”

Whaley acknowledges that our retail theatre may be in its growth stage, but she recommends digital shouldn’t always be the main focus.

“We should be doing less digital, because it is visual, and we’re already bombarded with visuals. Whether it’s the product that you’re looking at or displays, adding digital is just adding another layer to that. We should be starting to focus on the other senses and engaging from a tactile perspective.

“When we did see good use of digital overseas it was not about messaging, it was used as a beautiful picture backdrop. But I think the availability of using that sort of digital enhancement in New Zealand is restricted to the cost. Large screens for that use are incredibly expensive, and although they look great they’re hard to implement in the New Zealand market.”

The trick for our inherently cynical consumer culture is creating an experience that is engaging but not high pressure or obnoxious.

“Good theatre is done in a subtle way where you don’t feel like you’re being screamed at,” says Whaley. “If a retailer is going to put any type of theatrics in their store they need to make sure they’re executing it well, then just leaving it. Don’t shout ‘Look we’re doing something!’ Just do it.”

Retail theatre can be a confusing whirlwind of a retailer’s own making. Knowing what to do and how to pull it off can be more stressful than wondering if it’ll actually work or not. Whaley’s advice is simple: position yourself as a customer and figure out how you would want them to engage.

“How do you want to make them feel? Not only about your product but also about your brand when they leave. That is not often about what they’re about to buy, but all the other factors that are surrounding them.”

Between capturing attention, engaging with customers, entertaining and creating repeat business, there is plenty of ways retail theatre can enhance the experience of your store. By looking beyond just selling the products, retailers are exploring the possibility of creating immersive experiences which more deeply and meaningfully connect with their customers.

Retail theatre represents a completely new aspect of the seller-buyer dynamic and could prove to be the thing that sets physical stores apart from their virtual counterparts, as well as the competition.

Creating a theatrical fit-out

Fit-outs can communicate your brand while keeping things fresh and exciting. But some places go above and beyond to wow shoppers with their look, as well as express the brand.

Aesop: Known for its instantly recognisable fit-outs, the inside of Aesop stores are an opportunity to communicate the brand’s natural focus while also creating conversation points. Along with in-store demonstrations to create engagement with the products, the design makes for a one of a kind retail experience.

Mecca Cosmetica: Often described as the peacock of the make-up industry, enter one of the chain’s many stores and you will see why. Mirrored floor to ceiling panels, spotlights and an array of endless products. The brand understands the importance of combining the intimacy and immediacy of an individualised experience with the scale that online brings. The fit-out is completely theatrical yet suits the brand message of beauty in excess.

Smith and Caughey’s: The department store caters to a range of senses to enhance the many brands it houses. Between coffee on offer at the Nespresso kiosk, music throughout and a visually pleasing fit-out of crisp lines and endless product, the store earns plenty of interest from consumers.

This story originally appeared in NZ Retail magazine issue 757 August / September 2018

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