Brands can do more by creating experiential retail spaces where storytelling plays a crucial part, says Crowd DNA's Essi Mikkola. It's time to help consumers feel a deeper connection with the brands they love…

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If you went shopping in a department store 100 years ago, you might have found yourself being followed by a floor-walker. Their purpose was to politely ask whether “Miss or mister was going to buy something?” (if the answer was negative, you’d be asked to leave). Today, retail is facing a challenge that is quite the opposite: how to bring people into the physical stores when almost any product can be found at a lower price online and be home-delivered in an instant.

We know that time has become a luxury for many, and customers go to stores after doing their research online; even checking these reviews while in-store using their phones. So how can brands elevate the physical store experience above the online? As Armand Hadida, founder of the Parisian fashion and lifestyle concept retailer L’Éclaireur explained at the Future Of Retail seminar, creating the perfect experience is like orchestrating a performance. It should spark emotion, inspire and educate, and – in addition to the design – staff play a crucial part in this.

The Store, Berlin
The Store, Berlin

Recently opened in Berlin, The Store is a great example of how physical stores are transforming from points of sale to points of experience. The Store offers a beautiful space where visitors can hangout, eat, get a haircut, see some art and admire a carefully selected collection of artefacts that are displayed so visitors feel as if they are in a friend’s home. And naturally, everything on display, from the vinyl spinning to the couch you sit on, is for sale.

This concept of a hybrid retail, gallery and social space is actually an idea from the past brought into the modern day. As architectural writer Jonathan Glancey explains: ‘Opened in 1909, Selfridges offered bedazzled customers 100 departments along with restaurants, a roof garden, reading and writing rooms, reception areas for foreign visitors, a first aid room and, most importantly, a small army of knowledgeable floor-walking assistants who served as guides to this retail treasure trove as well as being thoroughly instructed in the art of making a sale.’

It seems that many brands are overlooking this art of sale and don’t realise the power their staff could have, if they were trained better. Hadida argues that people love to learn and hear about inspiring real-life stories; staff are ideal brand advocates who can pass on this inside knowledge about the brand, its heritage and the people behind it. Interestingly, the retail prophet Doug Stephens sees a phenomenon in which ‘the store is evolving from being a distribution channel to becoming a media channel.’

Brand loyalty is harder to achieve and maintain than ever, but when consumers find a brand they love, they often become superfans – a passionate group who readily share their experiences on social media. In the saturated world of marketing messages this is exactly what brands need: real stories from real people. Physical stores are ideal places to communicate brand stories through their design and staff, and consumers have the power of a media agency in communicating these forward to the world through their mobiles.

Latest fads like shoppable images on Instagram are encouraging impulsive mobile buying, so physical stores will need to justify their existence even more in the future. For me, multi-sensory experience was one of the biggest trends of 2016 and it’s still continuing to grow. However, brands should keep in mind that the point isn’t just to create sensational experiences with the latest gadgets; it’s to spark personal and meaningful memories, as this is what helps form stronger bonds with their customers.

Part of InterFace, a series exploring – across digital and physical – how our touchpoints with brands are changing…