Increasingly, online and offline customer experiences form part of a merged ecosystem where shoppers move freely between multiple channels. To provide the levels of ease and personalization customers now expect, brands must engage their audiences seamlessly across all touchpoints. Employees have an important role to play in making that happen.

Multiple channels, one customer relationship

The consumer experience is no longer just a matter of going shopping in a store or pulling out a device to make a purchase online. Today’s consumers are interacting with brands across retail, travel, hospitality and other sectors in a continuous, non-time bound way, making multiple connections across web, mobile, live chat, store visits, third-party reviews and social content within a single purchase journey. While the end result may be a purchase made in a store or on a website, this final touchpoint is far from the whole story.

Brands who excel at in-person experiences are those who can understand and take advantage of these multi-channel consumer behaviors, and know how to get the best out of all available touchpoints, whether digital or traditional, in order to engage their audiences. For example, mobile apps offer the potential to use customer data to personalize offers, and geolocation to provide marketing relevant to time and place. In-store experiences can leverage sensory factors like hearing, smell and texture to engage the customer and use face-to-face connections with staff members to cement relationships on a human level.

What goes into a great in-store experience?

Customer experience design is made up of many things. There are practical considerations like location layout, lighting and sensory experiences. There’s staff selection and training, the way employees are managed and the degree of autonomy they have in their interactions with customers. On a more strategic level, there’s customer journey analysis, collection and interpretation of experience data, patterns in visit time and duration and so on.

Beyond that, broader company policies, HR investment, training and development of staff and a robust employee experience management program all help set the scene for positive encounters between customers and staff. So too does allocation of resources. For example, maintaining adequate staffing levels or investing in efficiency-boosting technology means employees have the time and energy to give to customers and are less likely to appear rushed and distracted.

Finally, brands should be leveraging employee feedback to enhance the customer experience. Through face-to-face interactions, ad hoc feedback and their own experienced observations, staff can provide additional insights on the voice of the customer which can be combined with direct customer feedback and operational data to optimize everything from staffing levels and opening hours to branding decisions and marketing messages.

In-store moments that matter

When it comes to in-store experiences, the interaction between customer and employee often plays a major role in making an experience memorable and meaningful. But while it’s inspiring to hear of individual acts of care and generosity from staff to customers, we think it’s more instructive to look for the cases where an outstanding experience is provided to every customer at the moments that matter, as a result of holistically blending cultural, technological, and organizational factors.

Here are 5 examples of in-store experiences that are powered by positive, personal connections between brand and customer, and that ultimately reflect smart thinking around both customer experience and employee experience.

1. Oasis – merging online and in-store fashion retail

UK fashion chain Oasis has gone far beyond the ‘iPads-in-stores’ trope and has delivered deep digital integration of in-store and online experiences. Tablets and touchscreens are used to empower both customers and staff on the shop-floor, whether through team members being able to check stock in a few taps or order something from a neighboring branch, or customers being able to take items into the fitting rooms and then, rather than lining up at the counter, place an order for their item to be delivered to their home address.

Other smart ideas include having QR codes on swing tags, so that customers can deliver quick yes/no feedback via the Oasis mobile app. Widely praised for their “all-rounder” approach to omnichannel experience design, Oasis has reaped rewards in the form of a 6.5% sales increase in 2018.

2. Apple – aspirational activity at the ultimate destination-store

It’s hard to compile a list of retail experiences without arriving at Apple. They’re the original destination store and arguably the pioneers of added-value retail experiences. Apple stores are something between a shop floor and a playground for all ages, where visitors are free to get hands-on with products in an unstructured way. But although the experience is relaxed, the brand actively invests in engaging customers in store in an aspirational and very on-brand way.

For example, as of 2017, selected Apple stores began running ‘Today at Apple’, a program of educational and creative sessions led by team members. It’s no coincidence that Apple is both a luxurious place to shop and a desirable place to work. The company places its employees front-and-centre in creating the in-store experience and its ‘Genius’ and ‘Creative Pro’ retail roles involve much more than just unit-shifting. Employees are brand ambassadors and experts who are empowered to advise customers and solve problems using their own knowledge.

3. Lush – wall-to-wall product expertise and personalized service

The Lush retail experience is not for everyone, but for those who enjoy the brand’s ethical stance and potent fragrances, a trip to a Lush store is a real treat. A stand-out feature of the store experience is the attentiveness and enthusiasm of the staff members. They are carefully trained on the features, benefits and stories of the products and are given the time and freedom to offer customers in-depth product demos and free samples on request.

Most interestingly, employees are trained to behave differently towards different customer types rather than using a one-size-fits-all sales technique. Display an “assertive” (read: confident and clear) manner at Lush, and you’ll get fast, efficient service. Act more “amiable” (sharing personal stories and chatting with staff) and they’ll adapt accordingly.

4. Virgin Holidays – previewing travel experiences in-store

A glance at Virgin Holidays’ in-store innovations is enough to convince anyone that the brand is committed to keeping travel agencies real. While growing numbers of travel consumers prefer to book online, Virgin Holidays has used technology, creativity and personal service to keep their stores relevant to customers.

For example, on stepping onto the Virgin Holidays premises you can preview your holiday destination via a VR headset, ride a flight-simulator-style rollercoaster, or step into a mocked-up Virgin Atlantic cabin. But the tech-based innovations are only half the story. Virgin Holidays employees are trained to add value through expertise and personal knowledge, and tend to be personally passionate about travel. The investment in this travel-specific kind of employee engagement is reflected in the staff benefits, which include free and discounted flights and accommodation.

5. Birchbox – build-it-yourself beauty boxes with expert support

Birchbox is best known for its subscription service, where members pay a monthly fee to receive a mystery box of premium beauty miniatures through the letterbox. The brand recently took a step into the retail space with a pop-up shop in London. The store carried the beauty box idea into a retail context with a novel and appealing pick-and-mix approach. Visitors could build their own box of five products from a wide selection in store and pay a flat fee for the end result.

If in doubt, shoppers also had access to expert advisors who could provide unbiased recommendations based on their knowledge of the products and the customer’s needs. Because Birchbox covers a wide range of brands and the company has a deep knowledge of the beauty industry, the impartial advice provided by staff was a valuable part of the experience for shoppers. The London store has now closed, though new Birchbox locations have since popped up in New York.

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