Why Experiential Retail is Fundamental To Survival On The High Street

Pride festival celebration area at John Lewis Southampton
Pride festival celebration area at John Lewis Southampton

The virtual marketing and social media experience is limited

Communicating using the internet has been a salvation for nearly all of us during the last year of official ‘stay at home’ guidance preventing the spread of coronavirus Covid-19. People all around the world naturally love to go out, meet other people and get a change of scene. Consequently shopping is one of the nation’s most popular leisure activities. Although the majority of sales are now done online there is still a huge desire for communities to embrace and frequent their bricks and mortar shops once again, as soon as it is safe to do so.

Martin Brudnizki at Martin Brudnizki Interior Design warns not to over emphasise the importance of social media and Instagram photos when it comes to interior design. For the experienced designer it is all about the “atmosphere and experiences.” Brudnizki reminds us that lighting, texture, music, ambience and subtle cues involving all the senses are all vital components when properly experiencing a space. (1)

Humans like time to touch and “smell the leather” in the showroom

Bob Novogratz is the Co-Founder at The Novogratz and talks about how he and his wife Cortney are ‘contraryonists’. Together they have opened a flagship store in Venice Beach in Los Angeles which is a “multi-functional design space” to showcase how their furniture looks in actual real interiors. Bob Novogratz is confident that people will go out to experience how the collection looks and feels, when it is positioned together in room sets. The talented American team are looking forward to expanding into the UK interiors market in the near future. (2)

All the major furniture chains in the market know how essential accurate measurements are to completing happy orders. The proportions of how a room is balanced visually is a priority. The right chairs, tables, sofas and other pieces perfectly arranged within it, is equally crucial for forming both a well functioning abode and feeling really relaxed at home. This is why showrooms can be helpful and why Ikea transforms its warehouses into complete apartments and also several separate suites that mimic the accommodation found in ordinary houses.

Everyone enjoys immersing in the experience

Peter Cross at John Lewis talks about people wanting to “bathe in the experience” How the new retail landscape is all about “selling a lifestyle not a teacup.” (3)

When the big stores finally open up again next month they will be reflecting and expanding on their “inspiring virtual events, masterclasses and workshops (that) offer a host of fresh new experiences to explore this spring.” Almost every department will welcome everyone back with events that celebrate the latest products and services and impress residents with heritage stories, demonstrations and all sorts of fun happenings.  (5)

Physical stores can reinforce clear brand messages

Professional marketing managers know that repeating the latest information in a ‘short and sweet way’ regarding the promotions that are happening today, this week and this season is the right way to regularly update their company’s patrons. Consistency across all the channels is vital to achieve the most powerful connection with both existing and potential shoppers.

“It’s frustrating if you can’t buy from a window.” suggests Molly Park from experience. The stationary and card retailer recommends using all online and physical spaces together even if your store is temporarily shut because of government restrictions. Conveying a clear message to your public is equally important if you are trading from a market stall or your company runs a multi channel chain of outlets. Making campaigns or weekly themes that are repeated across all areas keeps branding is simple and effective. (7)

Aspirational experiences inspire purchasers

“You are not just buying a picture you are buying ‘my life’” explains Bryony Sheridan who has been a Buyer for Liberty for the last ten years. Sheridan is describing how men and women want to buy into a lifestyle that they aspire to. This future vision may well be inspired by someone else’s tastes and chosen furnishings. (9)

Visually saying “you can buy it right here” is the way to approach retail design according to Bob Novogratz. “Most people want to buy the mannequin: putting the look together is more difficult than you think” explains The Novogratz interiors company owner. Anyone looking to achieve a great style with their fashion or home interiors knows it is more than just buying a couple of items alone. Many people lack confidence with colour, materials, design principles, storage and basic DIY skills. The general population is busy and needs to keep it simple when investing in any new ensemble in their life. (2)

People desire a personal experience

It has been common practice ever since luxury stores first existed to create a private space for VIP’s and wealthy ladies and gentlemen. Traditionally these big spenders liked to be personally greeted and assisted with their specific commodity needs and have every wish fulfilled. Good relationships have always developed between the best assistants and their clients and as Francesca Nicasio writes in Vend becoming a “consultant, expert and friend” is the way forward. Nicasio suggests “you need to train them to relate better to customers” in order to “design in store experiences that drive traffic and sales.” This ideal is hard to accomplish but worth aspiring towards, in any selling establishment today. As the old saying goes “people buy people”. (10)

Offering customised experiences can add a lot of value for folk of all ages when they are spending time in any physical shop. Bakers and confectioners have been adding customised messages for decades. Clothing, stationary and accessories with a name and address embellished on the top are a traditional crowd pleaser. Opticians and picture framers have been offering different combinations for generations. Having areas for visitors to be able to use products that they might not have the opportunity or space to explore at home is a smart idea. Introducing a creative studio, commercial kitchen, stage, catwalk or therapy zones all makes sense when encouraging customers to explore new ranges.

The pandemic lockdown has led to more than half of the population feeling lonely at times. We are naturally a sociable species and a visit to the shops can soon continue to be a joyous social occasion, which can enhance anyone’s well being.

Fortune favours the bold

The American designer decorator and retailer Bob Novogratz encourages entrepreneurs to be brave at this challenging time as “there is opportunity and rents are cheap, have a plan A,B,C.”

Winston Churcill stated that “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” The Austrian management consultant Peter Drucker echoed this thinking and said that “The entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it and exploits it as an opportunity.” Peter Drucker (11)

Creative director and writer Michelle Ogundehin and judge on the popular current TV show Interior Design Masters warned that “retail design is the biggest challenge we have right now.” This is because it is essential that our shops invite, entertain, engage and give customers fun and playful experiences that they want. Ogundehin reminded the contestants who were redesigning the chosen high street boutiques located at the famous Pantiles in Royal Tunbridge Wells in Kent, that customers of all ages including their pets, desire a positive journey through any store’s spaces. When returning to their local commercial centres out of curiosity, the public needs to be impressed, or they will not bother to venture out again to discover any unexpected purchases and leisure activities. (13)

‘Retail is detail’ and customers will be craving a series of ‘mini events’

The secret to becoming and remaining a successful retailer in our town and city centres in 2021 is having a strong brand, knowing your target customer base and creating fresh experiences. In England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland many hundreds of voluminous and old fashioned department stores and dated fashion brand chains have disappeared, both before and during the pandemic.

The Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is offering rate reductions and grants to small businesses to help kickstart the economy again. There is an affordable gap in the market for youthful, creative and different businesses to move in, emerge and prosper and for our communities to become the thriving, buzzing meeting places they once were. (14)

The entrepreneur’s who run the bravest and newest names to join the British marketplace will know the importance of respecting the values of a modern consumer. These innovative leaders will know their customers are concerned about style, sustainable manufacturing, ethics and the environment, supporting local jobs and convenience. They will also be aware that their tempting destination needs to provide a frequently changing and unique sensory journey for both their best clients and eager day trippers. Continually captivating an audience and exceeding expectations is the ticket for both established and new retailers to succeed and grow in the future.

There is bound to be some pent up demand as we move out of economic shutdown. The cautious lifting of the restrictions in England in mid April should include many thousands of retail reopenings. Hopefully we will see the start of a slow but continuously positive increase in turnover, for manufacturing and the whole service industry. It will be fascinating to see how the high street and out of town industrial estates can evolve now there is a clear roadmap for opening up in the UK. It is definitely an exciting time to be an up and coming brand. Now is the time to be courageous and rise up to the challenge of making the British high street full of brilliant experiences once more.


(1) Martin Brudnizki Design Studio MBDS, Interior Design,  17 March 2021  Martin Brudnizki Design Studio MBDS, Interior Design

(2) Bob Novogratz Founder of The Novogratz Interior Design and Interiors Retailer, 17 March 2021  Bob Novogratz Founder of The Novogratz Interior Design and Interiors Retailer

(3) Peter Cross, John Lewis Partnership Customer Experience Director, 17 March 2021 Peter Cross, John Lewis Partnership Customer Experience Director

(4) Peter Cross, John Lewis Partnership Customer Experience Director, 17 March 2021 Peter Cross, John Lewis Partnership Customer Experience Director

(5) ‘Experience something new’ John Lewis Partnership, 17 March 2021 ‘Experience something new’ John Lewis Partnership, 17 March 2021

(6) Molly Park at Papier, Stationary, Cards and Gift Retailer, 17 March 2021 Molly Park at Papier, Stationary, Cards and Gift Retailer

(7) Molly Park at Papier, Stationary, Cards and Gift Retailer, 17 March 2021  Molly Park at Papier, Stationary, Cards and Gift Retailer

(8) Bryony Sheridan, Buyer, Liberty Ltd., 17 March 2021 Bryony Sheridan, Buyer, Liberty Ltd.

(9) Bryony Sheridan, Buyer, Liberty Ltd., 17 March 2021  Bryony Sheridan, Buyer, Liberty Ltd

(10) ‘7 Ways to Create In-Store Experiences That Drive Traffic and Sales’ Francesca Nicasio, Vend blog, 10 July 2018 ‘7 Ways to Create In-Store Experiences That Drive Traffic and Sales’ Francesca Nicasio, Vend

(11) ‘30 Quotes on Opportunity’ Workspace Digital 17 March 2021 ‘30 Quotes on Opportunity’ Workspace Digital

(12) Michelle Ogundehin Architect and Interior Designer, 17 March 2021 Michelle Ogundehin Designer on Instagram

(13) Michelle Ogundehin Architect and Interior Designer, 17 March 2021 Michelle Ogundehin’s Book Happy Inside

(14) ‘Financial support for businesses during coronavirus (COVID-19) 17 March 2021 ‘Financial support for businesses during coronavirus (COVID-19)