Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz saw the light in Italy. During a trip to Milan in 1983, he found himself marveling at the charm of the neighborhood espresso shops—the smell of chestnuts, the faint strains of opera music, the cheerful smiles on the faces of the locals as they reveled in chitchat. The realization hit him like a Venti-sized shot of caffeine. “We’re not in the coffee business,” he said. “We’re in the experience business.”
Today you’ll find that experience, that way of thinking, replicated all across America. Whole Foods has reinvented grocery shopping by making cloth bags cool. Lululemon has done the same for athletic wear, dressing employees in its premium spandex clothing to demonstrate its real wearability. At Hollister, the lights are so dim, the music so loud, the air so heavy with fragrance, you might as well be shopping for clothes in a nightclub. Thanks to innovative design and modern technology, those brands have expanded their reach, stretching the enchantment well beyond the bounds of physical space.
When you ask Dave Nixon, the digital strategy expert for Interbrand Design Forum, to point you toward the future of retail, he describes a scene that unfolded in his bathroom: He was standing at the sink, shaving, when his wife informed him that it was time to change the floor tiles. In an ideal world, he thought, he’d simply tap the mirror in front of him to begin planning the job. After summoning a retail portal and inputting his timeline and budget, he would survey the options for wall treatments, light fixtures and accessories. “When I enter the store,” he says, “instead of having to go to five different departments, the project designer comes to me. He shakes my hand, looks me in the eye and says, ‘Mr. Nixon, we’ve got your project portfolio pulled up in the design showcase. Let’s sit down and talk.’” A half hour later in this ideal world, Nixon is back in his car with the names of a few local contractors in his pocket. When he gets home, there are how-to videos waiting in his mailbox to shepherd him through the do-it-yourself stuff.
This sounds like a sci-fi fantasy, but it’s not. The technology to meld online options with in-person experience is readily available. All that’s required is someone to assemble this customer experience for clients. The point, says Nixon, is not to dazzle the consumer with bells and whistles; it’s to extend the experience beyond those four walls, engage him in dialogue before and after he enters your store.
Read five trends unfolding in online retail and bricks-and-mortar stores, and what you can learn from them in the Sept 2012 issue of SUCCESS, on newsstands Aug. 14.