Small but Mighty: How Small Retailers Can Improve In-Store Experience
By Nina Eklund, Design Director and Emilija Albrechtaite, Senior Designer
When photography was invented in the 19th century, many people assumed it was going to be the end of painting. Instead painting was liberated, giving birth to new methods of representation. Similarly, online retail can help reinvent physical retail. Digital channels have simplified the shopping experience for commodity products. Online retailers own more and more of the functional aspect of shopping, but the physical channel can entice customers with the fun side of shopping.
In fact, we believe that ‘being small’ and ‘staying physical’ is the very combination that will help build brand loyalty and relevance for today’s retail customers. Based on our experiences as designers (as well as being customers ourselves), here are 10 ideas that can help small bricks-and-mortar businesses grow in the face of ‘big’ retail and online competition.
1. Make the world a better place
A third of the UK customers trust retailers and food products less than they did five years ago. Building customer trust is ultimately about proving that your brand makes the world a better place in some way.
New narratives that help brands engage and connect with customers on a deeper emotional level are needed. Brands need to think about how they can serve a deeper purpose. Customers want answers to questions like: “Where are the ingredients from?”, “Who made the garment?”, “What are the working conditions of people who made this?”, and “How does this brand show diversity?”.
Consider: How can you develop an in-store experience that instills trustworthiness in your brand?
2. Smaller is better – embrace ‘local’ message
Associations between retailers and environmental challenges have never been stronger in public social consciousness. It affects UK consumer habits, propels the plastic-free movement, and highlights the flaws of mass consumption (and the dangers of big retail).
A few years ago, ‘local’ and ‘community’ were real buzzwords in every retail project. Today, they are simply a basic requirement. Being small is now such a powerful ‘local’ signal that all the biggest retailers are trying to shrink with smaller formats and neighbourhood stores.
Consider: How can you highlight your benefits as a small retailer in-store?
3. Create experiences
People used to buy stuff to have stuff. But the concept of ownership is changing. We are all very familiar with the benefits of Uber, Netflix, Spotify, and Airbnb. Although we might still occasionally hail a black cab, go to the cinema, buy a music album or book a hotel, the sharing economy has changed what we expect to get from these traditional services. As customers become more experienced users of peer-to-peer services, they want to be more proactively involved in a brand story.
Though we are living in an age of egocentrism, the very basic need to belong is still profoundly necessary. This is where physical retail can add value to customers’ lives – by turning individual empowerment into collective strength. Use your space to run educational workshops or create events that bring like-minded people together.
Consider: What social or educational brand experiences can you introduce?
4. Find partners
Companies that partner with complementary brands can enhance their offer, extend their customer base and create more differentiated experiences. Plus customers seek connections that support their lifestyle., so integrate social and learning activities in-store to activate your products.
Consider: What brands have a similar customer base and how can your offers complement each other?
5. Engage all five senses
Babies can hear and feel a touch before they can clearly see, yet sight remains the predominant sense in consumer culture. To create fully memorable moments, engage and stimulate all senses.
The best parties are often the ones that have the right atmosphere, not just the right look. Create your store experience as you would any good party. Make customers want to linger and stay longer, talk to them in a more one-to-one way, evoke feelings through scent and taste, create lasting memories.
Consider: What would your store experience be like after you closed your eyes?
6. Promote customer wellbeing
Urbanisation is accelerating fast. By the year 2050, nearly 70% of the world’s population will live in cities. Crowded environments mean fewer opportunities for private retreats. That is why the concept of wellbeing is becoming more and more important.
Physical stores traditionally follow the model of urban structures, not organic structures. Most shops are rectangles with rectangular shelving systems, rectangular counters, rectangular table displays. But they could evolve to become a form of ‘sanctuary’, in the way that cafés grew to become ‘third spaces’ between home and work.
Consider: How can your store environment enhance the wellbeing of urban dwellers?
7. Personalised product experiences
The popularity of social media has made customers more aware of how they present themselves to the world. There is an increasing pressure to share stories and a growing need for help creating stories that reflect the individual. So it’s important to create ways for customers to personalise their purchases.
Much of the high street offer looks the same and behaves the same. Offer your customers something that helps them differentiate it by giving them the option to add their own mark to your product. Present your brand in a way that shifts the shopper mindset from “I like this” to “This really reflects me”.
Consider: How can your customers discover or express something of themselves in your store?
8. Service please!
The service experience is a real point of differentiation for small retailers. Many ‘big’ retailers have made their staff into robots (until they actually replace them with robots). Allow your staff to be real people. Human empathy and friendliness can go a long way in today’s retail environment.
Some staff are natural actors who can play varying roles without much training, others are not. Create different service areas, like “troubleshooting” or “product demonstrations”, to help serve customers according to their needs. This way you can prepare staff to take a different approach for each area.
Consider: What can your staff do to create a more memorable, personal and purposeful experience for customers?
9. Leave the shop once in a while
Today’s customers seamlessly blend online with offline. Whilst digital technology is raising the bar in terms of customer expectations, physical retail can stay relevant to customers by keeping a close eye to customer needs. In a strange way the modern world is bringing back the door to door salesmen, where the likes of Instagram and Depop let independent retailers easily enter our daily lives.
Many well-known brands started out as little stalls at festivals and fairs. These micro worlds gave them immediate exposure, and the opportunity to ask for direct feedback from their customers. Physically go and find the customers in the real world to evolve your brand, instead of waiting for them to find you.
Consider: Where do your typical customers hang out? How could you take your offer there?
10. Be agile, move around before you settle
The future is bright for physical retail, though it may look very different from how we see it today, anchored in a typical high street. Smaller stores can be more temporary in terms of location – a kind of hybrid in terms of the offer, and more flexible in terms of the approach to raise brand awareness.
Pop-ups are a lower risk model if you are still working out the best way to position and build up your brand. There are multiple benefits to moving around. You will meet new audiences and get more diverse customer feedback. If you can listen and learn, it will become a more realistic starting point to create a longer term retail strategy.
Consider: What different physical retail formats could your brand take on and which locations could it visit?