The Rise of Experiential Retail

Summer 2016
Designed by Big Red Rooster, Under Armour’s award-winning flagship Brand House store in Chicago offers an immersive brand experience; with each sport-themed zone surrounding shoppers in the experience of that sport. Magda Biernat

The brick-and-mortar stores, malls and shopping districts that are thriving in today’s omnichannel retail world offer hands-on, authentic experiences.

IN RECENT YEARS, e-commerce has gained significant momentum, establishing an ever-increasing foothold in the retail industry as shoppers increase online purchasing and decrease store visits. According to Elite Wealth Management, there were 34 billion visits to U.S. stores in 2010; by 2013, that number plummeted to an alarming 17.6 billion.

As consumers purchase more and more goods online, traditional retailers and online retailers alike are struggling with the integration of online and brick-and-mortar commerce. Today, most retailers understand the importance of a seamless omnichannel experience that marries online and in-store purchases, exchanges and returns. Many have made significant changes in their marketing, advertising and social media efforts, as well as their accounting and inventory systems, to allow for this integration.

Some clarity seems to be emerging about the types of goods and services that people purchase online versus in a physical store. While most goods can now be purchased online, many service-based activities such as dining, exercise and theater involve in-person interactions (experiences) and thus can best be purchased or transacted at physical locations. And although people can and do buy goods like furniture, sporting goods, clothing and cosmetics online, they often prefer to touch, try on or interact with those goods before commiting to them.

Thus the term “experiential retail” has become a popular way to describe the forms of physical retail spaces that are thriving and becoming even more popular in today’s omnichannel retail world.

The Experience

The bottom line seems to be that while most “stuff” can be bought online, people will still go to brick-and-mortar locations to have “experiences.” These experiences can be wide-ranging, and include the following:

  • Personal services such as nail and beauty salons.
  • Health and fitness facilities such as yoga, massage and meditation studios, as well as traditional gyms.
  • Restaurants.
  • Cinemas and theaters that present plays, concerts, comedy shows, lectures and more.
  • Art galleries and stores.
people sitting on the ground watching a show

North American Properties’ Avalon offers programmed experiences like comedy nights, yoga classes, cooking demonstrations, fashion shows and more to attract new and returning customers to its 365,000 square feet of diverse retail offerings.
Photo courtesy of North American Properties and Raftermen Photo

Many retailers, recognizing the need to offer hands-on, authentic experiences that will draw shoppers into their stores, are adapting their store formats in order to do so. These include:

Arts and crafts and hobby shops that offer classes in activities like quilting, knitting, model making, paper art and more.

Home improvement stores that offer “do-it-yourself” classes.

Appliance stores that offer cooking classes or simply allow shoppers to try out a cooktop, dishwasher or washing machine before they purchase it.

Grocery stores that have incorporated food and wine bars where people can enjoy a meal or a drink as well as a social experience before or instead of shopping.

Sporting goods stores that incorporate climbing walls, golf and tennis simulators, etc. that enable shoppers to “test drive” equipment.

Outdoor outfitters that offer lectures, classes and even travel adventures to deepen customer relationships.

Clothing retailers with high-tech fitting rooms that enable shoppers to see what an item of clothing would look like in different sizes, colors, styles and so forth.

Retailers of all types that offer shoppers refreshments, free samples, social gatherings and more.

What do all of these experiences have in common? They all make real world shopping more personalized and appealing. They give shoppers opportunities to touch, feel and/or taste items, allowing them to try out the goods before committing to buy them.

Key Questions

What does this shift to experiential retailing mean for retail developers and property owners? It is having enormous impacts on the formats of retail spaces, resulting in both smaller and larger stores for different types of goods and services. It has created tremendous challenges for retail developers and landlords, who struggle with several key questions. These include “what is the right type and mix of retailers for a particular venue?” and “what bay depths and widths and layouts are optimal for today’s retail environments?”

exterior view of a bike shop

Fitness studios like SoulCycle provide new types of exercise experiences and keep consumers coming back to shopping centers and districts.
Photo courtesy of Santana Row/Federal Realty Investment Trust

While the idea of experiential retailing may bring to mind entertainment, in-store electronic displays, interactive mirrors and new tricks of the trade, it really boils down to creating pleasant, memorable, interactive experiences that appeal to all five senses. It also requires a deep understanding of the shopper’s journey, in order to integrate strategies across marketing channels.

Westfield’s “How We Shop Now: What’s Next” survey of 20,000 consumers in the U.S. and the U.K., conducted in fall 2015, confirms that shoppers employ all five senses in the search for goods. We know that shoppers rely on sight and touch, and that retailers often use fragrances to create a calming environment. However, as this and other surveys have found, shoppers are increasingly seeking a multisensory experience. This is giving rise to “inside-out” retail experiences in which all of the senses are stimulated to provoke positive feelings within the shopper, creating a deeper attachment to the brand.

Italian architect Antonio Cardillo, for example, redesigned the Illuminum London flagship perfume store, employing a combination of sight, scent and texture – walls coated in volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius – to evoke the senses and create an immersive experience. Westfield retail expert Ryan Mullinex explains inside-out retail this way: “It’s between the conscious and the subconscious, that’s where we like to be.” Fragrances at Illuminum London are contained in clear glass globes suspended from the ceiling. All products are located in the back of the store; clerks retrieve them for customers.

In January 2016, JLL completed the acquisition of Big Red Rooster, a firm that employs specialists in consumer behavior, design and engineering, and provides go-to market strategies for multiunit retailers. In order for a store to succeed today, Stephen Jay, chief strategy officer for Big Red Rooster, says retailers must ask themselves, “What is the role of the store?” Forecasting and designing the future state of the brand typically requires a significant capital investment.

How Should Retailers Respond?

The National Retail Federation (NRF), in collaboration with FitForCommerce, published its inaugural “Omnichannel Retail Index” in October 2015. The index describes how 120 U.S. retailers are performing on a wide range of criteria across online, mobile and in-store services. It also provides a benchmark that allows retailers to evaluate and compare their omnichannel strategies against industry standards. While the retailers surveyed for the index have begun developing ties between their online and physical stores, there is still room for improvement.

A prime example of low-hanging fruit is the buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS) model. Only 28 percent of the retailers surveyed offer BOPIS as a service. Yet another example is making Wi-Fi available in store, which only 26 percent of the retailers offer. Wi-Fi allows shoppers to research a product while in the store and may influence purchase decisions.

Interestingly, NRF has collaborated with Forrester and Bizrate Insights on the report, “The State of Retailing Online,” which found that while mobile remains a priority as a sales channel and is rapidly growing, it does not necessarily drive sales growth; it simply moves sales from one channel to another. The implication drawn from these findings is that building customer loyalty and providing a seamless shopping experience is more important than simply having a mobile app.

As Mark Mathews, vice president of research development and industry analysis at NRF puts it, “technology is merely an enabler; creativity in gaining customer loyalty is equally as important as technology.” Mathews describes with zest outdoor sporting goods retailer REI, which allows potential buyers to “road test” kayaks before purchasing them. REI also offers a wide range of classes and outdoor adventures such as snowshoeing and cross country skiing that enable novice customers to test equipment — and the experience — in real-world settings.

Who’s Doing Experience Retail Well?

interior view of a men's clothing store

At Bonobos Guideshops, men can try on clothing, put together outfits and get advice from salespeople (“guides”) before ordering items to be delivered to their home or office. Bonobos was one of the first online-only retailers to open physical stores, and one of the few where shoppers don’t walk out the door with their purchases.

Great examples of retailers that are leading the experience retail revolution can be found in every sector, from grocery chains like Whole Foods Market and Wegmans, and fast food chains such as the Starbucks Reserve Roaster, to financial services providers like American Express.

The success of Whole Foods is largely influenced by its creation of a unique customer encounter. One well-known element of this experience is its wide array of organic and local food offerings. Springboarding off this nationwide fundamental, it has gone one step further in maintaining loyalty by creating personalized rewards and in-store experiences, including cooking classes, juice and coffee bars, and consultations with nutritionists, all of which appeal to millennials. It also offers online ordering and delivery in 15 markets through InstaCart.

Starbucks opened a 15,000-square- foot Reserve Roastery in Seattle in December 2015. The Roastery offers small-batch reserve coffees paired with a coffee-inspired menu created by chef Tom Douglas, including a “light lunch” option. Starbucks makes a point to partner with local food suppliers to maintain ties to the community and rotates seasonal products to encourage return visits. Meeting customer needs allows Starbucks to maintain its position as a market leader and further expand; it plans to open an additional 100 locations globally over the next five years.

Big Red Rooster client American Express’s Centurion Lounge concept offers a luxurious airport lounge in six U.S. airports, with a seventh opening this year, providing a true brand experience. These elaborate lounges offer services and amenities to differentiate members’ travel experiences and isolate them from the frenetic airport environment.

The true “winners” in the experience retail game, as Big Red Rooster’s Stephen Jay describes them, have four characteristics in common. They:

  • Are consumer-centric.
  • Know how to win versus compete.
  • Are technologically nimble and decisive.
  • Are culturally ready to accept change.

Jay stresses that the cultural shift is inherently a leadership issue and must be driven by the CEO.

One need look no further than the Under Armour Brand House on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile to see how a successful retailer has drawn from a deep understanding of the customer journey to create an exceptional example of experiential retail. Under Armour (UA) partnered with Big Red Rooster on this 30,000-square-foot gem, the largest of six such Brand Houses in North America. (More are planned, and UA is also adding Brand House elements to its other stores.)

The store design is sleek and modern, with an emphasis on digital interactivity. Shoppers enter a two-story rotunda with a ceiling lined by large-scale digital screens that activate the storefront. A centrally located, five-sided LED display promotes and reinforces brand content. The store is organized into immersive zones dedicated to specific sports such as “Hunt and Fish.” Each zone surrounds shoppers in an experience of the respective sport. In this context, the store becomes more like a clubhouse for members, those dedicated customers who become loyal to the brand.

How Developers and Owners Are Getting It Right

As noted earlier, retail developers and property owners are struggling to determine what mix of retailers, store sizes and formats will attract today’s experience-seeking shoppers. Traditional mall owners as well as other retail property owners are experimenting with multiple dining options plus various forms of entertainment, including outdoor concerts in summer and skating rinks in winter. Suburban shopping malls and urban shopping districts alike have become community gathering places for families and friends. One key component of the most vibrant settings is a tenant mix that has a connection to the community. (See “Specialty Events and Community Engagement.”)

Malls are moving toward becoming collections of specialty stores; department stores as anchors appear to be a thing of the past. In appealing to millennial shoppers, developer Rick Caruso’s Caruso Affiliated is “on the leading edge,” at The Americana at Brand and The Grove, two well-known Southern California retail and entertainment districts, notes Bill Asher, executive vice president, Hanley Investment Group. Apparel retailers H&M and Zara are “great success stories” due to their inexpensive yet stylish clothes, which are in high demand by millennials. Other desirable tenants are redefining the shopping experience with creative concepts. Asher cites Lululemon’s in-store yoga classes and Topshop’s celebrity shopper and runway show events as key experiential retail lures.

David Kitchens, a principal with national design firm Cooper Carry, is adamant that all design formulas should be thrown out in today’s retail environment, as the mix of uses combined with more diverse retail does not lend itself to a traditional “30x30 grid with two 120-foot-deep buildings divided by an enclosed 60-foot-wide common area.” Specialty uses may be smaller but they may be larger as well. He notes that some experiential retail venues — including health clubs, movie theaters and grocery stores — require 50,000- to 100,000-square-foot floor plates, while diverse restaurant options range from 2,500- to 5,000-square-foot sit-down dining to tiny “pop-up” markets.

How, exactly, are retail developers providing a multitude of experiences for shoppers? Two examples, Edens’ Mosaic District and North American Properties’ Avalon — both of which are open but still under development — offer some lessons.

Mosaic District, a 27-acre, 576,000-square-foot mixed-use development in Fairfax, Virginia, near Washington, D.C., includes retail offerings ranging from the tiny (650-square-foot) Artisan Confections chocolate shop to a 16,520-square-foot Great Gatherings store featuring indoor game room and outdoor furniture to a 168,000-square-foot urban-style Target store above ground-floor specialty retail and three levels of parking. Mosaic also features an eight-screen Angelika Film Center, numerous dining options, a hotel, two apartment communities, for-sale townhouses and office space occupied by online t-shirt retailer CustomInk, which has opened its first brick-and-mortar store there.

A walkable neighborhood in its own right, the Mosaic District offers visitors a wide range of experiences, including bread baking classes, fragrance workshops, wine tastings, craft classes and silhouette cuttings at various stores and restaurants; outdoor story hours, family movie nights and Sunday morning yoga classes in the neighborhood park; and indoor fitness, cycling, yoga and children’s dance classes at a variety of studios. (For more on Mosaic District’s first phase of development, see “The Mosaic District,” Development, fall 2013.)

Avalon in Alpharetta, Georgia, roughly 23 miles north of Atlanta, is an 86-acre mixed-use community. Its first phase contains more than 365,000 square feet of best-in-class retail (100 percent leased), a 12-screen cinema, 105,000 square feet of Class A office space (100 percent leased), 101 single-family homes (half of which have been constructed) and 250 luxury multifamily homes (95 percent leased). The walkable community offers seamless connections between living, shopping, playing and working. Amenities include a children’s play area, dog park, bocce court and community fire pit. But perhaps the most important amenity is an ultra-high-speed fiber optic broadband network, which brings Internet connection speeds more than 100 times faster than other services to the entire community.

Ron Pfohl, North American Properties’ director of leasing, nails the experiential paradigm shift when he articulates the developer’s strategy: “In developing Avalon, we carefully curated a merchandise mix that would resonate with the affluent North Atlanta community. We intentionally designed Avalon’s retail component to offer smaller spaces …. Our square footage reflects the shift in less demand for quantity of product and more demand for quality of experience.”

Store sizes range from a 748-square- foot Pinkberry frozen yogurt shop to the 54,000-square-foot Regal Cinemas; the average store size is 5,160 square feet. Retailers offer a variety of experiences, including yoga classes at Lululemon; fly fishing demonstrations at Orvis; an interactive color bar where guests design personalized jewelry at Kendra Scott; a touch-screen, interactive mirror at Whole Foods that reads a shopper’s “aura” and recommends products; and a 921-square-foot Bonobos Guideshop where men are treated to custom clothing fittings.

Improving the Retail Journey

Shoppers are looking for a better, cheaper, faster and seamless journey. Developers, property owners and retailers alike must rethink their strategies to create experiences that draw consumers in — to a website, a mall, a shopping district or a store — and keep them coming back.

Paco Underhill, author and CEO of Envirosell, a research firm that advises retailers and designers, puts it this way: “Physical design and culture must work hand-in-hand. … The physical design is easy, understanding the culture is the hard part.”

A Promising Future for Grocery-Anchored Shopping Centers

Today’s commercial real estate investors have seemingly endless choices about where to park their capital. Whether it’s passive or active investing, from buying shares in REITs to acquiring properties, there’s no shortage of options. But as consumer trends and habits change, so do the types of properties on which investors are focused.

One asset type that can be expected to remain durable is the grocery-anchored shopping center. These mostly suburban, easily accessible community hubs meet local residents’ basic daily needs for food, dry cleaning, health and mail services and, increasingly, serve as social meeting places. Despite the recent surge in online shopping, these neighborhood shopping centers remain vibrant.

exterior view of a wegman's grocery store

Wegmans Food Markets anchors Chestnut Hill Square in the Boston suburbs.

Why are grocery-anchored shopping centers here to stay? Because they are quick to adapt. While the wants and needs of consumers change often, the ability of grocery-anchored shopping centers to adjust to these needs has been critical to their success. For instance, as retailers better understand how consumers want to be engaged, some have been able to adjust their previously in store-only sales strategy by incorporating an omnichannel approach.

A 2013 white paper by IDC Retail Insights, “Redefining the Shopper Experience With Omnichannel Retailing,” revealed that consumers who shop both online and in stores spend up to 3.5 times more than shoppers who use only one channel. This trend offers an incredible opportunity for retailers who can, for example, let shoppers order something online and pick it up in the store or return it to the store, or even use digital tools to determine whether — or where — they can find a product in a store. The more retail touch points a retailer can offer, the more opportunities the retailer has to convert a sale.

Grocery-anchored shopping centers, as local neighborhood hubs, provide a convenient place to satisfy the demands of increasingly busy patrons, and they will continue to do so. These centers, and the grocery chains that are their primary tenants, have been quick to adapt to the rise of online and omnichannel shopping in order to increase revenue, for example, by adopting smaller formats (such as 365 by Whole Foods) and diversifying the ways in which consumers can shop, to make the process as convenient as possible, including curbside pickup for grocery and restaurant orders placed online.

Because these shopping centers cater to the everyday needs of the community, their appeal is enduring. Regardless of the season or economic landscape, people need to eat. When they need food, their local grocery store, surrounded by reliable everyday services and representative of the community in which they live, will continue to be their first stop.

By Karim Fadel, founder and principal, Unison Realty Partners

Specialty Leasing and Community Engagement

Specialty leasing and event experiences have become a core tool to drive visibility for and traffic to retail developments, as well as a valuable income generator. They enable product and event sponsors to share an engaging message with shopping center visitors. They also attract more community engagement which, in turn, expands the shopping center’s brand image and brings in new shoppers.

From auto-oriented activities to fashion events, pop-up theme stores and environmentally friendly experiences, specialty leasing has made a significant contribution to the success of Federal Realty Investment Trust’s national retail portfolio, according to Mike Kelleher, vice president-specialty leasing at the Rockville, Maryland-based owner and operator of over 90 U.S. properties.

“These highly targeted opportunities allow brands to get a message in front of large volumes of people at attractive rates,” says Kelleher. “Specialty leasing for a few days, a month or an entire season can create an experience that’s not to be missed, enabling customer interaction on a big stage.”

people sitting in chairs watching a speaker

Community events like this ”mommy and me” gathering can attract new, experience-oriented customers.
Photo courtesy of Santana Row/Federal Realty Investment Trust

Kelleher says that in the past, specialty leasing simply meant putting a temporary “placeholder” shop in an empty inline space that was awaiting a permanent tenant, but that has changed. “Federal Realty now sees specialty leasing as a competitive advantage for our brand differentiation and as a benefit to our tenants. We know this program is an asset to our centers and communities; we hear from retailers who experience a noticeable boost in traffic, from workers in our office buildings who love being in exciting, engaging environments and from residents who love taking part in the changing activities.”

What types of specialty leasing can augment the retail experience while improving community engagement as well as retailers’ and property owners’ bottom lines? Examples include the following:

Car partnerships. Tesla is a tenant at Federal Realty’s Santana Row in San Jose, California, where its space allows visitors to explore Tesla’s technology, learn about ownership and even configure a car in a “Design Studio.” In 2015, Tesla was an important component of Bethesda Row’s “The Front Row” fashion event in Bethesda, Maryland, engaging with consumers in a customized way. Over the years, the REIT has formed similar relationships with other auto companies.

Event sponsorships. Events sponsored by for-profit companies as well as nonprofit and civic organizations can draw great public participation.  Sponsored events at Federal Realty’s Assembly Row in Somerville, Massachusetts, for example, include recurring events like “Live Music Thursdays,” weekly yoga classes on the riverfront and “Dancing by the Mystic (River)” as well as one-time events such as the MSPCA’s “Fast and Furriest 5K” and annual events like the Somerville Road Runners’ “Race to the Row.”

Environmental and social responsibility initiatives. Zipcar, which has been working with Federal Realty since 2011, has vehicles parked at several properties and holds occasional informational events. Federal Realty also partners with charitable organizations, for example, by donating vacant store space to a food pantry for a holiday food drive, and by hosting events to benefit charitable organizations.

Additional efforts. Other examples of specialty leasing include product sampling, carts and kiosks, temporary and pop-up stores, and online marketing and signage. 

Federal Realty’s goal is to provide the best possible experience at every property. Specialty leasing, events and property programming help take that experience up several notches. They also provide a significant return for both investors and retailers while supporting the community at large.

By Andrea Simpson, vice president-marketing, Federal Realty Investment Trust