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Eric Feigenbaum

In-Store Experiences Transcend Customer Service

Today’s retailers must recognize that physical stores are more than just places to buy things

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WHILE THERE ARE MANY retail philosophies that remain timeless and revered, the industry must never be restrained by history or the relentless changing of the calendar. And yet, as we turn back the clocks in early November for but a season, we should consider the time-honored retail adage: “Customers may not remember what they bought, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”

There is not a business, or entity for that matter, that can be oblivious to the passage time. And while JCPenney, a merchant prince from a bygone era, spoke passionately about customer service, the question must be asked, does customer service today transcend Penney’s golden rule? The core of his philosophy was “treat your customer as you would want to be treated.” And now as we look toward the future, we’re compelled to reconsider the meaning of customer service. Though a critical component of any retail strategy, customer service is a subset of a broader construct, the totality of the customer experience.

Customer experience is the holistic effect that a shopper feels when interacting with a retail organization; it’s an immersion into the heart and soul of the brand. It can be further defined as the impact of every customer interaction from the welcome mat at the front entrance, and the character of the in-store sales associates, to website navigation and content on social media. It should be noted that the orchestration and syncopation of all customer engagement has a singular purpose: to create relationships.

Is there a business that wouldn’t benefit from an enhanced customer experience? “Experiential retail” is a term that has been bandied about the industry for some time now. But is experiential more than merely a buzzword? Can it indeed spell the difference between success and failure?

The impact of technology has been, and will continue to be, dramatic, both before and after the pandemic. Today, the path to purchase is anywhere, anytime. And while the physical store remains the most important touchstone of a brand, its overall purpose and reason for being is not what it once was. The store is no longer just a place to make a purchase, but rather a place to create and cement relationships. The commodities being offered by retailers within the walls of their brick-and-mortar establishments are not tangible products, but rather palpable and distinct experiences. The march of time tells us that the in-store experience is forever changed, and the physical store now offers the opportunity to provide experiences that can’t be delivered online.

The store is still a tool of communication with the ability to strike a responsive chord within the hearts and minds of customers across all socioeconomic demographics. A successful store environment will move the emotions by providing memorable and immersive experiences that the customer will eagerly and readily share via social media and word of mouth. The physical store will be the marquee that announces the culture, philosophy and the distinctive nature of the brand. It will inform the customer who the retailer is, what they have to say, and how they say it. The newly defined store experience will be welcoming, intimate and caring. Customer engagement will be inspired through storytelling, empathy and an understanding of customers’ wants, needs, fears and concerns.

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Turning the clock back into retail history, Norman Bel Geddes, a visionary industrial designer of the 1930s, who also made significant contributions to store design said, “the store (window) is a stage on which the merchandise is presented as the actors.” Springing ahead to present day, and further to tomorrow, the store is now an interactive stage on which the customer is presented as an engaged participant.

While today’s enlightened retailer is now designing and choreographing compelling customer experiences, they must continually review and analyze the totality of the customer journey as they travel from the retail of yesterday to the retail of tomorrow.

Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience. He served as corporate director of visual merchandising for Stern’s Department Store, a division of Federated Department Stores, from 1986 to 1995. After Stern’s, he assumed the position of director of visual merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, an architectural design firm in New York City. Feigenbaum was also an adjunct professor of Store Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and formerly served as the chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College (New York) from 2000 to 2015. In addition to being the New York Editor of VMSD magazine, Eric is also a founding member of PAVE (A Partnership for Planning and Visual Education). Currently, he is also president and director of creative services for his own retail design company, Embrace Design.

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