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Why Retail Is Getting 'Experience' Wrong

Most customer experience design is just fresh icing on the same stale cake, argues Doug Stephens, founder of Retail Prophet.
Apple's new flagship store in Union Square, San Francisco | Source: Apple
  • Doug Stephens

TORONTO, Canada — Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once said: "Design is a funny word. Some people think that design means how it looks. But of course if you dig deeper, it's really how it works."

That central belief — that design transcends mere aesthetics and is really about how something actually functions — is what powered so much of the remarkable innovation at Apple. Apple products didn’t just look different they behaved differently too. And this same design sensibility spread throughout Apple to every aspect of how the company did business. Apple stores not only looked unlike other computer stores, they acted differently in practically every respect.

Today, just as Jobs felt the concept of design was being misconstrued, I would argue that many in the retail industry are making the same mistake when it comes to the notion of customer experience.

Customer experience is...the future of how physical retailers will generate revenue. Experiences won't just sell products. Experiences will be the products.

Certainly, no one argues the importance or value of great customer experiences. In fact, it's impossible to sit through a retail conference without hearing the term at least a dozen times. Customer experience is not only the new frontier of competitive differentiation but also, as I've often asserted, the future of how physical retailers will generate revenue. Experiences won't just sell products. Experiences will be the products. Yet, for all the violent agreement about their value, the customer experiences we most often have when we shop are mediocre and forgettable at best. Why is that?


Defining experience

The reason is a fundamental misconception about what customer experience really is and more importantly how truly remarkable customer experiences are conceived.

Most retailers assume customer experience is primarily an aesthetic concept and more about how stores and websites look and feel. Hence, you’ll very often see customer experience design projects begin with retailers updating or changing brand visuals – new logos, new websites and new store layouts, often requiring tremendous capital outlays. They ramp up marketing spending on ad campaigns pronouncing the new and improved “experience.” And frequently, as if adhering to an unwritten law, they equip store staff with tablets because…well…technology right?

Other retailers assume that customer experience simply means better, friendlier or more personalised service. Thus they invest in recruiting and training and work harder to capture data about their clientele.

The disappointment sets in when all these sorts of investments produce little in the way of marked improvement, either in enhanced customer satisfaction, improved foot traffic or sales. This is because they haven’t really designed a new customer experience at all. They’ve just put fresh icing on the same stale cake.

Engineered moments

True customer experience design means deconstructing the entire customer journey into its smallest component parts and then reengineering each component to look, feel and most importantly, operate differently than before and distinctly from competitors. It means digging below the surface within each moment to understand the underlying customer need and designing the exact combination of people, place, product and process to deliver delight in that micro-moment. It means reconnecting with the company's unique brand story (also known as the reason anyone should give a shit) and weaving it into every customer interaction. It involves using different language, methods, rituals and processes than your competitors so that the resulting experience is tangibly foreign and fascinating compared to anything else they've been through.

Truly remarkable customer experience is no different than stage production where cast, crew, set design and tech come together to bring every line, scene, and act to life, where every aspect of the well-written brand script is meticulously directed, rehearsed and performed. Where the audience feels an emotional connection to the story and a physical oneness with the action. And each day when the curtain is thrown open on your brand, the elaborate performance begins again.


This is customer experience, and when it’s done well, it leaves customers craving more.

The 5 elements of remarkable experiences

From my perspective those that are truly outstanding comprise five distinct elements and if we’re being honest, most retailers never achieve any of the five. Some achieve one or two. Fewer hit three or four. Extremely few ever achieve all five.

Truly remarkable customer experiences are deliberately engineered to be:

1. Engaging: They connect to all five senses: of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. They involve the customer in a visceral way. What we think about an experience may last hours. But memories of what we hear, feel, touch, see and taste may last a lifetime.

2. Unique. They incorporate methods, language or customs that are unusual, surprising or proprietary to the brand but are also authentic and natural. The incorporation of these unique elements lends the feeling that customers have not just entered a different store but a different world entirely.

3. Personalised. They make the customer feel that the experience was created just for them. This may be as simple as recalling details and preferences from an earlier visit or it may be as complex as creating a completely bespoke product or service design just for them. Either way, they feel special and valued.

4. Surprising. They incorporate elements or interactions that are completely unexpected. Packing even one small but delightful surprise into the experience leaves a lasting impression.


5. Repeatable. They are executed using prescriptive and tested methods to achieve a uniform level of consistency and excellence across the enterprise. They are so highly engineered and well practiced that they appear spontaneous while leaving almost nothing to chance. At the same time the experiential design affords staff just enough freedom to let their unique personalities shine through.

Courage not included

Achieving this level of customer experience is not easy but it’s also not something you can simply outsource to an agency or design firm. It requires significant organisational introspection, courage, honesty, design thinking and research. There is no off-the-shelf solution, no app and no magic to it – just the willingness to reinvent, reimagine and risk the occasional screw up. Think of it this way; if it’s not risky, it’s probably not innovative.

But if your business can get beyond the aesthetics of what your experience looks like and as Steve Jobs said, “dig deeper” into how it actually works, you’ll have taken the first transformative step toward lasting differentiation.

Doug Stephens is a retail industry futurist and the founder of Retail Prophet.

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