Engaging shoppers with experiential retail: from ‘Super Apps’ to supermarket cats

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Associate Consultant Lucy Herriot looks at the innovative online-offline methods retailers are using to engage shoppers

Welcome to another edition of This Week in Retail where, along with Christmas adverts and general elections, Black Friday has come a little early. Thousands of retailers including Smyths Toys, Superdry and ASOS have kicked off Black Friday a week early as ‘why wait’ is becoming the common philosophy we’re seeing among retailers for whom there is little logic in saving all their deals for the one day, making Black Friday into more of a shopping season than a one-day spree.

Although unlikely to reach the dizzy heights of the $38.4bn spent online by Chinese consumers in Alibaba’s Singles Day this year, which Ed from the TWIR team covered last week, we’ll soon see whether UK Black Friday spending will eclipse the £2.4bn spent last year.

These mass-spending days rely upon the power of ‘hype’ in persuading consumers to part with their money. Social media and ‘social spending’ are equally powerful sales agents and nowhere is this more true than in China, where Burberry has launched a ‘social first’ approach this week. Joining forces with Tencent (the creator of the vast social media network Weibo; and of China’s dominant ‘Super App’ WeChat), Burberry will gain access to its one-stop shop for marketing and selling its wares both online and in-stores, as social media becomes an ever more important part of the luxury customer journey. The most interesting part is that the plan involves leveraging not only Tencent’s social apps but Burberry will open a ‘social retail’ store in Shenzhen powered by Tencent technology, which will blend physical retail space and social media to create digital-physical spaces encouraging customers to ‘interact, share and spend’. The stores will trial joint Burberry-Tencent ‘innovations exploring the touchpoints in the customer journey’ in order to personalise engagement and merge luxury customers’ social and online lives with the physical store experience.

Mulberry and Waitrose also launched forays into experiential retail this week. Mulberry announced plans to open a 3,000 sq ft immersive concept-store in Leeds, which will offer a ‘seamless’ customer journey through the ‘Mulberry Universe’. John Lewis and Waitrose have vowed to reinvent the department store with their new concept shop opened in Southampton on Tuesday. The ‘Experience Playground’ offers customers chocolate and pasta-making workshops in the first-ever Waitrose Cookery School; a rooftop orchard and farm shop; landscape design consultations with in-house gardeners; personal appointments with make-up artists and stylists; and tech talks from gadget specialists on how to take the best selfie and family shots on smartphone. A Design Hub offers drop-in sessions with interior designers and a bespoke magnetic mood board with carpet, wallpaper & fabric samples for customers to experiment with. Drinks specialists can be hired to host whisky, wine, and gin tastings in customers’ homes.

This is a radical overhaul of the traditional department store model, amid a sea change in shopping habits which has pushed other department stores into rescue deals. In the battle for relevance between online and brick-and-mortal retail, and acknowledging that fewer Britons are choosing to spend leisure time at the shops, John Lewis Partnership has really understood that retailers need to create an experiential & personalised environment in stores – selling experiences as well as ‘stuff’ – if they want to engage shoppers. This retail theatre may be the perfect solution and, if successful, could provide a prototype to be rolled out in stores nationwide.

This type of retail theatre was pioneered by Selfridges, who lately have also captured the growth of engagement with  sustainable fashion with the launch of a permanent secondhand-clothing concession with Vestiaire Collective in its Oxford Street store this week. The concession will allow punters to buy and sell pre-owned luxury wear in-store, helping to build up the circular economy in the process.

At the opposite end of the high street, Primark – the home of fast-fashion – has this week touted itself as the greener choice among fashion outlets. A combination of (1) growing engagement with environmental issues in fashion (2) the boom of digital-native fashion firms and (3) the blend of digital & physical retail space used by most retailers, has prompted Primark to issue a strong defence of its all-brick-and-mortar retail model – asserting that shopping in its stores is better for the planet than buying online, because its ‘extremely efficient global supply chains’ and flight-free distribution model meant it was less polluting than online-order delivery vans ‘puffing their way up and down a street’. This might make you wonder whether those extra miles and packaging do in fact give online purchases a bigger carbon footprint than in-store purchases. But, if you consider that consolidating multiple orders into a single lorry beats multiple cars driving distances to visit stores, this statement should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt.

In other news, things may be looking up for Debenhams after it went into administration earlier this year – it has added 7,000 new jobs just in time for Black Friday and the Christmas rush. Lidl is set to top Britain’s supermarket pay league with a pay rise in line with living wage for its 19,000 staff announced this week.  Even more heartwarming are the Christmas adverts which have begun their annual parade across our screens. And finally, a Tesco Express in Norwich has become the first supermarket in the UK ever to officially ban a cat from its store. Although ‘Pumpkin the Tesco Cat’ – who loved to peruse the aisles and lounge on the tills – had amassed quite a following on Facebook, the store management said that Pumpkin disrupted store operations, ‘is banned and we are doing our best to show it the door’. Maybe Tesco could have instead enlisted him as a mascot to boost shopper engagement and in-store experience…!

Thanks very much for reading and have a great weekend,




Lucy Herriot

Associate Consultant


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