The Experience Matters

Like it or not, we now live in an "Experience Economy", where, as the Harvard Business Review so eloquently put it, "a company intentionally uses services as the stage, and goods as props, to engage individual customers in a way that creates a memorable event."

I was recently asked to do some consultancy for a local shopping centre, one that I have passed many times, but had not dropped into for many years. Once I did drop in, it was a depressing visit. The retailers looked like they had not invested in their business for a number of years and none of the stores inspired me to buy. The Shopping Centre Management team were focused on rental space and how they could get retailers to pay more for space that was generating fewer and fewer dollars per square metre of sales space. When I asked what the problem was I was told that the customer count and conversion rate was going down because consumers were “shopping online“ and they were looking for the silver bullet.

Many shopping centres around the world are facing similar challenges.

The Importance Of Thinking Different

Compare that shopping experience with The Grove in Los Angeles Fairfax District, another shopping centre. This one was opened in 2002. On average, the centre generates around $27,000 US per square metre of retail space which is four times the national average for shopping centres. Its conversion rate is a staggering 90% from on average 49,000 visitors a day. Compare that to Disneyland, the most successful theme park in the world which attracts about the same number of visitors each day.

When you ask, why is this shopping centre so successful? you get the same response as you do at my local shopping centre; “shopping online”

Both shopping centres see “shopping online” as the main competitor. The difference though is that one sees it as a problem whilst the other one sees it as an opportunity.

It is exactly the same scenario as in our businesses; it all depends on how you look at the problem.

'Bricks and Mortar' Retailing is successful and will continue to be

Most of us would classify ourselves as being predominately in the “Bricks and Mortar” segment of retailing. A section of retailing that is going through major changes.

The good news is that consumers will continue to shop at stores and shopping precincts and in environments that relate to their 'needs' and 'wants', so we have to make sure we do everything we can to meet those needs and desires.

If, however, you fail to meet those requirements, consumers will simply shop somewhere else. A consumer's 'needs' used to be centered around the product, “stack it high and watch it fly” used to be a common retail term for successful selling; that has long-since changed.

Restaurant EPOS System

People Love to Hang Out

One of my favourite parts of the world is Italy, especially at the end of the day. I will be found at a local bar where I will hang out with the locals and indulge in cake, coffee and the occasional wine and enjoy hanging out with the locals, I start to feel I am part of the community, even though I do not speak their language.

These bars have discovered a formula that works for a successful shopping centre, garden centre, farmers market or other retail establishment. Customers want to “hang out” and successful retailers create a place where people love to hang out, where they feel they are part of a community. A place where they leave feeling happier than when they went in. An experience that they will not find if they go “online shopping”. I often use the phrase 'Gathering Places' with my clients.

The key to success is designing business where the customer feels like they can hang out and not feel pressured to “move on”.

What are the keys to success?

  • Let the "Business" tell a story

Build a business where the business tells the story and makes people happy and enriches their lives.

An example of this is, if you like outdoor sports and recreation, the Bass Pro Shops across Canada and the USA. The financial capital has been invested in story telling rather than in building construction. The building is basically a large shed, but the investment is in creating the stories inside the shed to take the customer on a journey. I accept that the budget at Bass Pro is a larger budget than most retailers can spend, but the story can as easily be put together in small establishment by using what you around already.

Customer Experience Crooked Carrot

On my journey into the city from my home in West Australia, I pass “The Crooked Carrot” A coffee stop that was opened by a local farmer on the Highway. It is one of at least a dozen places I can stop for coffee on the journey.

I do not always stop; the only reason being that the car park may be too full!

This local farming family has created a place where people love to hang out. The coffee is the same as the other venues, but the experience is something that you will tell your friends about.

  • Let the "Products" tell a story

We are all aware that people buy stories not products. But are we getting that message across. I recently did some consultancy for a bread retailer.

Not one product was labelled, never mind having story behind it. When I asked why, I was told that consumers knew what they wanted and hence the lack of labelling. I agree, “we know what we know”. Surely the aim of retailer is to provide the information to allow us to explore further. If you want to increase the average sale per customer, the answer is simple, tell me the product based stories.

Take me from the “known to the unknown”

Inspire, Surprise, Delight are three key words in retailing that are used to grow sales.

Welbeck Farm Shop Cheese Counter EPOS System

Welbeck Farm Shop in Nottinghamshire is a great example of a business that is good at telling product 'stories'. It makes the most of its local production capability and conveys provenance at every opportunity to customers whilst they are in store. Their signage is clear and they are able to draw down crucial product information on to their labels from their EPOS solution for display in the various counters and on shelves.

  • Create a Social Club

In my view, The Weber Grill Academy, developed by Weber has placed that product as the leader in the category.

They have developed a community of barbeque users and the academy teaches their advocates how to cook and share ideas about outdoor cooking. Consumers will pay for such an experience. For example, the Weber Academy costs 99 Euro to attend, has a ceiling of 18 delegates per session and often runs three times a day. This has become a profitable community activity.

But, back to the successful shopping centre... They understand they have to be perceived as a part of the community, not a place you go to shop. They realize that they can and should teach their guests and provide facilities where people can hang out together and when those visitors leave they feel that they are happier and more enriched than when they walked into the centre.

This approach works for all retailing, it is not about the product anymore, it is about the experience.

Wine Tasting EPOS System Shop

I agree this does take more effort and imagination for the retailer, but it is all about the return on the investment.

Many of you will know I, and my wife, have a sweet chestnut farm that is in the Agric –tourism sector. We allocate one hour of our time to show people around the farm and tell them the stories. Why? Well, we have a conversion rate of around 95% and compared to other businesses in our sector our average sale is at least 1000% more.

We provide an 'experience' and then offer our ”shopping online” capabilities to enhance the memory of visiting the farm.

Take it from me... the key to success is to enrich the lives of consumers and make them smile as they leave your business. You will be glad you did!


Marjo Niemi

Thank you John
Those words are wise words.
I have to repeat them again and again????

John Stanley

John Stanley


John Stanley is a retail consultant specialising in the farm retail sector. Based in West Australia, he is a sweet chestnut and pig farmer as well as consultant and conference speaker with clients in 35 countries. He is the author of several books in this subject, including the book 'Food Tourism... A Practical Marketing Guide'

Great minds think alike.

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