The rapid proliferation of the experiential phenomenon in the last couple of years has turned retail marketing on its head. It is not just the concept itself that has taken off; retail events like Chinese search giant Alibaba’s Singles Day have recorded incredible results. Although that is an extreme case, a US report by PSFK, “Future of Retail 2018”, found 55 per cent out of 400 retail executives intended to include in-store experiences in marketing budgets by 2020.

Experiential retailtainment

Alibaba rolled out an extensive pop-up store campaign for its 2017 Singles Day on 11 November with celebrities like Nicole Kidman and founder Jack Ma counting down to the sale opening. Across China, 60 pop-up stores hosted brands like Nike, Bose and Starbucks while Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and big data were put to work, driving sales to $25.3bn within 24 hours. Not to be entirely outdone, during Christmas 2017 Google created a pop-up store in Manhattan in the form of a giant snow globe in which shoppers could clamber in among foam blocks while having their photos captured on Google’s latest Pixel 2 smartphone.

This increasingly popular model of retailing is not just a marketer’s dream for the neologism and portmanteau opportunities. It puts the store itself, both permanent and pop-up, at the heart of marketing and provides bold, creative opportunities to grab footfall which stretch far beyond traditional in-store promotions and marketing techniques. Shops are no longer a predominantly transactional environment but provide engagement and entertainment. The Ikea Dining Club features pop-up restaurants, a virtual reality kitchen and workshops, while health and fitness brand Lululemon hosts complimentary in-store yoga sessions and social clubs.

The future of experiential retail

Amazon’s acquisition of upmarket grocer Whole Food’s in August 2017 is just one example of online players moving to a bricks and clicks model suggesting a physical experience remains essential to the future of retail. Brian Olsavsky, Amazon’s CFO told analysts in a 2017 earnings call “We think the bookstores, for instance, are a really great way for customers to engage with our devices and see them, touch them, play with them and become fans,” pithily encapsulating the experiential strategy.

Apple, the most valuable company in the world, has 498 retail stores worldwide, 271 in the US in it sells its up-market phones, tablets and laptops. By design these are experiential and are as much there to “promote brand awareness” as they are to transact with customers who can just as easily order an iPhone online.

An opportunity for traditional retailers

Technology has brought great disruption to traditional bricks and mortar retailers but those that have survived the onslaught from low-cost online sellers like Amazon have often done so by adopting and adapting new technology themselves. The experiential shopping experience is a real world phenomenon that traditional retailers can use to their advantage with their knowledge of providing an engaging physical shopping experience.