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Giada Pezzini | 03 September 2018

How to create immersive retail customer experiences that entice all 5 senses

How to create immersive retail customer experiences that entice all 5 senses

Everyone seems to be talking about the customer experience. But in practice, what does it translates to? In the past few years, retail brands have been implementing different strategies to create unique, engaging moments that will drive consumers through their doors. The idea lying behind is simple: offer experiences that must be lived in person, and can’t be replicated with online shopping. An increasingly popular technique is to appeal to the customers’ five senses to create truly immersive moments. Here are some of the most exciting examples around.


Vision is our dominant sense, and browsing for products on a two-dimensional screen only partially satisfies our need to really see products. Innovative retailers are taking advantage of this human urge by creating highly visual showcases that spotlight their product without the distraction of competing items – or even price tags. In the Samsung experience store in New York, each product is made the center of the experience by being displayed on its own dedicated cubical showcase, framed by neon lighting. In Rebecca Minkoff’s fashion stores, smart walls suggest new style ideas to customers as they enter and walk around the store, creating a highly visual and immersive display. British fashionwear Hunter’s flagship store in Japan uses visual cues to virtually transport shoppers to the brand’s home country. The store’s ceiling is composed of a digital lightbox that replicates a typical London cloudy sky, creating the appropriate atmosphere for shoppers to browse the brand’s collection of wellington boots, coats and umbrellas.


Some sounds can quickly trigger images and emotions – just think about how an old, favorite song playing on the radio can quickly take you back to another time and place. Although retailers have long known the importance of the right background music to set the mood, today’s most innovative stores go one step beyond, using sound to complement the products and brand image. In Hunter’s Japanese store location described above, the British cloudy sky lighting is accompanied by the sounds of heavy rain and thunderstorms to create a true multi-sensory experience. German mall Aquis Plaza, located in the historic spa town of Aachen, plays different soundtracks in different areas. All of them are based on the textures of water, and change depending on the level of traffic in the mall. Glasgow airport replaced traditional canned music with a soundscape combining ambient music with natural sounds such as birdsong. The result? Retail sales increased by up to 10%. In the future, we expect to see more retailers using sounds to create separate cocoons of meaning within the store – for example, playing calming nature sounds in the store area where meditative night lamps are displayed, upbeat electric music around the fitness trackers, or an epic cinematic soundtrack by the smart TV showcase.


Studies have shown that people are more likely to buy a product once they have touched it, or held it in their hands. Unsurprisingly, the ability to touch and try the products is exactly one of the key reasons behind formerly pure-play online retailers opening physical locations. Letting consumers touch the wares is not the only thing retailers can do to entice consumers to spend more. Research has shown that changes in temperature can influence buying decisions. In specific, people tend to trust others more – and, in a retail context, to spend more – when they are feeling warm, rather than cold. This means that smart retailers will go easy on the AC, and before a big sale, they will not hesitate to offer a warm handshake and a hot cup of coffee to prospective customers. Other studies have investigated how the tactile feelings of hardness and softness also have an impact on decision-making. Apparently, soft surfaces make people more likely to spend. Which probably explains why relaxation areas with plush sofas and fluffy pillows have been popping up in every major mall and airport around the world in recent years.


In the past few years, “scent marketing” has become a whole industry sector in its own right. This is hardly surprising if you consider that the sense of smell is directly connected to the limbic system, the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions. Research has shown that the average human brain can store up to 10,000 different smells, and automatically associate them with a certain emotion. Fashion retailers have been experimenting with “gendered smells” in their male and female retail sections for years, and found that customers are more likely to buy products that “smell” right to them. For instance, Nike discovered that adding flowery scents to their retail stores increased intent to purchase by 80%. In another experiment, a gas station pumped the smell of fresh-brewed coffee in the forecourt. The result? Coffee sales increased by 300% in their c-store.


The sense of taste is a very powerful one. Supermarkets and grocery stores have been using it to their advantage for years with free bites in-store and product samples to take home. Research in US wineries has shown that, after a tasting, shoppers are 93% more likely to spend $10 for an extra bottle of wine, and 92% more likely to buy that wine again in the future. But what if you sell goods that aren’t meant to be eaten? You could, of course, offer complimentary snacks and refreshments – think fresh cups of lemonade on summer days, or spiced cookies during the holiday shopping season (which, as an extra bonus, spread an unmistakable festive scent in the store). Or you could go all in, and open up a restaurant or café on your store premises. This is what many retail brands big and small are doing today, experiencing steady returns. After all, spending on eating out has been growing steadily across the globe in recent years, and it is expected to keep on growing over the next decade, as Cushman & Wakefield report. Sportswear brand Tommy Bahama recently opened a combination restaurant-retail outlet in Plano, Texas. According to Rob Goldberg, Executive Vice President of Restaurants, Bars and Good Concepts, retail sales in these combo outlets tend to be up to 30% higher than retail sales in similar, retail-only locations. IKEA, the furniture giant, welcomes over 600 million customers annually at its restaurants. Although the brand is best known for its furniture and houseware, every year the IKEA restaurants serve over 1 billion of their signature meatballs with lingonberry sauce. The food side of the business has become so successful that IKEA has been considering opening restaurant-only locations. As Darren Yates, Head of EMEA Retail Research & Insight, Cushman & Wakefield, puts it: A high-quality F&B offer is now critical to the success of major retail destinations. An increasing number of locations are now incorporating formats which combine the experience of eating and buying food and entertainment, which taps into consumers’ growing interest in food culture.”

An immersive experience that goes beyond pure retailing

It’s becoming harder for retailers to stand out from the competition. By using the in-store environment to target all the customers’ senses, you can create a highly-engaging, deeply sensorial experience that can’t be replicated online, and one that encourages your customers to buy now, and come back for seconds.  

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