Doug Garnett’s Blog


Experiential Retail is Overhyped & Misunderstood: The good – and bad – of REI, Barnes & Noble, Ross, Orvis, ACE, and Catching your Dinner

<strong>Experiential Retail is Overhyped & Misunderstood:</strong> The good – and bad – of REI, Barnes & Noble, Ross, Orvis, ACE, and Catching your Dinner

Bloomberg retail columnist @sarahhalzack passed along an article about an “experiential” restaurant in New York whose gimmick is that you catch your own trout or salmon in a countertop “river” for their team to prepare. The food had better be damned good to support the extraordinary prices needed to cover the costs of maintaining catchable & edible live fish.

Still, the question of experience in the store is critical because today we are surrounded by a group of “experiencer” consultants who get so extreme they sound like they want retail stores to be turned into amusement parks.

So to learn more about experience, up against this “catch your own dinner” restaurant let me suggest we consider the other extreme: Barnes & Noble. B&N is known to be a struggling retailer and their struggle starts with delivering a very poor bookstore experience. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen anything to suggest they understand this.

In fact, industry wide — and after considerable mis-direction by experiencers — the role of experience in shopping has become poorly understood today.

A cautionary tale from advertising

This isn’t the first time I’ve run into a loaded word like “experience” leading self declared experts to race quickly into the weeds. In advertising far too many creative directors believe their job is to make ads into “entertainment”. The problem is that entertainment, as a category, means movies, concerts, games, sitcoms, and only a few other things. So agencies work hard to make ads which might win academy awards – yet fail to have the impact their clients need.

But what’s really “entertaining” to people? Most entertaining things are not “entertainment”. Consider:

  • Making things is entertaining (just look at the popularity of the wide range of “making” hobbies).
  • Crossword puzzles and Sudoku are entertaining.
  • Learning something is entertaining.
  • Solving problems is entertaining.
  • Reading books is entertaining.
  • Hunting and fishing are entertaining.
  • Some find it exceptionally entertaining to hunt for things with a metal detector.
  • Long, quiet drives are entertaining.
  • Working out is entertaining.
  • Cooking can be entertaining.
  • Working on the house is entertaining.
  • Working in the yard is entertaining.
  • A quiet talk with an old friend is very entertaining – more satisfying than the latest Mission Impossible movie.
  • My father in law, a trained union machinist, was entertained when he was in constant motion working on the house or the cabin or his trailer or at the duck hunting club.

You rarely see a deeper understanding of “entertaining” in ads – even in hunter targeted ads on the Outdoor Channel. Instead, we get ads that are sometimes abstractly entertaining for those who aren’t in the target market. These ads are ineffective and far less entertaining for the people who actually care about the product.

Retail experiencers make retail less effective

In the same way, experiencers seem to spout a one dimensional sense of “experience” that would turn a great store into a bad amusement park. We hear it in adulation of ideas like adding a cafe at Tiffany’s to have “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (a nice small idea). Or since Apple stores have stagnated (the shine is off their products) we’re hearing a lot of hype about their stores as “gathering place” (that’s a very serious warning sign of impending problems). Or, perhaps, Samsung’s New York store “which isn’t a retailer at all” (where do I begin?).

I respect that retailers have to try new things. But they could avoid wasting money by paying attention to important truths about experience and retail:

  • Experience has ALWAYS been very important in retail. And when retailers fail, it’s generally because the experience of shopping in their store no longer delivers the values their shoppers expect or need. Truth is that we have gone through experiencer utopianism before – in the 1950s and 1960s. It didn’t work then either.
  • The purpose of retail is to connect consumers to products in a way that generates profit for the retailer (in the store or online). That means products must be the most important part of the experience the store delivers. Experiencer ideas build from the outside in – and leave out product as a result.
  • “Experience” as an element cannot be separated from the entire retail store mix. Like? Curation of product (innovative products, standard consumables, special deals), product display, customer service, facility quality, cleanliness, and maintenance, convenience, assortment, price, discovery of surprising products & opportunities, and more. This mix determines whether someone shops with you again, shops your website when they can’t get to the store, how often they’ll come back to the store, and how much they’ll buy when they do. In truth, the overall experience of shopping at your store determines your brand no matter what your advertising says.

Barnes & Noble’s experience problem

Why doesn’t Barnes & Noble give off any feel of “books”? When I go to B&N the trappings are there – book style shelving, lots of books, some book posters, etc… And, yet, it doesn’t feel any of the emotion or sense I get from books, looking for books, or a library. What do they believe they’re providing in experience?

Certainly I’m not their typical customer – my taste in books is pretty eclectic. But I understand the sense of books that motivates most people.

What I begin to think is that B&N believes their job is to offer a deal discovery experience. They constantly hawk second rate books at discount prices – cluttering the aisles and shelves. And they offer expensive looking books for cheap – except when you really look at them they’re cheaply made to look expensive.

If this is what’s going on then B&N doesn’t understand what shoppers want around books. Finding the book that YOU want on that specific day is important above all else. Similar to television, interesting programming dominates the value chain. Searching for discounted books is low on the book buyer list.

I don’t know if my discovery theory here is accurate. I do know that I don’t enjoy shopping at Barnes & Noble even though I LOVE bookstores and libraries.

Shopping Experience: The Ross Dress for Less experience success

Let’s contrast B&N with an example of discovery with discounting done right – Ross Dress for Less. When I observe that Ross uses their in-store experience well I quite often get these quizzical looks. Most often I hear people respond “but I hate Ross. The shelves are crammed, it’s a bit chaotic, I have to really work hard to search to find something good.”

My answer: “Exactly.”

Hang out in a Ross store and watch how their shoppers engage deeply in the search. You can sense the success they feel when, after digging through a disorganized shelf, they find they’re able to buy 5 shirts for $80. Or when they discover that thing they find valuable but which other people ignore.

Shopping IS the experience at Ross. They have a shopping process led by the opportunity to make your family’s life better for less money if YOU can only be smart and clever enough to find the things that do that.

Seems to me that’s a pretty damn compelling experience – and an emotionally satisfying experience. Unfortunately for Barnes & Noble, books don’t fit that model well.

Experience is different in hobby/specialty categories:  REI

Saw this post this morning on LinkedIn from Guy Kawasaki. Consider well what he says.

Sometimes just looking at my boards makes me happy. Get a surfer to explain this phenomenon to you.

When we shift to a hobby or specialty store the important shopping experience changes. As Guy’s comment indicates: products encapsulate the thing he loves doing.

The retail experiencers go so far as to suggest the store needs to BE the experience of surfing – and we can see it most clearly in their theories that REI’s climbing wall’s importance is the experience of climbing it.

That’s shallow thinking. Kawasaki’s comment is about what he gets from the product in and of itself. Certainly he represents an extreme case – he watched them being made. But the well made surfboard encapsulates a tremendous amount of recall for him of the feelings and emotions connected to surfing.

REI gets this. The climbing wall at REI is a prop – not an experience. As a prop, though, its presence makes a statement that  “we know you love adventure and need great products to do it”. The important experience while at REI is to think back to all kinds of outdoor activities and adventures (skiing, cycling, backpacking, fishing) and be emotionally involved as you look for products that make future experiences even better. The store should recall some of the sense and emotion that Guy Kawasaki refers to with his surfboards.

If shopping is associated with a well loved hobby, then crafting the experience to help bring up memory of past emotions or anticipation of future experience is powerful enjoyment.

Another specialty category:  Ace Hardware

Ace Hardware stores do this same thing for my wife and I. My wife grew up around tools and we both enjoy a morning wandering the aisles of a good hardware store while we shop for things we need. Why? We’re surrounded by products which bring up emotional connections that mean something to us. And we get to shop for, and buy, products we need to do the next set of things we enjoy.

It’s worth noting that almost every hardware store (including the big boxes) have at one time or another attempted to expand the experience beyond products and services with workshops, trainings, and other approaches. Some continue to offer these because they add a bit of value – but it’s minimal. In these categories, the store experience itself must carry the feelings

The poor economics of experience retail:  Orvis

I love flyfishing and grew up fishing mountain streams, beaver ponds, and lakes in the Colorado Rockies. Now living in Portland, OR, I live within 2-3 hours of some of the best trout water in the world.

Yet, I really dislike the fancy fly shop experience where they try far too hard to create an experience. Seems that everything is overpriced. It’s not that I’m cheap. But, I’m a fly fisherman from way back. My feelings about getting too fancy are influenced by growing up skiing the black diamonds in jeans while flatlanders came to Colorado dressed in fancy gear carrying fancy skis in order to head to the bunny slopes.

I’ve shopped Orvis stores all around the US and never bought a thing (I do buy some Orvis brand product at real fly shops, though).

Orvis stores reveal the economics of experiencers: Focus too intensely on making the store into the experience and prices become disconnected from reality. Orvis makes it work by selling a lot of fly fishing gear to a wealthy market. But I still won’t shop there – and I know I’m not missing anything.

Each retailer must find it’s OWN mix that delivers experience

Rather than search for experience economy answers to a far more complicated and detailed problem, retailers need to slow down and look at their specific customers and the mix that delivers an experience that maximizes profitability as well as store longievity.

Only when the right products are stocked in a store people want to visit for that purpose with prices that fit expectations and customer service that wraps it all up can retailers thrive. So can we please leave the extreme experience talk where it belongs — with Six Flags, Disney and Universal Studios?

©2018 Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved



















Categories:   Retail, Retail marketing


  • Posted: October 12, 2018 06:42

    Russ Pinney

    Another excellent and nuanced post Doug. In the hands of our new breed of 'thought leaders', the word 'experience' is fast joining the ranks of 'engaging' and 'storytelling' as meaningless terms sprinkled atop poor thinking to give it the gloss of credibility. Good to see it dissected for what it is. '"If shopping is associated with a well loved hobby, then crafting the experience to help bring up memory of past emotions or anticipation of future experience is powerful." - such a great insight. Thanks, Russ
    • Posted: October 12, 2018 17:40

      Doug Garnett

      Thanks, Russ. Hearing from you is really helpful. Best...Doug