The 5 senses as retail strategy:

When successful retailers are used in case study examples, the common buzz word to describe what they’re doing to garner their success is “experience”. Retailers who deliver an “experience” are more successful than those who do not. I believe there is common understanding throughout the industry that this is a fact.

When I see visual examples of retailers who are claiming to deliver an experience, or designers who claim their environments are delivering experiences, however, it makes me wonder if we are all talking about the same set of criteria. What makes an “experience”?

To me, an experience is complex and multi-sensory. It is visual (consistent with what most tend to gravitate to), and it is also sound, touch, taste, and smell. It is both passive and active. It is environment and it is a human touch. It offers value and enlightenment and leaves the user with a heightened sense of where they’ve been and what they’ve done. Without hitting the mark on all of these facets, I feel strongly that we are selling ourselves and our customers short.

Let’s look at the opportunity. While digital shopping and online purchases continue to grow, 85% of retail purchases remain in brick and mortar stores. According to the US Census Bureau, retail sales in 2017 totaled $3.53 trillion. 85% of that is a good size chunk of the pie.

So the question is, how do you encourage shoppers to come in, and to stay in YOUR store? That’s where the retailer’s work begins. It may be helpful to break the work down into the sensory experiences mentioned before.


Stirling Furnishings blog retail experience sight

Our visual sense is a tremendously powerful one; and one that is also easily disrupted. The opportunity for retailers is to send the “right” visual message without overloading this sense. Carrying the ‘right’ product (what appeals to consumers from a popularity, trend, novelty, season, problem solving and/or influencer standpoint) is key.

It is also critical that the product is displayed in a manner that both communicates its value (the higher the price, the more space you’ll want to give the product), differentiation (not everything can be faced out – you have to create hierarchy) as well as emotional context (how is the product used – give me clues by filling in details like environmental and digital imagery, and/or props to set mood, or complementary product that gives me context).

A classic example here is the supermarket selling charcoal at the beginning of grilling season. Bags of charcoal stacked up in a pile may do the trick, but bags of charcoal arranged next to a coal fired grill, next to a table covered in hot dogs, buns, coolers of drinks and other associated items, will set the stage for a consumer’s nostalgia to take over and to remind them of how much they enjoy a grilled meal. This also serves as a great way to encourage an add-on sale.


Beware the visual that overwhelms. It may be tempting to throw everything including the kitchen sink at your consumer hoping that something might stick. Unfortunately, when overwhelmed with options, most of us tend to shut down and turn away, choosing nothing rather than trying to make sense of the many.


Give people an opportunity to visualize themselves using the items you have on offer. Mirrors, photos, digital augmentation, great lighting, whatever the means may be. If they like what they see, with themselves figuring prominently in the story, they are going to happily complete their purchase.

Finally, the environment containing your products is an excellent way to communicate business and brand values. Beyond a stylistic or regional theme, the choice of colors, materials, textures, lighting and so forth can effectively “set the stage” for your consumer to feel comfortable, recognize your story, and be immersed in your unique way of doing business.


Stirling Furnishings blog retail experience sound

Going beyond a playlist or music subscription, sound can also be a powerful influencer. Consider your audience and match the volume of sound to what will give them the greatest comfort. This is turning the volume up or down on your amplifier but it is also consideration of the hard and soft surfaces in your store, and controlling ambient sound in a positive way. A crowded room with a lot of hard surfaces can be deafening to some.


Think about how alternative sounds like a fountain or other white noise source could lend a sense of calm or quiet to a space if appropriate to your business.

Finally, remember the pleasing sound of humans connecting with humans. How your staff engage and interact with customers is critical. Making consumers feel welcome, included, cared for and having needs met and expectations exceeded will prove to be a path well paved to loyalty and repeat business. And lest we forget, ensure there are opportunities for customers to connect with other customers – sharing their experiences with products or discussing both good and bad. A welcoming forum for such exchanges are a valuable way to connect your audience with like-minded individuals.


Stirling Furnishings blog retail experience smell

Some of you may have experienced the gem that was Midwest Express Airlines based in Milwaukee, WI. Not only did they offer direct flights to an amazing array of similar sized cities, they also offered their signature, hot and melty chocolate chip cookies. You could sense the saliva glands kicking in when the chocolate smell began wafting through the cabin. I always passed on soda to allocate calories to cookie consumption. Unless you’re Mrs. Fields, a cookie oven may not be the choice for you, but smell has undeniable power.

Today, brands and businesses turn to off the shelf and even signature scents for their establishments to enhance consumer experiences and set a specific mood.


The headache generating level of scent at some teen-centric retailers might be a bit overwhelming for most of us. Don’t fail to recognize the opportunity an open window and breeze can offer; or fragrant plants, natural materials like wood, leather or burlap, or simple add-ons like potpourri. Undesirable smells should be avoided – like a re-heated lunch or similar.


Stirling Furnishings blog retail experience taste

Purveyors of food products have this category locked up with their dizzying array of samples they regularly offer. Other retailers have opportunities here too. From beverages like coffee or water, to tiny mints or gum, to savory or sweet offerings, people enjoy eating! The options range from complementary items to a range of levels of in-store food service for sale. Regardless of the choice that works well for you, the point is hospitality. Giving your customer a little something extra that says, “We’re glad you’re here; we hope you’ll stay a while” is the point. Dwell time matters.


Stirling Furnishings blog retail experience touch

The one significant area where digital has no ability to compete, is in the touch category. And I am confident that this is why bricks and mortar retail is here to stay. If you are not dominating touch in your stores though, much of the rest of the consumer experience can be achieved on line. Don’t let this happen to you!

Through touch, we can hold product, understanding its weight, texture and functionality. We can judge its value and quality in excruciating detail. We can validate its fit, comfort and aesthetic. Ultimately, we decide if the good meets our needs, expectations, and threshold for price. All of the above sensory experiences add to and help influence that value proposition, and in the height of the experience we make a decision to buy. Making space for this assessment, allowing the trial of product is critical. Gone are the days of plucking things from a shelf because there are only three choices. We have choice therefore we scrutinize – and this is the luxury that is a personal, intimate and value-added experience.

Complementing this personal touch with the human touch of a knowledgeable and caring salesperson, can elevate the experience from buying an item to taking away a memory or souvenir of a brand or place. The salesperson who can speak to what the product benefits (not features but personal benefits) can offer to me, is the person who will win me over. I can read or find the specifications myself; the value a skilled salesperson can add is to interpret how I will find the purchase personally valuable. And that skill is invaluable.

Delivering a multi-sensory and unique brand experience to your consumers is one facet of the complex business of retail. And it is a critical facet. By carefully considering how customers will engage with you and your brand at your retail stores, and why they would choose to spend their time and money with you; you will be positioning yourself well for retail success. ●

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