Surviving the retail revolution

Editor's note: Based in New York, Fiona Blades is president and chief experience officer at MESH Experience, a London research firm. 

In our work helping clients understand consumers’ experiences, we’ve witnessed the startling speed with which digital has transformed retail. We spotted the beginning of a trend back in 2011 and watched over the next two years as the percentage of people reporting an in-store experience of any kind for our client halved! 

Further digging revealed that people were going online, mainly to retailer Web sites. Moreover, through our research we saw this early in the path to purchase, when they were researching what brand to buy, and towards the end of the journey, when they were searching where to buy their chosen brand at the best price. This insight changed the way our clients worked with their retail partners.

To see what people value most about in-store shopping, we analyzed thousands of retail experiences in our firm’s database. Three aspects stood out:

Sampling. Consumption touchpoints are normally the most engaging and persuasive experiences that people have with brands. So, getting to try the product in a retail environment is very powerful.

Speaking to assistants. A great staff interaction transforms a retail experience.

Touching and feeling the product. Reading about the car online isn’t the same as sitting inside the car, smelling the leather and holding the steering wheel.

Observations like the above give us clues to how bricks-and-mortar retail can be repurposed: It needs to transform from transactional to experiential.

The implication of this shift is profound. The purpose of bricks-and-mortar retail is no longer to generate sales but to build brands. It needs to be on the media plan alongside TV and other brand-building channels.

Many companies have taken this to heart and we are now seeing brands creating amazing touchpoints in retail. Take Hermes Dip-Dye Laundromat in pop-ups across Europe and the U.S. Customers are invited to bring their Hermes scarves, dye them and fall in love with them all over again. And what about the Magnum Pleasure store, another pop-up which has seen lines around the block as customers await personalized ice cream confections that gleam like jewels?

What these brands understand is that the experience people have in these stores will have a long-term effect. Seeing and tasting the quality of a gorgeous Magnum ice cream has a greater chance of changing brand perception than being told about it in a TV or print ad. What’s more, not only is the depth and quality of experience greater but, with social media, the spread of messaging to friends and relatives means that those who haven’t ever been will hear about it.

New frameworks and tools 

If retail is transforming, we need new frameworks and tools to measure its impact. While we spend lots of resources on measuring TV advertising, we spend surprisingly little on retail. These are the measurement gaps clients have mentioned:

  • We know how much we are spending and what sales we are getting but we don’t know whether the activity drove the sales.
  • We are spending significant amounts on pop-ups/events/displays and cannot quantify ROI.
  • Who is being reached and with what engagement?

Millions of dollars around the world are spent on retail display but when asked by the Path to Purchase Institute how they measured the effectiveness of POP, 53 percent of clients claimed to do so through sales, with no one measuring via technology. Existing measures – from brand-tracking modules to exit interviews, ethnography, in-store video and eye-tracking – all have drawbacks, from poor-quality data to cost.

We believe that in today’s world marketers should take an experience-driven marketing approach. We have discovered that share of experience (SOE) (all paid, owned and earned media) has a greater correlation with market share than share of voice so think SOE when it comes to deciding investment levels. A positive experience has three times the impact of a neutral one on brand consideration. So, if you want to grow your brand, ensure you are generating more positive experiences. You can give your brand an unfair advantage through message, placement and context.

In terms of measuring the success of retail activity, we would advocate a couple of points. First, compare the quantity and quality of retail experiences in the context of all other paid, owned and earned media. And, don’t stop at sales; measure emotional response to retail display.

New tools can help us. To maximize the impact of retail, it is important to place retail in the context of all your other touchpoints to see whether to invest more here and less elsewhere. More recently, we have started using new, tech-enabled tools within retail displays and have developed a way to evaluate retail display using cameras and algorithms, without video and the need to store personal information.

Here are some of the questions we can start to answer with this approach:

-- Does my end-of-aisle display work better than an in-shelf feature?

-- Does a brand-building display work better than a price-offer display?

-- On which metrics in the purchase funnel does my seasonal display work versus my occasion-led display?

-- In which stores does the same display work most successfully?

-- Which days of the week/times of day does my display work most successfully?

Let’s look at a case study. For Unilever, we took a store in Sao Paulo where we wanted to assess the impact of a change of store display for Knorr seasonings. There was a new, healthier seasoning range with natural flavorings and 25 percent less salt. To communicate this, there was a shelf hanger “stopper” placed on either side of the product range. We compared two periods to see the change in shopper-display interaction. The first, during November, had no display. The second, during December, had the display material. To contextualize our data, we used Google’s Popular Times feature. Of course, for a bigger study, we would envisage putting in cameras to understand footfall to the store and to the aisle and contextualizing with sales data, the weather and other data streams.

We also created specific terminology. A viewer is someone who looks at the display for at least a second. Noticeability is the number of viewers. Attention is how long the viewers looked at the display. Engagement is the percentage of the viewers who displayed a happy, smiling emotion while looking at the display.

These were some of the results:

Even with relatively small pieces of display (the shelf stoppers) we saw a massive lift in noticeability, with over three times as many viewers. Of course, we need to better understand why. Maybe more people walked down the aisle? By putting another camera to observe traffic we could account for this.

Noticeability was relatively flat when there was no display (except around lunchtime on weekdays) but for the display period it seemed to stand out around peak times. Did this new information catch people’s eyes?

The display seemed to be noticed more by men than women and this was particularly the case during those peak shopping times.

On average people paid attention for just three seconds. And most peak-time views only lasted a second. So, it’s important that your message is easy to glean.

The percentage of people displaying positive emotions was fewer with display than no display. Was this because we were capturing the attention of those not looking to buy seasonings? We picked up a variety of emotions so there is plenty more analysis needed to understand how display is impacting on people’s emotional responses. For example, are they irritated to be interrupted in their shopping? Even if the display is not generating engagement, since it is getting noticed it should be increasing awareness and therefore longer-term brand-building.

In terms of implications, we are seeing billions spent on display – with a dearth of evaluation. Technology can help marketers understand the return on their investment. With approaches like real-time camera ethnography we can see how many people the display is reaching – much more than store traffic, location matters. We can see whether the display is engaging people and doing its brand-building job. And we can see if the display is converting to sale. 

We are living in rapidly changing times when it comes to retail. As the role of the bricks-and-mortar touchpoint transforms from transactional to experiential it is even more important that we provide the measurement tools to match.