Experience necessary

Manufacturers that think their products do not have sufficient high street exposure are now opening their own retail outlets.

In-store experiences are vital, particularly where people want to get their hands on the product. In the UK, the mobile telecoms sector has changed its focus, from acquiring new customers to retaining existing ones as the market has matured. Orange, for example, has achieved this by providing ‘live’ handsets and allowing staff the time to ‘coach’ customers. The stores now also offer a ‘pit stop’ service, allowing customers to recharge their phones, creating another reason to pop in.

Do companies that offer experiences dedicated to keeping the customer content earn greater profits? Orange certainly thinks so: commercial targets have been met, it says, and the concept has been rolled out to the brand’s largest store to date, in the Birmingham Bullring. Designed by Simon Stacey while at 20/20 (Stacey is now partner at Lippincott Mercer), the store opened in July 2003.

Elsewhere, Apple Computer has shown that selling computer hardware doesn’t have to be dull. Its retail stores build on the product’s design strengths and issue advice from a lecture theatre. Its first store opened in SoHo, New York a few years ago, and Apple now has 80 such stores. A store is planned for Regent Street in London next month, designed by architect Gensler. The stores reputedly account for $1 out of every $7 of Apple’s total sales.

Similarly, upmarket estate agent Foxtons has turned many of its public offices into café-style showrooms, designed by Icewit Design Partnership. Iconic furniture sits alongside fridges and coffee machines. Foxtons’ confidence is so high that it opened its latest café store on London’s Sloane Square, in May, next to some of the world’s most iconic fashion brands.

Even car manufacturers are now taking control of their showrooms to create a better experience. At Nissan, the development of its cars was outstripping the service at its dealerships, which now have to sell a relationship, not just a car. The new dealerships, by Lippincott Mercer New York, now focus more on service, with less visual clutter but clearer branding.

Shopping should not be boring. Retailers need to look out – manufacturers, whose relationships with customers are not simply about the transaction, are now leading the way.

Rune Gustafson is senior partner at Lippincott Mercer, a design and brand strategy consultancy

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