The ‘store as a community gathering place’ emerges as a way to engage customers
Paul Blackburn, center, expands on customer engagement, flanked at left by Tobi Schneidler and Andrew Winninger. Photo by Matt Tilbury.
The smartphone revolution can oftentimes make people long for face-to-face interaction. That's why astute retailers are paying more attention to the social and community aspects of their sales environments.
A panel during the recent Interactive Customer Experience Summit in Dallas offered insights into how retailers are making consumers feel at home when they visit stores. The session was titled, "Your Venue as a Community Gathering Place."
Capital One, a bank, has gone as far as opening cafes where people can relax and have refreshments. L'Occitane en Provence, a France-based chain selling skincare, bath and hair products, has revamped its interior space to encourage socializing and hosts social activities.
Tobi Schneidler, CEO and founder of Bouncepad, a tablet provider, moderated the panel, which included Andrew Winninger, business development manager at Capital One, and Paul Blackburn, vice president of concept design, construction and merchandising at L'Occitane en Provence.
In search of community
Winninger said Capital One realized that many people are not confident about personal finance. In brainstorming how to address this challenge, the company gave serious thought to the meaning of community.
The Capital One cafes are not located next to traditional bank outlets. They enable visitors to get answers to their financial questions, recharge their mobile devices, or simply socialize. Coffee and pastries are available.
"It's truly, strictly, one on one," Winninger said. "It's truly about engagement. It's not production driven." The company measures how many visitors are engaging with the store in some way as opposed to how many bank accounts they are opening.
Capital One teaches café employees to be "connoisseurs in the art of living," Winninger said. The employees post pictures on Instagram of the people visiting the store.
He said the company looks for employees who have retail experience, not just bank experience.
Winninger did not offer data to quantify the success of the cafes, but he said the company found that its best customers are the ones that do business both online and in a physical store.
"At the end of the day, the café is what you want it to be," Winninger said.
One member of the audience volunteered that the Capital One café in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts is usually packed.
L'Occitane en Provence steps forward
Blackburn said his company has seating alcoves in windows in its "Flatiron" section. The section is spacious so people have room to move around and gather in small clusters if they wish.
There are activities like "Friends Night Out," where a store host is on hand to talk to people about the company's products.
There is also an open mic night, when visitors are invited to speak what's on their minds.
Blackburn said it is hard to quantify the benefits of having a community gathering space. But there is no question that people spend more money if they feel they are having a natural experience in a store.
"The hard sell is not what anybody wants these days," he said. "Getting customer to play with our products is the most important thing for us."
"It has to support the ROI as a business model," Blackburn said. "If you do that right, the sales come naturally."
Blackburn said employees need to be personable in such environments.
Interactive technology, besides empowering consumers, gives stores new reason to take new measures to make customers feel at home.
Elliot Maras Elliot Maras is the editor of KioskMarketplace.com and FoodTruckOperator.com.