Retail store foot traffic is rebounding, but physical retail has been forever changed. After a year of online shopping, customers are eager to return to physical stores—but their expectations will likely be altered.
With the habit of online shopping cemented in place, customers are now going back into physical stores expecting an even more personalized and engaging experience.
Online shopping allows retailers to offer an easy, fast, often tailor-made experience—which they’ve come to accept as the norm. The result is that physical stores can no longer offer the bare minimum to in-store shoppers.
Instead, buyers now need a compelling reason to make the trek to a brick-and-mortar store. Otherwise, those customers can get the job done online in just a few clicks.
- The good news: Consumers are starting to go back to physical stores, and retail sales are expected to grow between 10.5% and 13.5% to an estimated total of about $4.5 trillion in 2021, according to the National Retail Federation.
- The better news: In-store sales have not only rebounded but have exceeded pre-pandemic levels. Data from The NPD Group shows that recent physical store sales are up $400 million over two years ago.
- The best news: We’re entering a new era for physical retail stores, and in-person shopping offers real-life touch-and-feel experiences that build deep customer relationships (and simply can’t be replicated online).
Years have passed, technology has evolved, and a pandemic happened. The fierce competition in the digital world has boosted customer acquisition costs, pushing them closer and closer to the cost of rent for a physical retail presence. As a result, we’ve witnessed more direct-to-consumer brands opening stores in 2021.
This begs the question: How can retailers drive consistent walk-ins to and sales from their brick-and-mortar stores?
We asked seven local business owners to share their best tips. Here’s what they said.
Table of Contents:
1. Invest in store design
People are drawn to well-designed spaces, and as such, brick-and-mortar store owners are investing in thoughtful, memorable design when it comes to their stores. From hiring interior designers to introducing engaging visual merchandising, there are many ways to elevate the in-store experience.
When retailers achieve a strong brand image paired with impeccable design, they win. Effective store design can lead to a sales increase of up to 40%.
This includes store lighting (which impacts more than just store ambiance). Lighting shapes how customers feel—consciously and subconsciously—and impacts the overall customer experience. According to one study, a fashion retailer in Germany saw its sales go up by around 12% compared to another local store after it installed a new lighting scheme.
In-store lighting can actually help create an atmosphere and guide customers through your store. This is exactly what July, a luggage and travel accessories brand, achieved using thoughtful store lighting.
“Our thing is using design as a pull to the store. The interior architects we use to design the store create beautiful spaces that people want to be in. One of the key things is lighting design: those bright lights when you go into places just feel awkward. We like to think that we’re designing retail experiences people feel comfortable walking into. If they feel comfortable walking in, they’ll feel comfortable asking questions, and then everything else is a bonus after that.” —Athan Didaskalou, Co-Founder & Chief Strategy Officer at July
We like to think that we’re designing retail experiences people feel comfortable walking into. If they feel comfortable walking in, they’ll feel comfortable asking questions, and then everything else is a bonus after that.
FURTHER READING: July relies on Shopify to use their physical retail stores as a research feedback loop. Check out July Luggage Flies Towards a Single View of Its Customers to learn how they do it.
2. Create community hubs
If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that humans are social beings. We love socializing, meeting new people, and gathering with friends and family. In other words, we need that sense of belonging—to a group, to a place, to a community. An MIT study shows that interactions with other people light up the same region of our brains as food does.
And as we’re wired to strive to be part of something, businesses that can build a community around their brand can expect higher foot traffic. The “store as a community hub” model enables merchants to interact with their customers on a regular basis to educate, gather feedback, share experiences, host events, and launch new products.
Athleisure brand Gym+Coffee recognized this opportunity and used its stores as hubs for community gatherings. Even though the pandemic prevented it from hosting that community-first experience for a few months, as soon as things started moving back to normal, Gym+Coffee began hosting a running group from each of its eight clubhouses in the UK and Ireland every Sunday morning.
“Our overall store strategy is to develop them as community hubs. We call our stores 'clubhouses' because we want them to be a meeting place for our community in that local area. From our clubhouses, we host panel events, yoga classes, podcast recordings, skincare masterclasses, zumba classes, spin classes, doggy day care meetups—yes, you heard right—and, of course, running groups. This does such a great job of bringing people together and also introducing a new audience to our clubhouse locations.” —Diarmuid McSweeney, Co-Founder and Chief Marketing & Community Officer at Gym+Coffee
We call our stores ‘clubhouses’ because we want them to be a meeting place for our community in that local area.
Another brand that leverages the power of community via physical stores is Faherty. The family-owned clothing business has sustainability and community at the core of everything it does. As part of this, it hosts an in-store event series called Sun Sessions that brings together people through concerts, workshops, dinners, and more.
“As a family-owned and -run business, Faherty’s goal is to have the communities the brand touches become an extension of the Faherty family—from partners to customers to employees. Through a range of partnerships and events, we strive to learn, grow and continue finding new ways to do better in our communities. Sun Sessions brings together Faherty’s local communities through virtual and in-person concerts, workshops, dinners, speaker series, candid conversations, meditations, and more. By turning our stores and retail locations into welcoming spaces, we are providing our customers and communities the opportunity to share stories, uplift their voices, inspire creativity, and foster connections.” —Kerry Docherty, Co-Founder & Chief Impact Officer at Faherty
By turning our stores and retail locations into welcoming spaces, we are providing our customers and communities the opportunity to share stories, uplift their voices, inspire creativity, and foster connections.
3. Offer gift customization and personalization
As reported by the New York Post, 62% of Americans prefer gifts that come from the heart and feel more personal. Adding gift customization services in-store can be a draw for customers who want to buy something special for their loved ones.
Sequoia Soaps is a local Quebec-based brand that does this well. Along with offering handmade soaps and skincare products, it also offers gift customization to attract more visitors in-store. In-store shoppers can build their own gift baskets and mix and match products to create the perfect personalized gift.
“We’ve found great success with our custom gift packaging. We offer a variety of gift sets online, but in-store, we offer custom gift baskets where a customer can come in and select any combination of products. Customers love putting these together, and it adds that extra personal touch to the gift.” —Michaelee Lazore, Founder of Sequoia Soaps
We’ve found great success with our custom gift packaging. Customers love putting these together, and it adds that extra personal touch to the gift.
4. Make stores a sensory experience
If your in-store experience doesn’t activate all five senses—you could be missing out. Creating a multi-sensory atmosphere elevates the buyer’s journey, ultimately resulting in increased sales.
A behavioral study from Mood Media found that when sensory marketing was applied, sales increased by 10%. Another interesting finding is that shoppers spent almost six minutes longer in-store when their senses were activated.
Chicago French Press is a coffee destination where customers can buy freshly roasted ready-to-drink coffee. The founder, Kris Christian, says that in order to create stores that tap all of shoppers’ five senses, these are some of the questions merchants should ask themselves:
- How will the customer be greeted?
- Does your store feel open and inviting?
- Does the music at your store create a positive vibe?
- Is there a certain scent that attracts your target customer?
- If you’re not already in the food and beverage industry, is there a special treat that customers can nibble on while shopping? (Maybe a branded mint or cookie?)
- What incentives can you create for new customers to return as they exit? (Think samples, discounts, rewards programs, etc.)
“The most traveled-to destinations are those that the visitor never forgets. When I first opened Chicago French Press, creating a company vibe was very important, which encompassed small efforts that created a big wave with our customers: warm and inviting employees, a clean and fresh aesthetic, aromatic atmosphere, branded coffee ice cubes, and a nostalgic classic soul playlist. A memorable experience that entices every sense can forge an addictive culture that customers don’t want to miss out on.” —Kris Christian, Founder & CEO of Chicago French Press
A memorable experience that entices every sense can forge an addictive culture that customers don’t want to miss out on.
5. Leverage one-to-one interactions
While many things have changed in the world of retail, one thing remains constant: customer experience can make or break your business.
Data shows that 93% of customers are more likely to make repeat purchases with brands that offer excellent customer service. But brick-and-mortar retailers have one significant advantage in customer service: the chance to offer one-to-one human interactions.
Customers want undivided attention and personalized advice when shopping. The result is often on-the-spot purchasing. Nearly half of shoppers surveyed (49%) have made impulse purchases after receiving a more personalized experience.
One example of this can be seen with Giselle Wasfie, the founder of REMIX Lifestyle, who came up with the concept of Elevated Acupuncture.
Giselle provides customers with the ultimate multi-sensory healing experience that begins the moment they walk through the REMIX doors. What’s being offered in-store is far more than acupuncture services and retail products—it’s an overall experience and one-to-one attention given to each visitor during his or her visit.
“One of the REMIX core values at our wellness studio is one-on-one attention. So we’ve made our retail shop a personalized experience that doesn’t feel overwhelming.” —Giselle Wasfie, Founder of REMIX Acupuncture and Integrative Health
We’ve made our retail shop a personalized experience that doesn’t feel overwhelming.
6. Make stores multipurpose retail spaces
The mix of retail and café experiences opens up the doors for new audiences that wouldn’t normally walk into your store. Repurposing a segment of your store to introduce a café or even a restaurant creates community-building opportunities.
One of the brands that is blurring the lines between shopping and dining is United By Blue. The sustainable outdoor apparel and accessories brand offers a menu with fresh, local, and organic meal options. This way, it’s adding a layer of convenience to the experience and giving people one more reason to come into the store. This approach helps United By Blue strengthen the bonds with its community, too.
“We look at our stores as more than just traditional retail stores and have built experiential retail spaces that embody our brand. We have a full café in each of our stores with a menu of fresh, local, and organic breakfast, brunch, and lunch options. We then layer on opportunities for our customers to engage with us after hours with events like documentary screenings, DIY workshops, and happy hours during our neighborhood’s First Friday art stroll. This allows United By Blue stores to become part of the community and build long-term relationships with our customers.” —Mike Cangi, Co-Founder and Brand Director at United By Blue
Image source: United by Blue
We look at our stores as more than just traditional retail stores and have built experiential retail spaces that embody our brand.
5 bonus ideas for increasing foot traffic to your store
It’s an exciting time to be in retail, and the opportunities business owners have to reinvent their stores are unlimited. To give you some food for thought, here are five bonus ideas to help you boost retail store traffic.
1. Help customers find you with the Local Discovery feature
Shopify merchants who add the Shop sales channel can now take advantage of the new Local Discovery feature.
Local discovery connects prospective buyers to Shopify merchants in their area. It’s a win-win. Customers can access Local Discovery through the Explore tab of the Shop app, and it will display trending shops and products nearby, highlighting stores that offer local fulfillment options.
Local Discovery helps retail merchants turn proximity into one of their most powerful selling features. According to Shopify’s Future of Commerce report, 72% of US consumers want to support small businesses. Adding the Shop sales channel brings customers a step closer (no pun intended).
You can learn more about the Local Discovery feature on the Resilient Retail podcast.
2. Make your store pet friendly
Making your customers’ pets feel welcome can go a long way toward building loyalty. However, just saying that your store is pet friendly isn’t enough. Put out some water bowls and offer treats for the animals. You could also create a pet-friendly area.
Keep in mind that there may be legal limitations you need to consider. Check with your local health and safety boards to make sure you’re not breaking any rules.
Lush is known as a cruelty-free cosmetics brand, using vegetarian ingredients and adhering to a strict anti-animal-testing policy. On top of this, its stores are pet friendly, so you often can see customers posting pictures of their pets while shopping there.
3. Create a space for shoppers to relax in
From snacks and arcade games to massage chairs and rock climbing walls, merchants are going the extra mile to create “stay awhile” experiences for in-store shoppers.
The direct-to-consumer furniture brand Loaf, for example, has “slowrooms,” rather than showrooms, that offer a laid-back space for shoppers to relax in. In its “Loaf Shacks,” customers can enjoy well-merchandised sets, equipped with fun props like a 1970s TV showing old Wimbledon footage, a pinball machine, and coloring pencils and puzzles for the youngest visitors.
The overall vibe in Loaf’s slowrooms reinforces its brand image and lifestyle and creates opportunities for social media content creation.
4. Make your store instagrammable
It’s all about content creation nowadays, isn’t it? Customers love places where they can shop, enjoy, and take pictures. With one billion monthly active users, Instagram is changing the retail design industry. Retailers are transforming their stores into content studios, enabling visitors to create content for their social media, blogs, and websites while in-store.
The best part: Retailers can later leverage the ready-made, authentic user-generated content for their owned channels.
Showfields is an innovative retail concept that brings together brands, artists, and communities from around the globe. As the ultimate curator, Showfields is dedicated to creating the “most interesting store in the world.” The Showfields concept provides digitally native brands a chance to have a physical pop-up store (many of which are designed to be photo worthy).
5. Partner with other retailers
You can always join forces with other retailers to reach new audiences and bring more foot traffic.
How? The concept is straightforward: retailers can partner up to sell their products together under the same roof. Basically, they become retail roommates. Retail partnerships seem to be working well for many retailers.
Recently, the DTC furniture company Burrow introduced its new flagship, Burrow House, in NYC’s SoHo shopping district. In the 2,200-square-foot store, customers can shop for Burrow furniture, but they can also find products from paint retailer Clare and plant seller The Sill.
Added benefit: Burrow becomes a one-stop-shop for all things home decor.
Image source: Burrow
Bring more customers in-store: put these ideas to work
Stores have always been an asset for retail businesses, and they will continue to be. However, the strategic importance of these spaces has shifted toward delivering engaging experiences—and that’s the best way to bring customers in-store.