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Can experiential marketing save the high street?

Sense London Account Director, Beth Nicholas takes a look at how retailers are using experiential marketing to fight back and lure footfall into their stores.



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This article was first featured in Campaign Magazine.

Another Christmas approaches with the seemingly inevitable high-street apocalypse still firmly on the radar, fuelled again recently by figures showing that 1,234 stores closed on Britain’s top 500 high streets in the first half of this year, according to research by PwC and LDC.

And with Debenhams and Karen Millen among the latest to struggle, it’s no fake news. You only have to take a short stroll through any small town before the number of boarded shop fronts surpasses the number of lit windows. The sad end to a sorry tale of rising rents, insurmountable mouse-clicks and outdated brand propositions.

Or is it?

Along the same streets, there’s a wisp of something new in the air; an unexpected plot twist that’s somewhat of a retail awakening and, with it, a fresh and much-needed sense of hope. Not all our brick-and-mortar friends are on the way out. An impressive number of established retailers are demonstrating daring and innovative thinking in the face of adversity, turning to experiential marketing to keep customers coming back and ensuring the high street remains very much open for business beyond seasonal peak times such as Christmas. Online retailers, too, are getting in on the act.

Here’s how retailers are using experiential marketing principles to fight back.

1 Making every visit an experience to keep customers returning

A seasonal window display will catch the eye of a passer-by in need of a coat on a cold day, but what about the rest of your audience not passing by? How do you keep them interested and keep you front of mind? It’s not rocket science; you just need an offering not available or achievable online – an experience, an exclusive, a reason to visit in person. Ensure it’s of value and relevant to your customers and you’re on to a winner.

In September, Topshop launched its immersive sensory experience, a kind of “car wash” concept involving the shop window that encouraged customers to “snap, share and play”. Social currency is adequate ammunition for Topshop’s youth following to show up in person and subsequently the store generated a 14% rise in weekly sales. Both Flannels and Bloomingdale’s have also recently taken to dedicating precious floor space to ever-changing “conceptual pop-ins”, showcasing brands in a fun, themed and unexpected way to give shoppers a reason to come in regularly to discover new designers and products.

2 Popping up in a way people aren’t expecting to attract new audiences

Many of our favourite stores have been around for a long time; they’ve earned their place on the high street and customers have developed an affinity to their locations, familiarity and reliability. For some shops, this works in their favour – John Lewis, for example, is a trusted and fail-safe destination to tick off your Christmas shopping list. For others, a long-standing, outdated or inaccurate perception can make the difference between survival or extinction.

The Body Shop has recently held its “Dream big” beauty experience in Shoreditch, aiming to reboot its reputation among a younger audience. Aligned with its Christmas charity campaign supporting Plan International, the event brought the brand to a younger, eco-focused audience in an environment that promised to “pamper, inspire and inform”, elevating The Body Shop from gifts-for-teachers territory to forward-thinking ethical beauty brand.

3 Using physical space innovatively to add value for customers

High-street store space comes at a premium and should be used as a competitive advantage against their online retail rivals. Many digital start-ups and growing direct-to-consumer businesses are turning to experiential in order to give consumers a tangible touchpoint with their brand that can’t be achieved online. By its very nature, the high street is ahead here and should be exploiting this benefit with more than just short-term sales in mind.

Original global online marketplace eBay is using the high street to add value to the local retailer communities that are key to its success. Its Retail Revival initiative sees the company partner cities and communities to support local enterprises and give them access to a global marketplace.

The latest city to benefit in the UK was Wolverhampton, where eBay recently launched a city centre “Home grown” pop-up store where 36 retailers who would not normally get space on the high street showcased their products, attracting more than 1,300 shoppers (pictured, above). Taking inspiration from classic greenhouse cues to represent growth, the venue was dressed with glazed panels, pots and plants, using stylised pallets, crates and wooden stands for versatile product displays. Each retailer was pre-promoted in the area with eBay “seed packets”, a dedicated plaque within the venue itself and a scanable QR code that took shoppers through to the eBay product page. Sense delivered the activation.

4 ‘Eventifying’ your products to build your brand personality

Essentially, saving the high street means keeping things fresh, interactive and useful for consumers. But this can be tricky and expensive in a static space dedicated and designed to reflect a particular brand. But what if we turn to the element of retail that doesn’t stay still, year to year, season to season – the products on shelf? Take beauty brand Benefit, for example. It knows shelf presence alone no longer cuts it and works endlessly to create unique experiences that only it can own, bringing to life elements of its brand personality through the products it sells.

Already this year, Benefit has opened the “Just wing it chicken shop”, inviting customers to munch on tasty wings while mastering the knack of “winging out your liner” to promote its new Roller Liner. The brand also welcomed the return of the “Hello happy house”, designed to “bring to life all the amazing qualities of our new foundation in a fun and immersive way”. Synonymous with vlogging and Insta-trending, the Benefit pop-up has long played a pivotal role in its marketing strategy – supporting its shops with experiences built around new product launches that encapsulate the playful personality of the brand and delight and breed happy fans, or “Benebabes”.

This isn’t about the “retailtainment” trend of yesteryear – in-store hosts, demos, personal-shopping services and discount events are now the base-level standard. To truly keep the high street alive and kicking, retailers need to offer customers something valuable and relevant that isn’t available online, keep things fresh and maximise opportunities for real-world interaction.

There’s something wonderfully nostalgic about the high street that no-one wants to see disappear. If retailers view their physical spaces as more than just a place for sales transactions and consider strategies that are likely to harness longer-term sales driving, then the high street could not only survive, but also become more exciting than we’ve ever known it.

Beth Nicholas, Account Director at Sense London.