Retail engagement: giving your customers an holistic experience

By Marc Whitehead, Managing Director, Cult Collective LP

How are retail brands using technology to better engage customers in the bricks and mortar and digital worlds?

The author Gerald Zaltman, in his book How Customers Think, contends that 95% of purchase decisions are made subconsciously through emotion, and rationalized after the fact.

This means that brands need to understand far more than just the attributes and functional benefits that customers find most attractive. They need to understand how people want to feel about your brand, and what they want to believe about it too.

The retail brands who are using technology to improve customer engagement, as opposed to simply buying short term customer attention, are those who understand this idea and will benefit from practicing it. They consider an engagement strategy BEFORE they get caught up in the potential of some cool new VR or AI application, and more importantly they strive to satisfy the emotional expectations of a customer experience, not just the rational ones.

A great example of this is Sport Chek, Canada’s largest sports retailer.

They've embraced digital in their stores to help build an experience you can’t get with them online, using dozens of installed tablets, screens and computers to provide more than just flashy marketing propaganda. You can learn about detailed product features by holding an RFID tag up to a flat screen. A walk or jog on their “stride and gait” treadmill analysizes everything from leg inclination to foot angle when you strike the ground, in slow motion, so you can find the perfect running shoe for your specific needs.

You can use a “flight scope simulator” to input facts about your golf skills, so the computer can help you test golf clubs that will match your unique swing. The store even monitors the outdoor weather, and changes their in-store display screens to, for example, winter sports equipment and scenes when the snow starts flying, or gorgeous green golf courses when the first hints of spring hit.

Sport Chek, who also sells through the web, recognizes that an in store experience needs to complement, not battle, with the online space, and the best way to do that is to stoke emotions in the service of a holistic customer experience.

What are your top tips or principles for ensuring engagement online and offline?

This may sound both obvious and unremarkable, but my most important and frequent guidance for clients is to always keep your audience at the centre of your thinking and problem solving, whether the touchpoint on the customer journey is on the web, or in a store. Look at your brand through their eyes, listen through their ears, consider improvements through their expectations.

And when you do that, always weigh emotional feelings greater than rational benefits.

I believe it’s the feelings people desire with a brand (dependability, respect, honesty, forgiveness, loyalty), and the beliefs they have (are you convenient? do you provide value? are you predictable? is there evidence to support your claims? etc.) that are at heart of the predisposition people have for any given behaviour with your brand, and the root of their engagement with you.

A personal example of how not to do this came when I was recently asked by an airline I fly frequently to give them feedback on a new inflight entertainment system they are creating. I'm already deeply engaged with this airline - online and off, and was delighted when I was asked to participate in this research.

Unfortunately, the exercise was tailored to get my reactions to what they were planning and how I felt about it, rather than seeking my guidance on what I felt would make for an ideal evolution of an inflight experience from this particular airline. In the few instances when they asked me how I would suggest improving the experience they were showing me, I was told that unfortunately it was impossible to consider my thoughts, for a host of reasons.

This left me disappointed in the plans they were considering around this change, and more importantly diluted the strength of my personal engagement with the brand.

It seems they only saw the research study as a way to improve themselves, and missed the opportunity to deepen an already strong engagement with a frequent customer. Matthew Wilcox, author of The Business of Choice, says, “We spend a lot of time being concerned about how people feel about our brands, whereas the real power of a brand is how it makes people feel.”

If marketers really want to cultivate and sustain audience engagement - online or offline, they need to make it a habit to learn how their brand makes people feel or want to feel, not the other way around.