Experiential Marketing is NOT the Future of Retail; It is the NOW of Retail


Imagine a future where you can just walk into an empty room and, with a wave of your hand, fill the area with furniture. You can swap out rugs and change the color and shape of a couch with a few simple gestures. Lamps, chairs, tables, decorations, all of these items and more can easily be switched as you play around to determine the perfect set up for a room.

While this may sound like a scene from a Harry Potter movie, it’s reality… well, it’s augmented reality thanks to a Pottery Barn app. In 2017, William-Sonoma, the parent company of Pottery Barn, spent $112 million to purchase a San Jose-based startup named Outward. Outward specializes in reproducing physical objects in high-quality, 3D digital imagery.

Photo credit: Pottery Barn

Photo credit: Pottery Barn

“One of the key components here is the quality of the image,” Laura Alber, CEO of Williams-Sonoma, said in a Vox article. “If you look at other 3D images, they are very cartoon-like or take a lot of time to produce. We believe the quality and scalability is unparalleled.”

The acquisition resulted in apps for Pottery Barn and PBteen, where users can use a device to redecorate rooms completely. It is possible to both see how new furniture and decorations will work with the existing décor, or users can add AR walls to fill the space and drag and drop items from those brand’s catalogs to decorate from the ground up. When users find their perfect combination, they can immediately make a purchase through the app.

This combination of technology and retail, the way these apps both simplify the shopping experience while making it new and exciting, is an example of how retailers need to focus on the consumer experience. Experiential marketing and experiential retail are designed to bring shoppers to stores or, as is the case with the Pottery Barn apps, bring the stores to shoppers.

The opposite of these Pottery Barn experiences is a store in London known as LN-CC or Late Night Chameleon Café. LN-CC is as much an art installation as it is a retail outlet; it was designed by set designer and art director Gary Card. In fact, going to the store is such an event that visitors need to make an appointment just to step across the threshold.

LN-CC sells curated fashion collections by established and upcoming designers. It also features a bookstore that contains out-of-print and first-edition volumes, as well as a music area with rare and exclusive vinyl records. The store even has a club space for private events that are by invitation only.

Despite their obvious differences, both of these examples succeed in providing shoppers with a novel experience. The goal of experiential marketing and retail is to provide an opportunity for shoppers that they cannot receive at another store.

Photo Credit: LN-CC

Photo Credit: LN-CC

Retail used to be easy (relatively). As long as you had a product that people wanted to buy, shoppers would come to your store. While there have always been stores that delivered an experiential atmosphere, they were primarily high-end stores offering luxury goods.

Today, retailers cannot simply offer an in-demand product. Toys ‘R’ Us sold in-demand products. Their problem was that Amazon sold the same in-demand products, and not only did shoppers not need to get off the couch to buy them, they also had no motivation to get off their couches. Those are the primary reasons that Toys ‘R’ Us went out of business in 2018.

However, it’s hard to keep a good store down, and on Black Friday 2019, Toys ‘R’ Us returns to the retail landscape with permanent locations in Houston, Texas, and Paramus, New Jersey. These stores will bear little resemblance to the massive, warehouse-like structures of previous Toys ‘R’ Us locations. Instead, the sites will be about six times smaller and feature significantly less inventory.

The focus of the new Toys ‘R’ Us stores will be to let customers play. There will be hands-on areas, product demonstrations, and digital experiences so shoppers can discover new toys and not just shop for ones they know. Guests will also be able to make their way through a giant treehouse located inside the stores, play with interactive toy displays, and watch movies in a theater area.

The other significant difference from previous Toys ‘R’ Us stores, which put a heavy emphasis on inventory, is that on-site products will be limited. Instead, customers will be able to order their desired products on screens and kiosks spread throughout the store. (Final purchases are made through, which is handling the ecommerce.)

“We know that customers love shopping as a means of entertainment. That’s something built into the DNA of human beings,” Richard Barry, President and CEO of Toys ‘R’ Us’ parent company, Tru Kids, said to CNN Business. “We also know kids and families are looking for things to do on the weekends or when school’s out. We know parents and families really value play and the value of toys overall. As we thought about the strategy, we wanted to put all those things together.”

Retailers are not letting the parameters of their stores constrain their ability to bring experiential activations to their consumers. The revamped Toys ‘R’ Us is proof of this fact. Before the brand committed to permanent store locations, it partnered with Candytopia to open two pop ups in Atlanta and Chicago. Known as the “Toys ‘R’ Us Adventure,” the pop ups contained several themed rooms with activities designed for children ages 2-8. Naturally, there was also entertainment for parents, such as zip-lining or gallivanting in a massive ball pit.

The hands-on nature of experiential activations can help consumers better understand a brand and its strengths. This experience helps form a bond between consumer and brand.

Photo Credit: Toys R Us

Photo Credit: Toys R Us

For example, appliance manufacturer Dyson created a pop up where the intention was for visitors to get messy. The activation simulated four household areas where Dyson products are commonly utilized: a garage, kitchen, living room, and children’s room. Visitors were invited to make a mess on the floors and furniture and then test out the cleaning abilities of Dyson’s products. While hands-on experience is one of the best methods to prove a product’s effectiveness, nobody wants to perform a stress test on their possessions. Being able to make a mess safely, and then watch it disappear, was a powerful illustration of Dyson’s effectiveness.

However, experiential activations have been just as successful when they take a hands-off approach. British retailer John Lewis created a holiday shopping experience where consumers could see the products, but they couldn’t touch them. John Lewis’ holiday window display featured images of the retailer’s top 30 favorite things for Christmas, along with a prominently displayed QR code.

 Shoppers or passersby who were interested in an item could scan the code to make a purchase. The next step was to swing by the nearby store to pick up their items, which were available as early as the following day. It was a service that the retailer referred to as “click and collect.” Since this activation was a window display, it never closed. Anyone passing the display could purchase the items 24 hours a day, bringing a welcome level of convenience to holiday shopping.

Retail experiential activations – regardless of whether they are in-store, a pop up, or another marketing initiative – make the store itself not just a building, but an essential part of a shopping excursion. For retailers looking to forge stronger relationships with their consumers, experiential activations provide the unique experiences that convert shoppers into brand advocates.