• Play Retail Ltd.

Building contextual retail experiences to delight individual shoppers’ senses

“The blaring sound of being on an aeroplane – around 80-85 decibels of background noise – interferes with our ability to taste sweetness. That gin-and-tonic which tastes so sweet back on land is dulled in the air. By contrast, the noise actually increases our perception of the intensity of savoury umami flavours such as tomato juice. As we merrily ask the flight attendant to pour us a bloody mary, we have little notion that we may be driven to do so by what is happening to our ears as much as to our mouths.”

Charles Spence, quoted here, has written about the many ways that our senses influence our thoughts.

We know that humans are sensory creatures. We derive our reality from what our senses report to us. And each of us processes what our senses report to us through a unique lens made up of our own memories and learnt experiences. Because sensory experiences are so personal, they are often more powerful in informing our behaviours than logical thought patterns. So, for advertisers and marketers, having the ability to engage with potential customers on a sensory level offers great opportunities to connect and influence. Forging strong cognitive connections by triggering memories, responding to people’s moods, or resonating with people’s passions is a tried and tested method of driving a behaviour change or action in a consumer.

Retailers are well aware of this and have, for many years, been using what are now considered to be fairly basic tactics to tap into consumers’ minds; carefully designing what the shopper hears (calm music and advertising), smells (fresh bread) and sees (key promotions placed at eye level and according to established eye tracking research techniques). But it’s now time to go beyond these basics – especially if high street retailers want to compete with the rise of online shopping.

One of the important advantages that internet only retailers have over physical retailers is data-driven personalisation. As the Internet of Things proliferates, especially with the introduction of 5G in the coming years, physical retailers must seize opportunities not only to engage shoppers’ senses in a general way, but to personalise this experience too.

Online retailers can tap into social media to achieve this, and it’s widely accepted that recommendations from ‘real' people and influencers are often the most powerful form of persuasion, even though this content costs brands little to create. Physical retailers need to innovate to bring aspects of social media, ratings and reviews, into the physical space.

Similarly, online retailers can easily collect and analyse customer data and potential customer data from their behaviour across not only their own websites, but by connecting with a consumer’s social profiles. Using algorithms, they can automatically tailor advertising and shopping experiences, personalising offers and promotions across the Internet. Physical retailers need to make the leap and work out how to harness their customers’ online data to link it up with the experiences they receive in-store too.

Once physical retailers have caught up with online retailers to compete on personalisation and social shopping, and have determined how to combine this with their unique ability to offer experiences that delight all of the senses, I predict we will see resurgence on the high street.

It’s not difficult to imagine, in the near future, physical stores being able to listen in to your conversations, or to access your preferences by pairing to your mobile device, to send tailored offers or promotions. How the tailored offers are presented is just one part of what is still to be developed. But one option was unveiled at CES (the Consumer Electronics Show that takes place in Las Vegas each January): the Cowarobot. It can follow customers about in-store, drawing their attention to promotions. But the many other ways stores can personalise in-store experiences could be through the use of smart screens, alerts to mobiles, or AR or VR incorporated into displays. All we are really waiting for is brands to be bold enough to go for data-driven strategies in-store.

When perusing the aisles in a clothing store, brands should be able to pick up on what shoppers are interested in – whether by eye tracking, facial expression tracking, or smart listening (all of which already exist in other settings). Individual stores could then send offers or incentives, or direct shoppers to complementary items, all of which enhance the in-store experience.

There are already brands trialling data-driven sensory experiences.

We loved seeing Infiniti’s attempt at this, by creating art based on individuals’ physical and emotional responses to the range of cars being displayed and tested. This is an interesting example of the retail space being rigged to detect the shopper’s emotional state. A great example of using sound to delight customers is Heineken’s directional sound pop-up, which flatters only the hearer even within a crowded supermarket, ultimately buttering them up to buy Heineken.

We often say, and truly believe, that physical retail will continue to thrive. Regardless of the frequent warnings about profit losses or store closures, we know that people want to be delighted by physical experiences. Online experiences will never fully replace what physical retail can offer in the real world. But that doesn’t mean that bricks and mortar retailers can rest on their laurels; we’ve seen that some will not weather the storm that the rise of online shopping has created.

So our advice to forward thinking retailers is to create those personalised experiences that feed and delight customers’ senses, in innovative and interesting ways. There’s a reason that this is what we do at Play – it’s because we know this is where the future success of physical retail lies.