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Why Retail Is Getting “Experience” Wrong

Posted February 17, 2017
Posted in Blog, Customer Service, Shopper Marketing, Store Experience, Technology

By Doug Stephens


Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once said:

“Design is a funny word. Some people think that design means how it looks. But of course if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.”


That central belief – that design transcends mere aesthetics and is really about how something actually functions – is what powered so much of the remarkable innovation at Apple. Apple products didn’t just look different they behaved differently too. And this same design sensibility spread throughout Apple to every aspect of how the company did business. Apple stores not only looked unlike other computer stores, they acted differently in practically every respect.


Today, just as Jobs felt the concept of design was being misconstrued, I would argue that many in retail industry are making the same mistake when it comes to the notion of customer experience.


Certainly, no one argues the importance or value of great customer experiences. In fact, it’s impossible to sit through a retail conference without hearing the term at least a dozen times. Customer experience is not only the new frontier of competitive differentiation but also, as I’ve often asserted, the future of how physical retailers will generate revenue. Experiences won’t just sell products. Experiences will be the products. Yet, for all the violent agreement about their value, the customer experiences we most often have when we shop are mediocre and forgettable at best. Why is that?


Defining Experience


The reason is a fundamental misconception about what customer experience really is and more importantly how truly remarkable customer experiences are conceived.


Most retailers assume customer experience is primarily an aesthetic concept and more about how stores and websites look and feel. Hence, you’ll very often see customer experience design projects begin with retailers updating or changing brand visuals – new logos, new websites and new store layouts, often requiring tremendous capital outlays. They ramp up marketing spending on ad campaigns pronouncing the new and improved “experience”. And frequently, as if adhering to an unwritten law, they equip store staff with tablets because…well…technology right?


Other retailers assume that customer experience simply means better, friendlier or more personalized service. Thus they invest in recruiting and training and work harder to capture data about their clientele.


The disappointment sets in when all these sorts of investments produce little in the way of marked improvement, either in enhanced customer satisfaction, improved foot traffic or sales. This is because they haven’t really designed a new customer experience at all. They’ve just put fresh icing on the same stale cake.


Engineered Moments


True customer experience design means deconstructing the entire customer journey into its smallest component parts and then reengineering each component to look, feel and most importantly, operate differently than before and distinctly from competitors. It means digging below the surface within each moment to understand the underlying customer need and designing the exact combination of people, place, product and process to deliver delight in that micro-moment.   It means reconnecting with the company’s unique brand story (also known as the reason anyone should give a shit) and weaving it into every customer interaction. It involves using different language, methods, rituals and processes than your competitors so that the resulting experience is tangibly foreign and fascinating compared to anything else they’ve been through.


Truly remarkable customer experience is no different than stage production where cast, crew, set design and tech come together to bring every line, scene, and act to life, where every aspect of the well-written brand script is meticulously directed, rehearsed and performed. Where the audience feels an emotional connection to the story and a physical oneness with the action. And each day when the curtain is thrown open on your brand, the elaborate performance begins again.


This is customer experience, and when it’s done well, it leaves customers craving more.


The 5 Elements of Remarkable Experiences


From my perspective those that are truly outstanding comprise 5 distinct elements and if we’re being honest, most retailers never achieve any of the 5. Some achieve one or two. Fewer hit 3 or 4. Extremely few ever achieve all 5.


Truly remarkable customer experiences are deliberately engineered to be:

  1. Engaging: They connect to all five senses: of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. They involve the customer in a visceral way. What we think about an experience may last hours. But memories of what we hear, feel, touch, see and taste may last a lifetime.
  2. Unique. They incorporate methods, language or customs that are unusual, surprising or proprietary to the brand but are also authentic and natural. The incorporation of these unique elements lends the feeling that customers have not just entered a different store but a different world entirely.
  3. Personalized. They make the customer feel that the experience was created just for them. This may be as simple as recalling details and preferences from an earlier visit or it may be as complex as creating a completely bespoke product or service design just for them. Either way, they feel special and valued.
  4. Surprising. They incorporate elements or interactions that are completely unexpected. Packing even one small but delightful surprise into the experience leaves a lasting impression.
  5. Repeatable. They are executed using prescriptive and tested methods to achieve a uniform level of consistency and excellence across the enterprise. They are so highly engineered and well practiced that they appear spontaneous while leaving almost nothing to chance. At the same time the experiential design affords staff just enough freedom to let their unique personalities shine through.


Courage Not Included


Achieving this level of customer experience is not easy but it’s also not something you can simply outsource to an agency or design firm. It requires significant organizational
introspection, courage, honesty, design thinking and research. There is no off-the-shelf solution, no app and no magic to it – just the willingness to reinvent, reimagine and risk the occasional screw up. Think of it this way; if it’s not risky, it’s probably not innovative.

But if your business can get beyond the aesthetics of what your experience looks like and
as Steve Jobs said, “dig deeper” into how it actually works, you’ll have taken the first transformative step toward lasting differentiation.


  • Sanford Stein  says:

    You nailed it Doug. Successful branding is a ‘cultural thing’ for sure. To paraphrase Steve Jobs “Its as much about what a good brand won’t do as what it will do”.

  • Tania  says:

    Thank you Doug!!! I´ve finally found someone that describes the elements of experience! I´ve already read the retail revival and I´m really looking forward to getting the reengineering retail. Wish I could get it in kindle though as I live in Mexico.
    Thank you!!!!!!!!!!

    • Doug Stephens

      Doug Stephens  says:

      Hi Tania! Thanks for the comment! I appreciate it. And yes, once the book is released you will be able to access the kindle version as well. All the best!

  • David Biltek  says:

    Doug: this is the best explanation of selling an experience i have seen. and you are spot on when saying most are simply doing a cosmetic job. i would love to hear more from you on other examples of businesses who get this….they apple analysis is great….they do retail differently, it is an experience going into any of their stores…

    • Doug Stephens

      Doug Stephens  says:

      Hi David! Thanks for the comment. Some of the other businesses I describe in Reengineering Retail are Pirch, Sonos, Bandier, Sephora, REI, Ritz-Carlton and many more. They are supreme examples of brands that are pushing way beyond aesthetics to dig into the fundamental operating premise of the customer experience and literally engineering amazing moments.
      Thanks again for taking the time to comment!

  • Dennis Driscoll  says:


    Great article and I like the fact that you went into depth one each point, and didn’t limit your insight to tweet length snippets. I have been in retail for over 30 years and have witnessed many companies who have decided to copy what they see on the surface of a competitor, only to fail after spending millions.

    • Doug Stephens

      Doug Stephens  says:

      So true Dennis. One only has to look at how Microsoft attempted unsuccessfully to recreate the Apple store vibe.

  • Kelvin Harris  says:

    The majority of retail is simply not customer centered. This is no more effectively demonstrated by most retailer websites. All you see are products. Is that a customer experience that speaks to what the consumer wants, cares about or values? Of course not.

  • Jared  says:

    I am obsessed with your post, Doug! So perfectly articulated and what so many miss. All the retail buzz words lack authenticity and only when you understand the importance of a complete dissection of your existing experience pertaining to EVERY aspect of your brand are you able to courageously create the path forward. Test and learn is absolutely the new perfection!

    • Doug Stephens

      Doug Stephens  says:

      Thanks Jared. And you’re absolutely right. The most successful brands are always disrupting themselves and relentlessly testing new innovations within the experience itself.

  • Ari Ginsberg  says:

    The truth in this article goes beyond retail. I run a B2B direct marketing firm and as I’m reading this, it already transformed the way I think about creating that customer experience with my customers.

    • Doug Stephens

      Doug Stephens  says:

      Thanks for the comment Ari! You’re right – the principles of experience design are almost universally applicable across categories and business models.

  • Neil Ashworth  says:

    Great perspective, Doug – looking forward to the new book…

  • Craig Aberle  says:

    Most nail salons will serve wine. It’s not unique nor is it exciting – but it is what the customer wants – to relax, unwind and be pampered a bit. Retail experiences should meet the needs of the customer.

  • Tina Rosso  says:

    I think what you are speaking of – exceptional customer service- not only pertains to the retail sector. This is a best practice principal that transcends to all sectors of business- in fact -this is a great life practice.
    Just for a moment – what if we all took notice and practice personal introspection-
    hummm??? Add to that courage, honesty and forward thinking!!!!
    Great article- thanks for sharing – I plan to incorporate these concepts in my presentation tomorrow.

  • Carlos Garcia  says:

    Awesome Doug!
    One of the areas critical to accomplish an awesome customer experience I believe it resides in the relationship that must be developed between the buyer and their sales professional / consultant. Unfortunately, most retailers fail in backing their sales teams with the tools, training and strategy to accomplish the most important part of their job, a customer experience that increases revenue, loyalty and satisfaction. If we don’t build the purchasing experience (online or offline) taking into consideration our greatest asset, our people, we are doomed for extinction.
    Times of working a mailing list are over. We need to use our sales teams to build databases that are relevant to our times and segment accordingly with the use of “Big Data” that resides in the retailer’s servers.

    We also need to change the compensation model. Top performance needs to be rewarded accordingly. Not just for sales.

  • Franco Salhi  says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Thank you Doug!

  • hari s. hariharan  says:

    Hi Doug,

    Great article and very much on point. Some of the points in your summary list (eg. engaging and personalized) are more commonly heard along with Customer Experience. The other three (unique, delight and repeatable) are less understood. I would call the former as must have features while the latter three permit differentiation and loyalty.
    Thanks for sharing

  • Graham Halling  says:

    Great read and spot-on Doug.
    The retailers I work with are often so busy trialling new tech and innovationsthat the actual impact on customer experience has faded into the background. We fight the good fight though…!!

  • Kyle Harris  says:

    I think you have some very good ideas. Challenge is to find a retailer who has the money, people, and courage, to shift on such a grand scale.

    The internet has also created a “who cares? what’s the price?” attitude. You can give a spectacular, personalized, visionary “experience” and still lose to the random cost level selling internet company advertising on Amazon. Often!

    Traditional retail is dying. Painting pictures of “how it could be” is ignoring the fact that the capital investment capabilities of retailers have died for the “keep your head above water approach.

    They’re not desperate enough and if they get to the desperation point, they are more likely to give up, sell off, or slowly drown, than make a bold, cost filled, re-directive action.

    Or maybe that’s 32 years of trying to raise the bar retail cynicism.

  • Connie Cay-Santos  says:

    Thank you Doug for this great article. Love your explanation of experience and it is making me think hard on how I can include this in my way of planning our programs that can make us be different and make that “connection” with our customers. Thank you!

  • Danny  says:

    This is wonderful Doug. Unifying business streams to align on the experience as something independent of Sales, Marketing, Operations or otherwise is a key operational shift that needs to occur. Giving the newly created “chief customer experience” teams some real teeth and influence over all parts of the business to ensure such things can be achieved is quite critical. Love the reference to the “stage production”, HBR talked many moons ago of “charging admission”. I’m a big believer of ensuring there’s a value exchange in return for a shopper investing their time and energy to make the decision to enter your store – beyond the privilege to buy something from you.

  • Debbie Simurda  says:

    Great post and insights. You mentioned in the above comments a few companies that are getting it right (Pirch, REI, Sephora). All great examples of experiential retail. Was wondering your thoughts on how a ‘nuts and bolts’ retailer like a grocery store could re-engineer the shopping experience.

    • Doug Stephens

      Doug Stephens  says:

      Hi Debbie. I’ve actually done a lot of work speaking with grocery chains about this. Grocery, of all categories, is one that really needs to focus more on experience design, given the commoditized nature of their products. Inside of a decade I estimate that up to 30 percent of things sold in grocery stores will be ordered via auto-replenishment. The choice facing grocers will be to downsize the store or upsize the experiential aspects of the store. Health counselling, nutrition clinics, cooking classes, lifestyle seminars – even fitness centers could become elements of a new grocery store experience.

      • Patty Jensen  says:

        That is so true regarding your comments on grocery stores. The grocery segment is usually the first one to test new things and I see them slowly doing this.

      • Katherine  says:

        I agree with the comments about grocery stores needing to expand their scope and guest options. A great example of this is Central Market a part of HEB. It is truly an experience aesthetically , have a team that is engaged and who go through product training and service training before they hit he floor. They are paid far above the average which reduces turnover which is critical in bringing guests back as they feel connected to the team. Central Market offers chair messages, cooking classes, seminars on wine including tastings and they continue to adapt to changing customer demands. Yes they have POS driven replenishment but each department is empowered to introduce new products and discontinue products through a formalized process. Guest experience is about these things but the most important aspect is cultural. Respect your team, pay them well, eliminate team members that don’t fit the culture and have management that stays in touch, humble and has the inate motivation to always do the right thing. Keep everyone engaged as several mentioned. And have fun.

  • Pat Bates  says:

    Thanks so much for a terrific article. I particularly like number five, making a fine tuned performance feel spontaneous and unrehearsed. If you can make a client feel like they have discovered something, on their own, then you will have created something memorable.

  • Kate Trosterud  says:

    Great article!

  • Nancylee Matles  says:

    Doug, You have explained the ingredients that make up a remarkable customer experience. You are so right, giving sales team tablets is not the answer. You have the answers here. Great article. Thank you, Nancyler Matles

  • Mike  says:

    Right on the mark! Too many retailers want to be everything to everybody instead of being exceptional to their core / target market

  • Robert Sichel Kaufman  says:

    Doug, you have articulated what we are trying to do in our stores with our retail sales associates. The one element that challenges us is coaching. Assuming managers understand what leadership expects, they cannot be in the back room doing paperwork. Being on the floor observing interactions is critical to success. Large, multi unit chains are not setup to do this but the independent retailer has the best chance of succeeding.

  • Nancy Cyros  says:

    Excellent article. And, in the case of products and services for customers with disabilities, it’s not about having distinct, specialty items at all. It’s about all the elements that engage and include mentioned in this article, that will also serve the needs of the disability community as well. Specific examples of market leaders include Google and the Google self-driving car and Apple and the Siri function etc.

  • Anastasia  says:

    I have to absolutely agree!

    Just shopped at Sears for the Presidents Day deep savings. Waited for that holiday as I know one gets the deepest discounts in savings on appliances.

    Truly – the sales person came over and hooked us away from another sales person who I was liking and getting great response from. She was female and in a wheelchair – which I was comfortable with as my sister is also in a wheelchair. I really wanted to work with this woman. But my co-shopper who was an older male, was doing the buying yesterday. The male salesperson knew how to appeal to the older male in the sentiment that he understood his needs. He hooked my friend and I was like ‘whatever’. I will go back and find that lady from now on, as I still have some shopping of my own to accomplish at Sears! She had not only great customer service skills, but also great personal relation skills.

    Funny how it ended – the man that hooked my older gentleman away from the other sales person – he was interrupted during the sale transaction by another customer – went over and started helping her in the meantime. Doing 2 sales at once. My older friend may be a gentleman – but he ended up miffed. See, he is of the older generation where sales and customer service means everything, and uninterrupted attention to the customer is key. But I was smiling, knowing that we should have stuck with the other salesperson as she was directly invested in our interaction and showed it.

    Personal attention is a major key to retail. Salesforce training is elemental in how to treat the customers – not just how to service them.

    If people just wanted to do a transaction – they would shop online. We went into the store for the personalized attention and service.

    By the way – my older gentleman friend who spend over a grand on that transaction without blinking an eye – his former occupation was Financial Vehicle Retail and Institutional Sales.

    Now I have to shop for a couple of new transactions. I will go back to Sears for them, but only because of the other salesperson. I will be seeking her out.

  • Jessica Sassen  says:

    I love this article.

    We are a manufacturer supplier to major retailers.
    As a supplier AND a consumer I often experience both sides of the experience coin.

    Im often standing in a major retailer waiting to pay for my goods wether its apparel or homeware or food ,and my experiences are mostly frustrated ones at time of ‘check out’. There are always too many tills and not enough people at the tills as they are also being tasked with packing shelves so that the retailer saves a buck. Which I can understand as i would benefit from tighter pricing.

    However – this causes the ever-waiting and ever-present queue. So they put in this lovely TV showcasing all these dedicated ‘shorts’ of their product in the queue aisles and make long snaking queue aisles with tempting treats to make my wait just a little bit better . but I dont want to WAIT.

    I dont want to see empty tills which remind me to feel sad that my precious time slipping away in a crappy slow queue.
    I resent being tempted with junk food and mags on my way to pay too.

    Simply – I want to be able to see more people at the tills and then i will be able to pay and leave – therefore having a MUCH better experience without a doubt.

    Can retailers not recognise this pain being more significant than lets say fancy in store tvs ?
    Can they rather DESIGN better placed and timed operations ?
    This is why your article resonates with me.

    Why make the stores ‘better’ looking and more ‘technological’ but still leave your customer standing in the ancient queue?
    It seems like they are continually reversing into the same dark parking of customer experience for me but only with fancier tvs to watch while you wait.

  • Gerry Weber  says:

    “All About Them” by Bruce Turkel also articulates this very well.

  • Meera Menon  says:

    All retailers must follow these principles. very well written. Thank you .

  • Ray Bakker  says:

    Excellent article Doug! As a business owner, I have struggled with this for 40 years. Apple-esque and FedEx-like are what I strive to be in my small world.

    And you’re right, it needs to be cultural and permeate throughout all you do. But it all starts at the home office. No amount of resetting will do, when one of my trusted colleagues steps out of sync with my intended message. All buying is emotion-based. I tend shop more at stores where I am “comfortable” and “appreciated,” not hounded or abandoned. It’s a delicate balance for retail.

    Perhaps training in human behaviour should be added to your list?

  • sukru aslanyurek  says:

    Excellent article.
    Our experience in the Turkish market points out two avenues of problems: 1. The speed and impact of mobile communications have taken the majority of retail bosses by surprise, creating gap in awareness of the CX issue; 2. Managerial skills for running over the CX mountains are in short supply, because a 3000 billion USD market has not been able to bridge the academic and practical training gap.

  • Don Gilbert  says:

    Sure, it has all been about the “Experience”, branding, Corporate Wanking.

    But we have had cheap money. Mr Consumer is in the mire with debt!

    Much abt retail is to get the right product right place right time @ profit!

    Building brands costs money; the World is sinking with Finished Product.

    Also Governments are saddled with debt. This party will end. Many Corporations have created amazing shopping “experiences”, but Mr Fickle Consumer brand loyal and all will chop and change.

    And many products and services are to sustain life (food water O2) and to have a hair cut etc.

    So for now I recon you are right but I feel that will change. When the consumer all of a sudden puts his hands in his pockets (or more the female side; they spend far far more than us guys), those Corporations who have big BIG operating expenses, huge stock piles will be under pressure.

  • dave albert  says:

    Awesome article



  • Charlie Alf  says:

    I completely agree. Customers who get an amazing experience are always more likely to return. Your five elements are on point. And while major retailers are less likely to provide all five, you can almost always get a remarkable customer experience from smaller, independently owned businesses. Maybe its the less hectic pace, or maybe its because smaller business owners tend to think more like customers. That’s only my opinion, but its based on what I’ve seen over the years.


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