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Consumers are increasingly turning to mobile to conduct research, compare prices, and purchase products. According to Forrester, over one-third of total U.S. retail sales are influenced by a mobile device during the buying process. As e-commerce continues to grow, will consumers still have an appetite for in-store experiences and how will physical stores continue to coexist with digital stores?

To answer these questions, we took a glimpse into the future with Retail Prophet, Doug Stephens, one of the world’s foremost retail industry futurists. He is the author of Reengineering Retail and the Retail Revival, a keynote speaker, and a business advisor for today’s most innovative retail brands, such as Home Depot, Walmart, Disney, and Google. Stephens chatted with us about how the purpose of the physical store is shifting away from being a distribution center, towards a media experience, and how elevating the role of the retail associate is a key component to differentiating your customer experience.

To view the full interview, listen to the podcast episode below or read on!

The purpose of the physical store has changed

With e-commerce on the rise, the physical store is evolving to be an experience, rather than a hub for transactions. When we asked Doug Stephens for examples of brands, he looked to examples of online retailers that are now opening stores. “The interesting thing is that they are not looking at those physical spaces necessarily as distribution vehicles for their products. It’s very much a media play,” he explained. “Digital is actually proving to be a better distribution mechanism for products, but physical stores can be an incredibly powerful media experience with a brand.”

Frank and Oak is a great example of a ‘pure play’ retailer, a brand that started as e-commerce-only, who has now opened brick-and-mortar stores to deepen customer engagement with their brand. Their stores invite customers to see and feel products before buying, talk to informed stylists for advice and fitting, or to grab a coffee while they’re there.

The new role of the associate

As retail stores become vehicles for experiences that allow brands to connect with consumers, retailers must elevate the role of their retail associates to thrive in the new retail environment. “We’re moving from a place where the role [of a retail employee] was really more of a clerk, to a place where it’s really about being a brand ambassador,” adds Stephens.

With instant access to product information online, today’s customers are more knowledgeable than ever before. “The idea of a retail employee simply being there to look up a SKU, find a price, offer a little bit of product knowledge—there’s really not much utility in that anymore.” In the wake of this new normal, a new type of associate has emerged—an associate with a deep understanding of their organization’s missions and values, who really embodies their company’s brand.

As Stephens explained, “when I go shopping, I want to talk to someone who not only knows the product but has used it. Somebody who is a real product enthusiast, who really symbolizes what the brand is about, and ultimately is an incredibly engaging person that I can feel some kind of connection to.”

Stephens noted Sephora as a company who has done a tremendous job of empowering their employees to own the delivery of the in-store experience. Sephora’s stores provide an emotionally connected experience, where customers can talk to associates who live and breathe the brand and have extensive product knowledge. They’ve encouraged their associates to become true experts through Sephora University, daily training, and launching in-store tech for their consultants to use with customers.

He also explained, “brands that distinguish themselves going forward are not going to distinguish themselves through product, or price, or even convenience. So, what will ultimately differentiate you? It will be the customer experience.”

Steps you can take to drive a “super” in-store experience

When it comes to crafting a unique in-store experience, you may be wondering where to start. Below, Stephens shares five characteristics he’s seen successful brands employ to deliver a “super” in-store experience.

1. Engage customers on a deeper level: Physical experiences are the most powerful when they engage multiple senses, allowing customers to feel completely transported by the experience. “[Brands] don’t just create stores, they don’t just build stores—they really build stories”, says Stephens. “As a consumer, you feel as if you’ve walked into this story.”

2. Create unique experiences:  Successful companies look at the pain points in the customer experience and look to completely redesign these in-store experiences—“if every category has its typical script, great brands change the script.”

3. Personalization: From hyper-customization of products to a meaningful conversation with an associate, “you always feel with great brands that there’s some element of the experience that was just for you that day”.

4. Surprise: “Great brands surprise you with something that you didn’t anticipate,” adds Stephens.

5. Repeatability: A consistent experience is crucial to the execution of your organization’s brand promise. “Tremendous brands don’t just train their people, they rehearse. They practice. It’s like a Cirque De Soleil performance, and they nail it every time.”