The Business Plan with Bill Reagan: Experiential retail

The Business Plan with Bill Reagan: Experiential retail
Bill Reagan, who has served as executive director of the Alexandria Small Business Development Center for the last 25 years, is set to retire on Jan. 31.

Seventy of Alexandria’s savviest independent retailers collaborated last week on approaches to improve the visitor experience in the city. The Experiential Retail Summit was held at the Lyceum as a collaborative effort of Visit Alexandria and the Alexandria Small Business Development Center and provided an opportunity for owners from a variety of retail perspectives to share ideas and experiences.

The format was interactive, with breakout tables and facilitators particularly adept in their area of expertise. Table discussion groups included in-store workshops, outside street fairs, in-store events to build a loyal customer base, meet-the-artist or trunk shows, planning for a “culture crawl” with the Torpedo Factory, retail partnerships with restaurants and pop-up stores.

At the beginning of the program, participants got a national retail overview from the National Retail Federation that showed the 2017 holiday season was one of the strongest since the great recession, and that 2018 retail sales are forecasted to grow between 3.8 percent and 4.4 percent.

That presentation also exploded the myths about the effects of e-commerce and retail closures. Statistics show that, for every retailer that closes, 2.7 are opening. National research also illustrates the strong position of the consumer, and that retailers must meet their high standards and expectations to maintain their loyalty.

So what do we mean by “experiential retail,” and why is it important? It means that the shopping experience must excite the senses and give the shopper much more than they were expecting when they entered the store.

Our local retailers illustrated their own experiences of hosting food or beverage pairings, or coffee stations in their stores where shoppers could interact with the products while mixing their beverage. Some had makers, artists, designers and book signings, and others even brought in Santa at the holidays for the children of their loyal customers.

Several held classes to teach customers how to better use their products with the end results that they not only enhanced loyalty, but those actually became better quality and educated customers. Shoe stores had stylists on site so customers could bring in belts or dresses and get recommendations for the perfect shoe to match.

It is a common misconception that online shopping has taken over, when in fact in-store shopping out paces online sales. Most of us want to touch a product before we buy it.

Millennials particularly like store shopping and in-store entertainment and events such as product demonstrations, games, competitions or interacting with experts.

Retailers have to stay on their toes, however. What works today might be eclipsed by something entirely different next year. That’s why events like this retail summit are timely and enable a variety of shop owner types to pick up ideas from one another.

These summits will continue and the next one will focus on getting Alexandria merchants excited and ready to shine – literally – for the holidays. Experts will provide inspiration on displays and lighting, and instruction on how to implement the concepts in their own settings. Visit Alexandria will also provide information on how it will support store owner efforts.

This is a very exciting time to be a retailer, and perhaps an even more exciting time to be a shopper.

The writer is the executive director of Alexandria’s Small Business Development Center.