Since the advent of online shopping, brick-and-mortar stores have struggled to compete. It’s no wonder: online, shoppers get to skip the lines and traffic, and they get exactly what they’re looking for, down to exact size, color, and style. They can search very specific questions and get specific answers about product quality.

They even get the instant validation of their choice by reading reviews and getting feedback from friends on social media.

How can physical stores differentiate themselves? The solution is staggeringly simple: by creating an unforgettable retail experience. The one thing online stores can’t give their customers is human and tactile interaction with objects. If you’re looking to get more loyal customers through your doors, it’s time to maximize on this unique ability.

Innovate Within Your Space

Customers are more likely to remember how they felt in your store than the actual product or service they purchased, according to a February 2015 article in Entrepreneur. This marks an important opportunity for physical retailers: the chance to merge the best of technology and online shopping with your physical business. Here are a few ways to innovate:

  • Endless aisles. A Nurun article states that physical stores shouldn’t just be aiming for fast customer service –– they should also “find ways to help consumers reduce the scope of their search and simplify their shopping experience, and in the process, make retail stores more intuitive and brands more attractive.” The solution is an “endless aisle,” a digital screen that allows customers to select an item from the store’s database and purchase it right there, without having to wander around the store.
  • Queue management. “When a customer’s trying to hand over her money, she shouldn’t be forced to endure a line for the privilege of doing so,” says Micah Solomon. Solomon asserts that cash registers are not only a thing of the past, but they actually have negative consequences in retail. “Sales, service, and loss prevention are all likely to be affected,” he says. Self-checkout systems, scan-and-go options, and providing mobile devices so employees can ring up customers on the spot can all help enhance customer experience and nix long, frustrating queues.
  • Modern tools and processes. Update your back-office operations by using shift scheduling software, customer tracking software, and cloud management tools. Though it might not be obvious right away, when your operations are more streamlined, the customer gets a better overall experience. Tracking tools, especially, can give you valuable insights about what your customers are doing in your store –– and how to better serve them. It benefits your bottom line, too: “Looking at behavioral data alongside transactional data helps you understand how key behaviors impact revenue,” says Eric Feinberg in a 2015 Foresee article.
  • Interactivity. Many customers shop in physical stores precisely to get away from screens, so why not leverage the excitement of tactile experiences and make your natural environment interactive? It’s called the Internet of Things, or IoT, and it’s a connected network of smart objects like smart product displays and interactive endcaps. These “things” use sensors and identity recognition to inform and delight customers.
  • Virtual reality. With the success of virtual-reality game Pokemon Go, there’s no question that VR will play an important role in the fusion of digital and analog spaces. VR “provides retailers a huge opportunity to create testing environments and truly visualize how products would look like,” states Duff Anderson in a 2016 iPerceptions article.

Empower Your Employees

There’s a well-documented ripple effect between employee morale and customer experience. After all, your employees are the face of your brand, the tour guides for your retail environment. “Help employees understand why customer experience is so important,” a Foresee article suggests. Hold regular team meetings to share success stories and generate excitement about creating an unforgettable brand experience.

  • Encourage a positive company culture. From hiring to training and beyond, your company culture will dictate the kind of experience your customers receive. Culture is what guides your employees’ behavior in unforeseen circumstances. If your culture is kind and positive and a conflict arises for which there’s no set protocol, you can trust that your employees will treat customers respectfully.
  • Bring your shift scheduling into the 21st century. When employees are stressed, customers feel it, too. One of the biggest sources of stress for hourly employees is being unable to plan their lives around their (often irregular) work schedules. By using an app for scheduling employees, you can publish schedules sooner and help alleviate workplace stress.
  • Train employees on customer service. A shift in mindset about customer service may be all it takes to create an unforgettable experience for shoppers. With access to internet research, shoppers are more informed than ever: so employees shouldn’t lecture or come on too strong. Instead, train your employees to listen, and treat customers like valued business partners. An ATKearney article gives the example of how Disney theme parks provide janitors “three days of training in ‘interpersonal skills’ to ensure that any visitor asking a question receives a correct and friendly answer.”

Customer experience may be more important now than ever. In the age of instant sharing and huge social networks, one bad review for your establishment can have a far-reaching effect on local popularity. On the other hand, “up to 60 percent of consumers will pay more for a better customer experience,” according to one Salesforce Desk study quoted in Kissmetrics. The demand is there, but it’s up to you –– the business owner –– to supply it.

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