Creating Dynamic Consumer Experiences: The future is here

POSTED BY Christina Arbini on Oct 19, 2009

Ashley Arhart, Retail Strategist & Design Director at Hornall Anderson, recently spoke at the Cross-Channel Retail Executive Summit about creating dynamic consumer experiences. We wanted to share her thoughts and insights on this growing, innovative practice.


In an effort to deeply connect with today’s technology-savvy and sophisticated consumer, brands are investigating richer, more participatory, three-dimensional brand engagements. We’re seeing a migration in both human and consumer behavior where individuals want, expect, and are being provided with, more control over their experiences.

There are four specific facets of consumer experience we’re watching closely. Each is a universe of opportunity for innovative brands to reach their customers on a more intimate and personal level.

Responsive Environments are consumer-centric spaces that allow visitors to influence them in a relevant and interesting way. There are excellent examples of participatory environments that empower visitors with ability to influence and personalize their experiences. Even Disney, who excels at creating what would previously have been considered the most immersive of brand experiences, is embracing this opportunity. According to Bruce Vaughn, CCO at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, they are “making the guests more active rather than passive…consumers are no longer content as simply voyeurs.” For instance, children might help fairies prepare a 16th birthday party for Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora, and assist Cinderella with preparing for a ball, instead of simply shaking hands with a favorite character.

Prada’s 2001 Soho location was a memorable first attempt, and by some accounts a spectacular failure of a responsive environment. Smart dressing rooms and RFID-enabled labels were to provide on-demand product information and recommendations. Love it or hate it, it was a bold foray into what would become increasingly mainstream, both in terms of technological possibilities and consumer expectations.

Hornall Anderson recently completed two responsive environments – for both Madison Square Garden and Microsoft – that put content and control into the hands of visitors. At the Madison Square Garden Presentation Center, each visitor is provided with a “key” to their experience – an etched glass disk they place in special receptacles within the space. The environment comes to life with light, sound and digital media.

Microsoft’s Visitor Center features a series of interactive stations that allow individualized exploration of a variety of themes, allowing each person to have a completely unique experience.

Responsive Products are most easily described as portals to enhanced, personal experiences. Savvy retailers are enabling a new level of consumer interaction with products: bringing products to life in a three-dimensional way, embedding an accessible universe of information within the product, or using smart shopping devices to provide deeper product information or knowledge. This is evident with Webkinz, which has long linked its actual product to an immersive online world, easily accessed with an item-specific code. Once registered, a world of additional virtual experiences unfolds.

A more recent example is Lego’s “augmented reality” interaction that magically brings boxed product to life, in-store. Would-be assemblers simply hold the packaged product up to the interactive terminal and see, with live motion and sound, exactly what the assembled construction will look like. This literal through-the-looking-glass moment effortlessly engages prospective purchasers with the environment, product and brand.

In the apparel sector, RFID-enabled smart dressing rooms provide on-demand product information and recommendations, and when paired with loyalty programs, can even provide customer-specific incentives at the point of decision. These high-service, personalized moments of brand encounter can forge deep and lasting relationships between retailers and their best customers.

The grocery channel has long leveraged loyalty programs, collecting purchase history and effectively trading discounts for visibility into our eating habits. Safeway has taken this idea a very thoughtful step further, bringing this information to life in a very useful way. Their Foodflex program draws meaningful dietary and nutrition information from each purchase decision, allowing that customer to clearly understand their eating habits over time. Once accessed, this very personal reflection of past consumption provides tremendous insight, empowering them to make smarter decisions with each return trip.

This ability to instantly access information is increasingly in the hands of consumers as smart phones proliferate. By simply snapping a picture of a QR code on a product package or in-store sign, shoppers can have a plethora of information in the palm of their hand. And in the not-so-distant future, we can expect these mobile devices to be equipped with near field communication readers which, when placed in close proximity to an RFID-embedded product, seem to magically access any product or marketing content imaginable without the contrivance of reading a code.

Transaction 2.0 is on the rise. Retailers have found increasingly clever ways to enable their customer’s transactions while building a deeper level of engagement, and these tactics are becoming increasingly effortless and expected, but are not without their hurdles.

Apple probably gets the most nods for innovating the queue, with their roving, handheld-wielding geniuses, but there is an inherent difficulty in their system: it’s not actually very thoughtful about the mechanics of the transaction process. This is an excellent example of the occasional collision between technology introductions and the physical retail world. The untethered transaction comes without lines, yes, but it also comes with a good dose of confusion, no place to set down an armful of product, and no convenient way to package any of it. Not to mention the unpleasant shoplifter sensation upon departure, as there is no physical record of the transaction. Invariably, when someone is purchasing more than an iPhone accessory, they are steered to the traditional counter, now confusingly beside the appointment-only Genius Bar. Store design must simultaneously adapt to new innovations in technology—a truly dynamic consumer experience must be holistic in its approach and seamless in its execution.

A more elegant example of transaction 2.0—ironically still involving Apple—is Chipotle’s iPhone transaction app. Order, pay and determine your pick-up location with the touch of a screen. Once at the store, an express pick-up counter streamlines delivery. It’s a perfectly simple, perfectly executed example of transaction 2.0 at it’s best. And as it’s the #1 top free iPhone app available, apparently others think so, too.

Tribes are forming around your brand. Social media has created an expectation of authorship, creating direct implications for physical engagements as well. Thoughtful retailers are eliciting feedback from consumers, allowing them to personally influence their favorite (or not so favorite) retail experiences.

My Starbucks Idea.com and Dell’s Ideastorm.com create a forum for customer recommendation, offering a bold level of operational transparency and commitment to supporting customer-directed changes in their stores. Whereas Pabst Blue Ribbon relies on similar crowdsourcing tactics to establish customer-created marketing programs, readily distinguishing themselves from their more institutional-seeming competitors.

Petco, like many other retailers, is harnessing the power of Facebook, providing visibility to its consumer’s preferences online. But why not demonstrate those preferences in the store, as well? As social media venues lend the defacto “seal of approval,” we can expect to see Facebook-approved merchandise zones, among others, integrated into the floorplate.

“Social Shopping” is typically thought of as an online activity, as well. The truth is, physical shopping is, and will always be, a richly social experience. The smart phone camera has just made it a bit more interesting. Whether providing camera and social media-enabled dressing rooms or simply relaxing in-store photography restrictions, there are ways to invite people to invite others into the experience you offer.

It’s tantalizing to think exclusively about customer tribes. Innovative brands will also turn their attention to employee tribes. Increasingly sophisticated customer expectations require equally sophisticated customer service. An often-sighted failure of the Prada store was employees’ failure to embrace and understand the technologies at their disposal. Training was too expensive and systems were abandoned. Future employee tribes will be as tech-savvy as their spending counterparts, further lowering the barrier of exploration for retailers. Who will offer them the most satisfying and dynamic employment experience? Access to information, support of the sales floor, new ways to engage customers — these are the more operational, though fundamentally as important, facets of a successful dynamic consumer experience.

While these examples are timely and relevant now, I expect these consumer experiences will continue to push the envelope, demonstrating even more innovative thinking going forward. So, where do you begin? When you’re ready to explore a more interactive consumer experience, ask yourself the following questions:

1. How will this experience benefit your consumer audience?

2. What kind of dynamic experience is inherently proprietary to your product and brand?

3. Is the experience you’re creating absolutely relevant to your consumer?

4. For a physical environment, are you introducing a new dynamic experience in a vacuum? Think about the implications for your physical space and other points of interaction.

5. What emotion/feeling are you trying to elicit in your audience?

While at one time dynamic consumer experiences were only considered, if at all, to be rarified interactions that were more about publicity and flagship investments or completely outside the realm of practicality, they’re now an intersection of more intuitive and cost effective technologies and increasing customer comfort and expectations. The future is here.

WRITTEN BY Christina Arbini

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