Seven innovators of the in-store customer experience – Econsultancy

A couple of years ago I singled out Zara as an example of poor in-store customer experience.

At the time, the retailer’s combination of confusing layout, limited changing rooms, and lack of staff often made shopping in-store less than enjoyable.

Since then, however, Zara has made big strides to improve this, by integrating digital tech, and showing more of an overall focus on the customer’s needs.

So, what other retailers have upped their game, or continued to stand out for in-store customer experience? Here are a few examples of the retailers leading the way, and what we might learn from them. 

Disclaimer: I’ve intentionally tried to steer clear of some the most obvious examples (like Apple).

Tiffany and Co.

Tiffany is an iconic store, and one that is well-known for its high-end retail experience. In 2018, however, the brand opened a brand new store in London’s Covent Garden to bring a bit more fun into the mix – and more of a focus on the customer experience.

The ‘Style Studio’, as it’s called, sells the brand’s ‘everyday items’ range, which is a mix of homeware and accessories. This is designed to engage customers who want to spend less, but still get their hands on the luxury brand.

Decorated in its famous duck egg blue, the store is also designed to be interactive, including extra features such as a vending machine stocked full of Tiffany perfume, and a #MakeItTiffany personalisation bar where customers can get their jewellery engraved.

With its highly ‘Instagrammable’ interior, Style Studio is a clear attempt to modernise the brand for a younger, more socially-savvy audience.

Virgin Holidays

A travel provider isn’t the most obvious location for a great customer experience, however, with competition from digital disruptors like Airbnb – and the growing prevalence of online booking – some are upping their game.

This is certainly the case for Virgin Holidays, which has opened a new chain of retail concept stores. The aim is to create a relaxed and immersive shopping environment, allowing customers to get in the holiday mood and try out various elements of the Virgin Holidays experience.

There is a mock-up of a Virgin Atlantic cabin, for example, so that customers can test-run economy and upper class seats. There’s also a virtual reality installation, which takes people on a ‘rollercoaster’ of global destinations.

The retail stores use sensory activities to ramp up excitement about impending holidays – something customers don’t get when they book online. It allows Virgin Holidays to build better relationships with customers, using face-to-face communication to show the human side of the brand.

As it stands, there are 14 new Virgin Holidays ‘experience’ stores in the UK – the latest opening in Milton Keynes at the end of 2018. Virgin Holidays has also partnered with Next to launch a ‘shop in shops’ format. The idea is to adapt the ‘V-Rooms’ concept to Next’s customer base, creating a retail sanctuary that will prompt shoppers to get thinking about their next holiday.

Despite first launching as an online-only retailer, has become a master of physical retail, using its showrooms to create an engaging and seamless in-store experience for shoppers.

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In February 2019, Made relaunched its Soho showroom with three times the floor space. The store now also includes a cafe, which is something that was once a trump card for rival homeware retailer, IKEA.

Digital technology is also integral to the customer experience, with large tablets scattered throughout allowing shoppers to search products, and browse through‘s Instagram feed. Meanwhile, QR codes are assigned to each product in-store, allowing customers to easily find (and buy) what they see online. 

In contrast to the online experience, in-store shoppers can touch and feel fabrics, discover new trends, get personal style advice, and even attend in-store workshops. Overall, the aim is to act as a middleman between offline and online, enabling the retailer to build a deeper and more personalised relationship with customers.


Lush’s in-store experience isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Some people prefer a quiet browse, free of interruptions.  However, Lush is well-known for going the extra mile for those customers that do want a little more interaction, offering product demonstrations and valuable advice in its stores.

Lush employees typically go through extensive training to ensure they have the tools and knowledge to deliver this kind of service.

It’s not just the staff that makes Lush stand out. A combination of digital tech (including an option for customers to pay via tablets) and demonstration areas (such as large sinks and baths) also make the in-store experience a more interactive and sensory affair.

Lush also uses its physical presence to promote its stance on social and environmental issues, such as the new packaging-free store in Manchester.

Here, digital technology offers a replacement to the information usually found on packaging – the Lush Lens app uses machine learning to recognise products, meaning customers can simply scan ‘naked’ products to discover key information about them. Lush is also set to build on its in-store success, announcing that it will open its biggest ever store (complete with a spa) in Liverpool in 2019.

Ulta Beauty

In Q3 of 2018, Ulta Beauty (a competitor of Sephora) announced a 7.8% growth in same-store sales, with an increase in transactions and average transaction value. Part of this growth is down to the retailer’s shrewd understanding of what beauty consumers want, and an in-store experience that delivers it.

So what makes it so great? Speaking at the ShopTalk conference, Mary Dillon, the company’s CEO, says very simply customers “can have an emotional experience around interacting with our associate.” This means decreasing the time employees spend on less-value tasks, and more time on meaningful service.

Alongside a vast array of products, Ulta differentiates itself from other retailers by offering in-store services such as hair, skin and brow treatments. This type of service (and the expertise that goes with it) creates an almost spa-like environment. This also means that the store has become a destination for consumers – somewhere people want to hang out or specifically visit – rather than a place to pop into.

While Macy’s and Sephora also offer great beauty products, Ulta’s salon services mean that customers can enjoy the experience of discovering them. As recent profits show, it’s a tactic that’s proving popular with both new and existing customers – driving loyalty in an increasingly competitive space.

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Disney has re-focused its efforts on brick-and-mortar retail in the past few years, unveiling a new store concept in 2017 that aligns with its parks and attractions experience – albeit in a more minimalist style. While less ‘Disney-esque’, the store’s pared-down design is a deliberate tactic to bring Marvel and Star Wars brands to the forefront, rather than just classic Disney characters.

The new stores involve more interactive experiences and visual stimulation, such as a welcome celebration each morning hosted by Disney cast members and characters that greet and interact with customers. There’s also an in-store play room where children can experience learning and play activities, encouraging a ‘community-feel’ so that customers are inclined to linger and spend time.

The stores utilise technology, including large LED digital screens to showcase fireworks displays and the iconic ‘LIVE from Disney Parks’ parade.

Overall, the physical stores aim to bring some of the the Disney ‘magic’ that is so beloved in its theme parks, to the everyday experience of visiting a mall. With this, Disney is also hoping to turn around the dwindling footfall of the previous few years, which has been made worse by mall closures and the emergence of online shopping.

So far, the new concept has been rolled out in select global markets including Century City in California, Munich in Germany, and Nayoga in Japan.

How can retailers create more engaging mobile experiences in-store?


Story is not a traditional retailer, but a space that in its own words, ‘takes the concept of a magazine, changes like a gallery, and sells things like a store’. Founded in 2011 by Rachel Shechtman – a former brand consultant for the likes of TOMS shoes and Kraft – Story is a serial pop-up store, which aims to keep customers coming back for more with an ever-changing narrative and inventory. Speaking to Fast Company, she explains the concept behind the retail store: “My rule: 70% of an experience should be what consumers know and 30% should be surprise and delight…” 

As such, Story sells a variety of products from a range of different brands based on a theme that changes every four to eight weeks. Previous themes have included ‘made in America’, ‘wellness’, and ‘out of office’, with each one involving different layouts, installations, and stock.

Each theme is designed to offer something of real value to visitors, focusing on their experience rather than the products itself. There is also a highly social element to Story, with the space regularly hosting food pop-ups and other interactive events.

I beg you, retailers, don’t digitize the in-store customer experience

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