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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

To compete with e-retail, shops should offer unique experiences 

Physical stores need to craft engaging offerings to lure customers from simply clicking online at home

Abercrombie & Fitch stores use to hire model-looking staff as part of its store experience. Corbis via Getty Images
Abercrombie & Fitch stores use to hire model-looking staff as part of its store experience. Corbis via Getty Images

With the Holidays approaching us, a scroll down my social media feed and email threads shows how much retailers are fighting tooth-and-nail to offer their best.

Some highlight great discounts and prize draws, while others offer free delivery online purchases. Holiday season or not, there is no doubt that there is an increasing battle between online websites and physical stores for promotions and special offers.

Online retailers like the UAE’s fashion retailers: The Modist, and Ounass offer consumers "time well saved". Customers can find the latest in fashion from ready-to-wear, to accessories, offering same-day delivery to customers in the UAE, saving them time in commuting to physical stores. The return policies are also free and could be conducted any time within a period of a month.

According to the US Census Bureau, online sales are growing at about 10 per cent per year. If this growth rate continues, online retail will account for 50 per cent by 2035.

Online retails are a threat to physical stores, and the way to address this challenge is for physical stores to go online, or have their stores offer experiences so engaging that customers cannot resist but go through ie time well spent. The more customers are rewarded with these experiences, the more time they spend with you, and the more money you will be making.

Dubai’s Level Shoe District, the world’s largest shoe store, located in Dubai Mall, jumped on the online bandwagon and offers express delivery and free return. Abu Dhabi’s department store Tryano, located in Yas Mall, offers a home service, where clients are able to view the items they desire in the comfort of their home.

Many retailers, including banks, car distributors such as the Jeep showroom in Muscat and Borders bookstore in the UK, incorporate cafes to engage their customers and encourage them to spend more time there, where most likely they end up buying something. The Dubai abaya fashion designer Hessa Al Falasi, incorporated a cafe in her showroom on Jumeirah, where her customers can indulge in delicious Italian coffee while overlooking a serene pool in the garden and browsing the latest collection.

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Another approach that physical stores could follow is to take the customers on a journey of the products’ story. When you step into one of Jo Malone’s perfume and scented candle boutiques worldwide, the sales team will walk you through the story behind each perfume, or candle, and you can enjoy a complimentary a hand and arm massage. Other services include a fragrance combining session to discover your scent, and lessons in how to surround your living space with different scents.

Alternatively the whole product or service offering can revolve around an experience. Build-a-Bear Factory is a great example. The journey of customising one’s own teddy bear is engaging and one that can be enjoyed by both adults and children. LEGO also offers the option of playing with the building blocks before purchase. Apple is another example of a brand that allows customers to interact with its many products through its spacious stores, and many sales people available to answer inquiries.

Other stores such as the fashion brand Abercrombie & Fitch took the image of their sales staff much further, hiring people who look like models, thus offering a different type of experience for their customers. Until the store changed the policy a couple of years ago, many of the customers who visited Abercrombie & Fitch in London’s Bond Street did so in order to take photos with model-looking male staff who were sometimes bare-chested. Customers were offered the option of a complimentary Polaroid snapshot with the staff members to take home.

While online stores are becoming an increasing competition to physical stores, they will not eliminate them all together, at least not any time soon. However, offering a memorable, or an engaging experience is a strategy that can give an advantage over the somehow “impersonal” online shopping experience. The key is to opt for a sales approach that is time efficient and engaging at the same time.

Manar Al Hinai is an award-winning Emirati writer who manages her branding and marketing consultancy in Abu Dhabi.