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Are You Experienced?
10 March 2013

Are You Experienced?

Back in the last century when we talked about great retail experience it used to conjure up images of huge, expensive brand temples like Niketown and Shanghai’s Barbie Store- or category killers like Borders, boasting acres of product in which you could get lost for weeks.

But those dinosaurs became extinct in the current millennium. Whole categories have been wiped out. Bookstores have been decimated- and only a few hardy survivors remain in the music category. Nike has turned its attention from hero worship to technology and customization.

Customers of Amazon and iTunes are perfectly happy with their customer experience, report high levels of service and are thrilled with the prices and delivery.

Clearly the definition of great customer experience has changed. What does it mean for bricks and mortar retailers?

I recently visited the new Myer store in Melbourne, which received the Store Design of the Year award at the Oracle World Retail awards. It’s a beautiful piece of architecture and interior design, and a beautiful department store- but it’s still a department store. It still works the same way.

Which brings me to my favourite Steve Jobs quote.

Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it's really how it works.

This is exactly why Amazon has taken off- it’s not about the visual design of the web site, it’s about how well the whole concept works. And it’s something new and refreshing.

To get back to bricks and mortar, it’s not true that people don’t want to go shopping any more. People love shopping. They’re just bored with shops.

Not all shops of course. Stores like Anthropolgie attain dwell times of over an hour with a combination eclectic, ad-hoc store design and outrageous visual merchandising. Here in Australia we have one retailer who approaches that level of customer experience- and they sell absolutely nothing that’s unique.

T2 have made an engaging, immersive, and beautiful customer experience around something you can buy in the supermarket- tea.

OK, the range goes wider and deeper than at Woolworths- but the point is that it goes way beyond goods on shelves and involves all of the five senses. The stores are great to look at- colourful, well lit, beautifully merchandised. They are full of tactile materials. The packaging is distinctive and attractive. The soundtrack takes you to distant exotic lands where tea is produced. Staff are friendly and helpful. But the key to success is that about 10 square metres is given over to sampling by taste or smell. According to conventional retail thinking that would result in 10 square metres of unproductive space- but here it is the life and soul of the offer.  So from a starting point of tea being a routine, low engagement purchase, T2 have made a tea shop in which the customer wants to spend time- and money. The combination of uniquely packaged product, immersive environment and sensory experience supersedes any thought of price comparison. That’s customer experience.

Service is often talked about as being part of the customer experience. But it doesn’t have to be delivered in any conventional sense. I recently took a client to Sushi Train in Cremorne. A sushi train, although nothing new, is a brilliant idea. Seats turn over quickly so you don’t have to wait very long. There is no need to peruse a huge menu or wait for someone to take your order- you can start eating as soon as you sit down. The menu and sequence of eating is totally flexible. You can have as many or as few courses as you like, and stay for just as long as it takes you to eat them. Everything is freshly made.  You can even see the staff having a great time making it as the kitchen is in the middle of the restaurant. When you decide you are finished, a staff member simply counts the plates and gives you a bill, which you take to a register and pay. You receive a hearty Japanese chorus of “Thank you very much!” from the kitchen on the way out.  The interior at Sushi Train is atmospheric, a mix of traditional Japan and LED lighting effects, with a funky soundtrack.

We both agreed that the service was fantastic. But what service? Strictly speaking you get more person-to-person service at McDonald’s next door. But what they’ve managed to do is to get you a fresh and tasty lunch at a very reasonable price, at a pace you are happy with, and give you a half hour’s escape into the slightly crazy world of Sushi Train.  Despite the whole thing being self serve, you still think the service is brilliant. That’s called customer experience. And it’s a function of how it looks but also of how it works.

Convenience stores are not where you would expect to find a great customer experience. But think again. Japanese retail giant 7 and i have supermarkets that sell huge volumes at very low, single digit margins. They also have 7-Eleven stores that have a much smaller footprint but operate at a much higher margin. How’s it done? Watching a Japanese 7-Eleven in operation is poetry in motion. I counted seven staff at one railway station store in Tokyo. The store is constantly being restocked and re-laid depending on the customer group that is expected at any particular time of day. In contrast to T2, every square metre is considered for its potential return. Where the Australian offer is known for slurpees and donuts the Japanese menu extends to a huge range of prepared meals (at mealtimes) which customers are welcome to heat up in microwaves. While stopping off for dinner they can also get their phone topped up, use the printing and copying service, pick up their dry cleaning and stock up on any useful items that they might need at that time of day. The customer experience comes from the fact that 7-Eleven ensures that if you need something, it’s there when you need it. Price is a minor issue- hence the margins. Yes, the best 7-eleven stores are designed to look slick and streamlined- but the essence of the design is really in the layout and the efficiency of the fixturing, and extends to the training of a highly motivated and efficient store team.

So what we have is three very different customer experiences. You might say they are tailored to three different types of customer but it could well be the same customer in different mindsets. Before each example existed, it could be argued that there was no demand for it. It is highly unlikely that a sushi train was the result of focus group research into what people wanted from a casual restaurant. Each one came from an understanding of what would make peoples’ lives easier, more fun, more convenient.  And each one is beautifully designed- in looks, but just as importantly, in how it works.

Understanding can come from anywhere- from research, from experience, from travelling, from talking. Good ideas come from understanding. And good designers understand.


Gary McCartney is the owner of McCartney Design and a regular contributor to Inside Retailing. You can reach him at

10 March 2013
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