Local retailers are vital to our communities. They provide goods and services that we need, valuable insight and expertise, and serve as the backbone of our local economies. Without local retail, the job market, cultural variety, and our very connection to our communities would be at risk of collapse. For the last few years, the future of local retail has looked dim. Convenience giants like Walmart, Amazon, and Target have outcompeted local retail in pricing, convenience, and selection of goods.
Then came COVID, which proved to be too much for many local retailers who were already struggling from intense competition. Those who survived made it through by adapting to the times, leveraging technology like social media, influencer marketing, and delivery to reach consumers during lockdown. In becoming social media oriented, local retailers began to find that focusing on experiences, not just products, might just be their saving grace for the post pandemic road ahead. Instead of trying to compete in pricing or convenience, where they’re at a severe disadvantage, local retailers are now focusing on experience building to delight their customers in ways that the giants just can’t.
I spoke with professor Jagdish Sheth, an internationally renowned scholar and marketing expert, to learn about where local retail experiences are headed.
We started with the past. Until the mid 20th century, local retailers used relationship building to create positive customer experiences. They befriended their customers, took an interest in their families, and learned about their hobbies. In return, customers rewarded them with lifelong loyalty that contributed heavily to their bottom line.
Now though, with the increasing importance of social media, local retailers have shifted their focus towards creating entertaining and valuable experiences that can be marketed on social media. Professor Sheth believes that “Experiential marketing will become the strategy, not only for survival, but also growth for brick and mortar retail.”
At a high level, Experiential Marketing is pretty simple. Brands create unique experiences in an effort to attract and connect with consumers on a deeper level. These experiences can come in the form of in-person events, digital simulations, or even pop-up shops. I spoke with Shahrukh Panjwani, Director of Sales and Partnerships at IMC, to learn more about why Experiential Marketing is so important to brands in our day and age.
“Consumers nowadays are so desensitized to the digital world. Brands need to anchor consumers with deeper, more memorable experiences that don’t disappear after a scroll,” Panjwani said. These experiences can come in many shapes and forms, but at their core, they’re designed to provide a space for consumers to connect with a brand in a memorable way.
Believe it or not, local retailers actually have an advantage over large brands when it comes to experiential marketing. Large brands often need to hire entire teams to regularly coordinate these events across the country. These events are often costly to put on, and last for a limited time. Local retailers on the other hand don’t need to go to such lengths to provide memorable experiences to their customers. They can create memorable experiences by personally connecting with their customers in their local stores, and by designing shopping experiences that are memorable in nature. Some local retailers are even offering new experiential services to customers. For example, a local Atlanta Italian grocer and restaurant is offering cooking lessons after hours. What a great way for the owner to form a memorable bond with tons of customers, and earn additional revenue in immediately.
Local retailers also have the support of community and government organizations behind them. For example, Alpharetta Convention & Visitors Bureau focuses on the tourism and hospitality industry in Alpharetta. To attract visitors to Alpharetta, ACVB posts promotional content featuring local retailers. Janet Rodgers, President and CEO of ACVB, had this to say about their promotional activities:
“Showcasing experiences is at the forefront of everything we do in our promotional efforts as we invite people to shop, dine, play, attend events and concerts, as well as stay the night in Awesome Alpharetta. We harness all of Alpharetta’s experiences and directly market them to designated demographics to show that there is always something fun for everyone to experience in Alpharetta.”
ACVB focuses on highlighting exciting experiences in Alpharetta, many of which are associated with specific local retailers. ACVB regularly promotes these local retailers on their instagram (awesomealpharetta). Local retailers in areas that have active local organizations like ACVB enjoy additional support in their experiential marketing effort.
A relatively new phenomenon, some developers are even supporting their tenants in their experiential marketing efforts. I met with North American Properties, the developer behind Avalon and Colony Square in the Atlanta area, as well as countless other developments across the country. Their promotion model is on the cutting edge of experiential marketing, one that will eventually serve as a blueprint for many developments to come.
North American Properties takes the time to get to know the communities surrounding their developments, learning what kind of tenants the community needs. Once they’ve found their tenants, North American Properties works with them to figure out how they can help with promotional content. Each property has a dedicated social media coordinator. These social media coordinators go in on a daily basis, taking photos and creating original content for social media.
This in itself is a big deal already, but North American Properties takes things a step further, planning development-wide and tenant-specific experiences designed to bring consumers to their tenants in droves.
“Some of our events we tailor more towards the community aspect. Bringing in thousands of people for a St Patrick’s day event will inevitably drive sales for tenants because all of these people are on site,” said Cayley Mullen (VP of Marketing).
All of the events are designed to be shared over and over again on social media, it’s what makes this kind of marketing so effective.
“All of our promotion and traffic comes through social media. When people come, they take pictures where they’ve seen others do so. They want to be a part of it,” added Sara Carville Hemmer (Director of Marketing).
North American Properties’ comprehensive approach to the experiential market could become the blueprint for local retail developments.
Local retailers can harness the power of experiential marketing to not only survive, but thrive in the coming years. This strategy applies every local retailer, even those that don’t have the advantage of belonging to an experiential marketing oriented development. Local retailers can start by building a memorable in store experience, and spread the word about their experience on social media. If they the have the budget, they can work with local influencers to bring awareness of their experiences to thousands. If they don’t, they can build their social media presence organically, and find crafty ways to encourage shoppers to share photos while in store. If a local retailer really wants to leverage the experiential marketing approach to the fullest extent, they can host events, classes, or even provide unique services to their customers.
The point is, local retailers have lots of options to create experiences their own way, within budget. Local retailers no longer need to try to compete with convenience giants, and instead can thrive by being themselves and finding new ways to spend time with consumers.
For us, we have new experiences to look forward to.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTING AUTHOR: Founder of My Influency, the influencer marketing tool for local businesses, Kyle has devoted his career to empowering small businesses with game changing ad tech. Kyle’s expertise revolves around influencer marketing and experiential marketing. Kyle understands that the future of small business is experiential, and influencers are key to sharing small business experiences with the right audiences.