Experience: something you get while you’re shopping for something else?

Kate Downer

If you read the retail press, you can’t avoid the assertion that online shopping is forcing brick and mortar retailers to work harder than ever to declare and portray an identity via the shopping experience.

This goes beyond excelling in one of the traditional areas of the retail experience – for example John Lewis with customer service, Poundland with value pricing, and Tesco Extra with depth of range – to ideas that offer a new and unique experience such as the in-store theatre that Sonos is providing in its Covent Garden store ‘homes’. All of this says to me that brick and mortar stores need to be more than just ‘places you buy things from.’

But is this really all so new? Retailers have had to declare and portray an identity since medieval times. Roman times. Possibly since pre-historic times! Ever since the buyer has had the choice between two or more sellers – or indeed, whether to buy at all.

Improving the retail experience has always been, and will always be, in fashion, and retailers have always evolved to provide unique ideas to set themselves apart. Personal shopping, loyalty schemes, free cups of coffee … all of these things were novel once. The Sonos pods in Seven Dials allow shoppers to listen to Sonos speakers in environments that look and feel like ‘home’ – but hasn’t the home furnishings sector been showcasing products this way for decades and decades?

The difference is that retailers have never had to juggle and balance their online retail experience with the brick and mortar one before now. Choice has never been so great, and it’s never been so important to innovate, curate and manage the experience in a physical store. High Street retailers aren’t just up against the shop around the corner, but the competitor with the amazing Cyber Monday sale, the generalist where they can trade their Nectar points in for the same product … and the eBay store who promises the same product for 5% less.


The need to innovate has always been there. What defines innovation depends where and how you operate – what’s for sure is that the need is ever-evolving, because the challenge is too. The need for a brick and mortar store to be more than just ‘the place you buy things from’ is both the newest and the oldest challenge in the book.