Achieving Authenticity: Telling a Story Through Experiential Retail

As brick and mortar retail becomes more targeted and specialized, we use the term “authenticity” to describe success, but what does it really mean?

The Reinvention of Retail

The age of retail disruption has reshaped the consumer journey with an emphasis on immersive experiences and engaging environments. Today’s economy is driven by consumer preference, and as a result, retailers have exciting opportunities to explore new ways of creating memorable moments and a deeper connection with their brands across digital and physical spaces.

With so many buying options available, a close connection with the customer in the physical space is more important than ever. Sensory stimulation — the reveal, the unexpected, the hunt — is still a major factor, influencing how people shop and are entertained. Physical stores enhance engagement and build brand loyalty through a balance of technology and tactile experience.

Delivering on every key dimension of a store experience is a great opportunity for retailers to create unique and unexpected spaces distinct from others in the same category. This may include ease of access to products or services to encourage consumer discovery; customer service in the form of knowledgeable, personal assistance; promotions and easy-to-navigate rewards programs; and accurately interpreting customer preferences. If the bases are all covered, a community will develop and function as an advocacy group for your brand.

Rapha Cycling Club goes beyond the storefront to create a lifestyle center for its customers. The “clubhouse” in Boulder, Colorado, is both a meeting and retail space.

Defining Authenticity

With physical spaces still so important for human interaction and engagement, there’s no room for mediocrity or poor execution — expectations are high as consumers demand to be delighted. Naturally, this begs the question: What does it mean to be authentic?

STEP 1: Develop a Roadmap

It’s a big first step — straightforward, but not simple. Your vision is your destination; your road map represents how you hope to get there. It doesn’t have to be a detailed, topographical road map, with every bump and bend noted, but make sure the major thoroughfares are sketched in and visible.

Decide how location affects aesthetics, get a general idea for the feelings you hope to evoke from your visitors, document and share your core values so they resonate from the start.

STEP 2: Ask the Right Questions

Engage with a designer early in the process. Find someone who is willing to challenge your ideas — you’ll know your core concept is strong enough when it can stand up to tough questions.

Determine the feeling your place of business will project. Modern and fun? Substantial and serious? Welcoming and homey? Quick and convenient? Do you want customers to linger or is a fast turnaround more important to your business plan? What are you showcasing and what features play a supporting role? The information you surface should inform your materials and other design decisions.

Barley & Vine in downtown Bozeman, Montana, has an industrial-yet-romantic atmosphere, with a bar and restaurant intentionally reminiscent of a night in Tuscany. It’s rich and inviting design imparts a unique ambiance with an emphasis on socializing around a cool, cozy bar.

STEP 3: Wow with experience

This requires some soul searching. You need to know your story before you can share it in a powerful way. To make it personal, answer the following:

  1. What brought you to this business?
  2. What’s important about what you’re sharing?
  3. What motivates you?

Your motive, mission, and sense of purpose don’t have to be about saving the world — they just need to be truthful and genuine. Know who you are and why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Picture this: You’re a retired military veteran working to expand a craft brewery from your home garage to an old fire station. Your brewing experience began overseas, but you brought it home and mixed it with your local history. This foundation drives you to open a community gathering space where people come to bond, reminisce, and relax.

Your goal is to share your personal experiences with heightened camaraderie and honor those who carry on a dedication to protecting and serving. Every element of your brand — logo, product, product names, merchandise, and the actual building (selected for symbolism and establishment) should be communicated clearly and intentionally in everything you do. This is the framework for the authentic experience you wish to offer.

Once a cotton gin, the 103-year-old Buda Mill & Grain Co. in Texas is now a retail hub and community gathering space. The design objective was to stay true to the mill’s historic past while incorporating a modern aesthetic.

STEP 4: Create a sense of place

When creating a sense of place and crafting experience in authentic destinations, attention to detail is paramount.  Some things to consider:

Design decisions should be made to leverage walkability and increase dwell time, which can enhance the customer experience. Engagement in lingering spaces, such as pocket parks and thoughtfully placed green areas, provide opportunities to rethink the outdoor experience. Density versus open space ratios provide the appropriate palette for curation and a balance of adjacencies to support character. Jewel box storefronts that uniquely identify a retailer’s brand and provide views into customized spaces and products add enticement for potential consumers.

The design of Hotel Theodore and Rider Restaurant is inspired by Seattle’s long tradition of “makers, builders, and doers,” reflecting a refined, handmade aesthetic, with an exterior that invites pedestrians inside.

Carefully made design decisions can transform your vision, thoughts, musings, and inspirations into a tangible palette of materials and details that support your story and reinforce your brand. The authenticity will begin to take shape as your concepts become physical and malleable.

STEP 5: Embrace the Character of the Community

Authenticity extends beyond the built experience into intangibles such as culture and core values. As retail establishments become increasingly experiential, products and services are becoming more local and value-based. Consumers want to know where food and materials come from. Business owners want to feel good about supporting local artisans, farmers, and trades.

Leverage every opportunity to celebrate the small details and incorporate them into your story and your space. Feature suppliers with signage or special displays; write the story of your ethical commitments on the wall in plain sight; share proceeds and spread the word about local charities or causes; give your values legs by making them visible and apparent in your materials, services, products, and personality. Build a connection with your customer that can’t be duplicated.

Each Whole Foods Market reflects it’s community, from sourcing unique, local materials to incorporate into the design (think wheelbarrows and old truck bodies) to decor and signage that celebrates a sense of place.

Parting Thoughts

If the story you’re telling through the lens of your retail space isn’t genuine, personal, informed, and fueled with passion, your space may end up expressively empty as a result.

Customers should feel a sense of place, even if they can’t necessarily describe what details trigger their emotions. It’s a culmination of the entire experience that translates into feeling a genuine connection. Authenticity stems from a vision as unique as the individual/s behind it — not perfect, but real, approachable, and relatable.