What would it take to bring back ‘recreational retail?’ | Cindy W. Hodnett

There was a time in the not-so-distant-past when shopping was fun. Malls opened, attracting customers of all ages with a variety of stores as well as numerous food and drink options. Local shopping centers featured anchor tenants like a grocery or department store, and smaller boutique-inspired mom-and-pop retailers filled in the smaller commercial spaces alongside, a walkable multi-product opportunity for shoppers with a list to fill and time to kill.

Of course, technology changed things dramatically over the past 10-plus years, bringing online shopping to the masses initially and later becoming a crucial product lifeline for consumers during a global pandemic.

Add in the 2023 challenges of inflation and the shifting career roles that impacted many entering the work force for the first time over the past three years, and it seems like retail is a long way from rediscovering its glory days. However, there might be a few reasons for optimism.

Nostalgia is an opportunity.

According to several recent articles, Millennial and Gen Z consumers who will represent prime spenders over the next decade are also among some of the most nostalgic consumers in the marketplace. Tech savvy and some would say tech dependent, these same consumers also include a significant number of individuals who express a desire to experience life as their parents or grandparents did, perhaps because of the COVID years and also likely due in part to the technology fatigue becoming more pervasive across all age groups.

Consequently, retailers that create a sense of nostalgia in their stores or product offerings could attract a new audience among consumers who are longing for connections with yesteryear, now often defined as the 1990s or early 2000s.

This same idea opens the door for creative retailers to rediscover “old” ways of bringing buyers into the store, whether special holiday-themed or personalized events, “first 100 customers through the door” giveaways, or even special 1990s/early 2000s-themed product displays that allow buyers to see it, touch it and feel it in person.

Experiential retail combines pay and play.

Statistics show that the Millennial/Gen Z consumers are also open to and looking for new experiential retail environments that provide memorable in-store experiences, and these experiences often build brand loyalty and subsequent purchases in the process.

According to ICSC (Innovating Commerce Serving Communities), numerous retailers have implemented a successful experiential retail strategy through in-store events, pop-up shops, and localization that reflects the surrounding community. ICSC identifies Ikea’s local strategy as a successful one, noting that Ikea is a “master of localization” that “does extensive research before opening store locations, including going into locals’ homes to find out what items they’d be interested in buying.”

For smaller retailers, this might equate to providing experiences that underscore the store as a community gathering place. For larger retailers, designating square footage that nods to a local connection could reinforce brand loyalty. For either, the bottom line is that tomorrow’s prime buying audience wants an experience today that will bring them in and keep them coming back to the store.

The power of storytelling continues to grow.

Competition for attention is fierce in today’s omnichannel marketplace and not likely to abate in a 24/7 connected world. Consequently, the story behind a product has the potential to dramatically escalate loyalty between consumers and brands, and recreational retail can reinforce the strategy.

Consider a recent story in Forbes that overviews how “memorable and shareable content” can differentiate brands. Now turn the concept toward a goal of creating a story around frequent, relaxed visits to a retailer. This might be a story along the lines of the Williams Sonoma’s founder’s “latest trip to France” product inspiration or by contrast, cross-promotional events that benefit the community and create social media buzz.

Define the target audience, and then create a story that aligns with that target audience across content channels that keeps customers engaged with the store and gives them a reason to come through the door.

Despite current economic challenges, people are still buying. And when it comes to attracting future consumers, there’s no time like the present to add in a mix of nostalgia, storytelling and good old-fashioned fun in the store to create a winning strategy.

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