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How Japan mastered the art of experiential retailing

By Don-Alvin Adegeest


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Experiential retailing, a marketer's term for brick-and mortar-companies creating in-store buzzes to attract shoppers, is part of an ongoing conversation about technology-enhanced, omni-channel, immersive retailing. It is also a subject of intense research, with some 'experts' offering formulas to create out-of-the-box retail experiences that will make any boutique, retail chain, pop-up or even kiosk stand out from the crowd. These one size fits all formulas, of course, are doomed to fail. Hence the dying high street, struggling department stores and soulless malls.

Retail with a soul

Retail executives say the future of shopping is for stores to embrace experiential concepts and meaningful experiences. On a recent trip to Tokyo, Japan, I witnessed firsthand retail with a soul. Inspiration and innovation could be seen everywhere, in tiny boutiques in out of the way locations, to large retailers with budgets to truly innovate and surprise. Unlike any other major fashion and shopping mecca, the Japanese live and breathe experiential retailing.

Attention to detailing, consideration for all aspects of the retail experience, from the product and brand mix to the interior are the three key points consistent across the multitude of stores I visited. But what really stood out was authenticity, and this is what gives retail its soul.

Take a skate wear store (not Supreme), where a carefully curated brand mix leads the shopper to areas of discovery: a rail of fine jersey and graphic hoodies in one section; a cabinet with horn crafted eyewear next to a shelf featuring under the radar beauty brands. A vintage table displays small leather goods and a basket filled with Japanese-made blankets sits next to a record player and crate of vintage vinyl. On the wall hangs a minimal display for bags and fanny packs. Expensive merino wool socks are laid out by a window amongst copious plants and ornaments. Its furniture is for sale, too.

The end of boring shop in shops

At department stores, fashion is celebrated and displayed beyond the Western standard of shop in shops. At Beams the merchandising is expertly curated by colour and looks, not solely separated by brand. More in line with how consumers prefer to shop and purchase. And while you can still find the same brands in different stores, if the Prada mono brand store is just down the road, you don't see it displayed as a single brand a few doors down. Instead, retailers take pride to thoughtfully and considerately create unique stories, weaving together possibilities by displaying product as a means to discovery and making those displays look yummy and shoppable.

Location in Tokyo isn't of primary importance. Even in the most out of the way unlikely places you can chance upon the coolest store. A Goop pop-up in a small park away from the malls and retail streets attests to that. Yet even said malls are carefully curated, like a top floor dedicated to homeware and interiors. A few levels down men's and women's wear each have their separate domains, but unisex product is everywhere. A large bookstore spanning three floors has architecturally wood crafted walls, sumptuous seating and a cafe to sit, browse, read and drink. This is immersive retailing at its best.

The only shopping experience I disliked was the obligatory visit to a wellknown local flagship in Ginza. Here, housed on umpteenth floors, you can discover the entire world of one brand and then some, though at close scrutiny you often find the same product in different sections on separate floors, most of which are a challenge to navigate. The buzz killer? Loudspeakers repeating annoying ads with a musical ditty so aurally painful I suffered a near breakdown. To spend more than five minutes here you need noise canceling headphones.

As is often the case, the soulless high street behemoths could take inspiration and cues from smaller brands and lesser known retailers. When every square meter in a retail space is authentically considered - and not necessarily filled to the brim with product as space itself can be curated - it makes shopping a true pleasure and more likely to entice one to buy.

Images by FashionUnited

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