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Forget a white Christmas, the fine food retail sector is dreaming of a normal Christmas free from the sort of restrictions that decimated footfall in December last year. While the carefree norms of old – cheek-by-jowl queues and unrestricted sampling – may be on hold again, there are ways to amplify the experience your store delivers, and elevate it to new heights.
First step: invest in the experience economy. Coined in 1998 to describe the era that would follow the agrarian, industrial and – most recently – service economies, the phrase relates to the way businesses can curate memorable experiences for their customers, with these memories forming part of the product. How does all this relate to your Christmas profits?
Fine food retailers – with your heritage-drenched products, skills for storytelling and the sounds, smells and flavours that inhabit the shop floor – are perfectly placed to benefit from consumers’ hunger for authentic experience. So says Sandra Mardin, strategy director for TRO, the ‘shared experience agency’ that helps clients meet their business goals by harnessing the power of memorable moments both live and online. “Historically, before the world of mass consumerism, market places were not only places of trade but also centres of social life,” points out Sandra. “The exchange of goods and trade is inherently a social activity, but over time the focus has been moved to convenience and the boom in mobile technology means people now go online for their transaction. Recent history has pushed physical retail into this social shared experience space. That means the bricks and mortar stores have to work harder to get people to come in, and can’t just be a place of transaction.”
Sandra compares the potential of the in-store retail experience to restaurants, where the presence of other diners elevates the eating experience, or the way films feel more engaging in a full cinema. “Studies have shown that chocolate tastes nicer if you are sharing the experience,” she points out. “It makes sense: looking at the reactions of others becomes part of that experience too. The pandemic caused a mass deprivation [of social encounters]; if you take something away you realise how much you love it.” So what are we talking about – getting the aroma of mulled wine wafting around your Christmas SKUs? Cranking up copyright-free carols? Having an oven, espresso machine or other on-site asset filling the space with enticing aromas will certainly engage customers’ senses, just as sampling can, but organising festive activities with a little more ambition and flair can really pay off.
Like Keelham Farm Shop outside Skipton, which is organising a Christmas parade, afternoon tea with Santa and other exciting events, or The Bottle deli and wine bar in Newquay, where owners Toyah Marshall and Rob Palmer have scheduled ticketed wine tasting and wreath-making events for this December.
Bringing chargeable new services into your shop for the festive period will add to the buzz in-store and generate revenue. Hiring in gift-wrappers, calligraphers or even personal shoppers can help time-pressed customers get a bespoke service. Demonstrations can be a great way to sell big ticket items while giving customers a live experience. Food processors, blenders and castiron cookware are all flagged as the best kitchen gifts for ‘21 by culinary blog Kitchn. Up the festive ante in store with aromatic mulled wine (or mulled juice, if you are unlicensed) and warm mince pies.
Of course, what economic theorists in the 90s couldn’t have foreseen was the way social media would amplify experiences, allowing businesses from the largest multinational brand to the smallest indie retailer to benefit from an explosion in social sharing. “Figures from the Institute of Promotional Marketing say 90% communicate an experience to as many as eight different people,” points out Sandra. “But 65% communicate to a minimum of 300 people via social media. Usually when people think about investing in an event they tend to focus on the people they’re reaching live. It’s easy to forget about the ripple effect that can have, but shared online an event is a great opportunity to reach people that don’t live locally.”
For Sandra, the real art to hooking in an exponential online audience (a real asset if you sell online, or trade in something unique) is to give their watching experience some real thought. “It’s not merely about having something in-store, taking a photo and sharing it online. You have to give something to people remotely as well. Think about their experience of engaging with that content. How interesting would a straightforward video be for them? Maybe they could have access to something exclusive. When you’re planning your event or activity you need to think what the experience will be both for people in-store and also engaging remotely.”
A good example is Ludlow Farm Shop, which has used its social media channels to invite customers to contribute to the recipe for its ‘21 Christmas pudding. Customers unable to visit the store can contribute and interact, having their input invited and rewarded. Retailers who deliver tips, tasting notes and recommendations direct to camera are also wrapping their store experience around a new demographic.
Of course, it’s important to be strategic, identifying your marketing goals and evaluating how activities have helped achieve them, but what does that look like? Is it about capturing data around footfall, online engagement and sales? “You could measure those things,” agrees Sandra, “but also things like how many people have heard about you, how well known you’re becoming. A really cheap way of doing that is to follow search trends: how many people are Googling the brand over time. Another thing you might want to measure is how much people are organically talking about you. There’s value in coverage you’d normally need to pay for but you’re getting it free; that’s saving you money and improving your reach.”
Whilst the digital realm can help you amplify activities, Sandra is quick to point out that digital will complement, not replace, live happenings. She cites a live immersive that digital behemoths TikTok recently held in Westfield. “If you only rely on digital ads and digital targeting, you end up speaking to people who already know you or already had an interest. You end up in an echo chamber: you sell to followers but after a while the pool will get exhausted as you’re retargeting the same people and you’ll get diminishing results. What a physical experience can do is just really help with word of mouth. It can help spread the word beyond a very narrow target audience.”
A Christmas experience your customers will want to shout about? That’s well worth a little planning.
A new village store in Finchampstead, Berkshire, immerses customers in the golden age of retail
“The idea for the shop came from lockdown, when as a restaurateur I was able to get hold of some amazing produce and turned one of our dining rooms into a shop for locals who were struggling to get hold of groceries.” As co-founder of the Brucan Pubs group operating a clutch of top-end gastropubs, owner James Lyon-Shaw knows a bit about curating a welcoming environment. This Christmas, Goswell & Bird’s – the Brucan group’s first venture into retail – will transform into a private dining area in the evenings, having hosted sales of turkeys, festive bakes and gift items on traditional shelves harking back to the village’s Victorian stores.
“As someone who’s been in hospitality longer than I care to remember, I get frustrated when I get to a shop where you’re waiting for ages to get served or are cattle-herded through the space,” says James. “Sometimes it feels like the magic of service in shops has been lost. So one of our aims is to make that experience of shopping really nice again, creating a space where we can have those conversations with customers and pass on the passion for the amazing produce we can get.”
With food halls in Westfield Stratford and Westfield London, as well as a flagship store in Leicester Square, Japan Centre works hard to build an in-store experience
“Over the festive period we’ll be hosting Kagami Biraki – the breaking of the sake barrel to bring good luck and fortune to the business and our customers – and giving out sake to our customers to toast in the New Year,” says Peter Cowie, Japan Centre’s head of marketing. “Part of these celebrations will also include mochi pounding, with help from the food hall’s chefs. Even Tak Tokumine, Japan Centre CEO, has been known to get involved! The mochi skin is then wrapped around a traditional adzuki bean filling and given to our customers to celebrate the New Year.
“Each Christmas we create a special range of bakery favourites with a festive and Japanese twist to give customers an alternative to the traditional range often seen at other food halls, from matcha and yuzu stollen to our festive matcha Bundt cake: creating new reasons to visit us in-store for a something a little different.” At Westfield London site Ichiba, Europe’s largest Japanese food hall, care is taken to curate a holistic experience of Japanese culture.
“Japanese-style paper structures, flags and traditional fabrics break up the space, while lights inspired by chopsticks, lanterns and traditional wooden elements help customers navigate the zones of the store,” says Peter. “We are proud of our Japanese roots, so during key Japanese holidays we go big on displays, from carp flags known as koinobori for Children’s Day to cherry blossom to celebrate Hanami, the cherry blossom festival.”