If you’ve ever walked into Zara on a hot, sticky day during the summer sales you’ll know exactly what hell on earth feels like. The combination of poor layout, limited changing rooms, and a distinct lack of staff can often make the in-store experience far from enjoyable.

Not to single Zara out too much, of course. The fact that I regularly put myself through it shows that the retailer must be doing something right not to mention the fact that the same experience can be found in plenty of other high street stores. 

But this got me thinking about what Zara could do to reverse the situation. More specifically, what exactly makes for a truly great in-store customer experience?

With this in mind, here are a few examples of those retailers leading the way, and what we might learn from them. Disclaimer: I’ve intentionally tried to steer clear of some the most obvious examples (like Apple).

1. Ulta Beauty

In 2016, American beauty chain, Ulta Beauty, saw a 23.7% increase in net sales – making it one of the fastest-growing beauty retailers, despite having already been around for 25 years. With nearly 1,000 stores in the US, its physical retail experience has seemingly contributed to a recent boom in success.

So what makes it so great? First, the retailer has a deep understanding of what customers actually want from their shopping experience.

While beauty in the US is usually separated into two distinct categories – prestige products found in high-end department stores, and low-price products from drug stores – Ulta combines the two to create an ‘all things beauty’ superstore.

Alongside this vast array of products, Ulta differentiates itself from other retailers by offering in-store services such as hair, skin and brow treatments.

in-store customer experience

This type of service (and the expertise that goes with it) creates an almost spa-like environment. This also means that the store has become a destination for consumers – somewhere people want to hang out or specifically visit – rather than a place to pop into.

While Macy’s and Sephora also offer great beauty products, Ulta’s salon services mean that customers can enjoy the experience that surrounds discovering them. As recent profits show, it’s a tactic that’s proving popular with both new and existing customers – driving loyalty in an increasingly competitive space.

2. Waitrose

Waitrose has recently been voted the UK’s favourite supermarket in a Which? survey on customer satisfaction, beating M&S and Sainsbury’s for the third year in a row.

The survey involved customer ratings on appearance, queue-length, availability ease of finding products, and overall quality. And while you might argue that these features should be standard as opposed to something that differentiates a retailer, it’s clear that Waitrose is leading the pack in terms of the in-store supermarket experience.

The MyWaitrose loyalty scheme has been a key attraction for consumers, with the programme promising a free hot drink or newspaper to members. Despite Waitrose coming under recent fire for changing the rules – stipulating that members must buy something in exchange for a coffee – the scheme has certainly helped to differentiate the supermarket from the competition.

Elsewhere, Waitrose has ensured that the online experience seamlessly translates to the real world, allowing customers to pick up groceries without the need to visit a large store. Its Click-and-Collect service involves temperature-controlled lockers so that customers can access groceries in train stations and airports at their own convenience.

Other innovations include Waitrose’s Quick Check service which allows customers to scan goods as they shop, as well as in-store tablets helping to speed up and enhance shopping. With Waitrose’s ‘Hot Ideas’ scheme – an incubator program aiming to drive innovation – it’s clear that the supermarket is set on finding ways to further entice shoppers back to its bricks-and-mortar stores in future.

How can retailers create more engaging mobile experiences in-store?

3. Rebecca Minkoff

Luxury brands are setting the bar when it comes to the in-store experience, using VIP treatment to instil loyalty. In fact, this level of service means that many struggle to replicate this online.

For US brand Rebecca Minkoff, the aim is to fuse the best of both worlds, with its 11 global outlets using technology to create an immersive and digitally-driven experience.

Each store has smart mirrors in fitting rooms, allowing shoppers to browse for other sizes or products that might complement whatever they’re trying on. Smart walls also suggest new styles when people pass by or enter, even allowing customers to order champagne to enjoy while they browse.

According to the brand, the fitting-room technology in particular has been the catalyst for a boost in sales, with 30% of customers reportedly requesting additional items thanks to the smart mirror recommendations.

Unlike other luxury brands, which still place a primary focus on showcasing the product, Rebecca Minkoff cleverly uses the real-life retail environment to turn the spotlight on the customers themselves. It aims to use technology to aid and enhance the discovery process, setting the bar for how customers browse and shop for fashion.

4. Lowe’s

Another retailer embracing technology is Lowe’s. The US home improvement store has implemented a number of features to streamline the physical shopping experience in the past, including a mobile app that allows users to access real-time store inventory, and equipping staff with iPhones to help with enquiries.

Just recently, it also announced the new ‘Lowe Vision: In-Store Navigation’ app with AR technology.

Working in conjunction with Google’s Tango AR technology, it provides indoor mapping, allowing customers to search and quickly find items in-store.

The idea of guiding customers through the path to purchase was also the idea behind SmartSpot – a ‘store within a store’ concept that helped customers evaluate the right smart technology for their home.

Recognising that most people feel overwhelmed at the amount of products available (and the level of sophistication of smart technology) the concept aimed to eliminate uncertainty and instil confidence in consumers.

Again, in comparison to competitors within the market, Lowe’s sets itself apart by streamlining the customer journey in-store, using technology to facilitate this.

5. Topshop

Lastly, a retailer that sets a fine example for the likes of Zara and other British high street fashion stores. Topshop – specifically its flagship store on London’s Oxford Street – uses a combination of pop-up retail and experiential campaigns to delight customers.

Alongside personal shopping, which is available free of charge, the store also includes a number of hair and beauty services ranging from brow-taming to piercing. Alongside a café, it also includes integrated food and drink pop-ups such as Bubbleology and Lola’s cupcakes.

Essentially, it aims to make a visit to Topshop about much more than just basic apparel, tempting customers with things they might not even realise they want while browsing in-store.

It’s the unexpected nature of the experience that also differentiates Topshop from the high-street competition. From the new retail pop-ups in-store (some appearing for a limited time only) to its recent experimentation with VR – the brand is focused on keeping the in-store experience fresh and original for returning customers, while delighting new ones.

This summer, ‘Splash’ at Topshop involved the retailer turning its shop windows into an interactive pool scene and allowing customers to ride a virtual water slide. Combining clever advertising with a fun and immersive activity for customers, it’s an indication of how the in-store customer experience is evolving.

I beg you, retailers, don’t digitize the in-store customer experience