Working in a world where retail décor, promotion, multi-channel marketing and customer experience are always front of mind, I have a heightened awareness of my own ‘customer journeys’, how they make me feel and how effective they are at making me try and buy.
A few months ago I blogged about how retailers seem to miss a trick by failing to create inviting environments for shoppers to browse. Much is written about ‘showrooming’, the phenomenon where customers visit a physical store to browse, while the actual purchase transaction ultimately takes place online. We also see a growing trend for brands to establish themselves successfully in the digital space, only investing in a physical retail presence once they have sufficient critical mass.
But, in an era when we’re questioning the role and return on investment of retail space, what happens when the ‘bricks-and-mortar’ experience under-delivers compared with the storytelling that a brand has painstakingly achieved through its digital and print marketing? A recent retail encounter with a company I have come to admire left me feeling experientially short-changed.
I’ve been mulling a new sofa purchase for a while, and have a strong affinity for the lovely Loaf furniture brand, with its muted colour palette and emphasis on squishy comfort. Clearly I’m not the only one; Loaf is a massive start-up success story, and one of the fastest growing retail brands in the UK.
I’ve been on the receiving end of the company’s sophisticated multi-channel marketing for many years. The beautifully photographed catalogues, mailings and digital advertising regularly nudge me to browse the website, and their products tend to come high on my wish-list when planning a décor project chez Shurmer.
With its laid-back copy (sofas have evocative names like ‘Slowcoach’ and ‘Sloucher’) and inviting images, Loaf sells an aspirational, chilled-out lifestyle, and with it no doubt hundreds of ‘sofas for loafers’. So when I read that the company had opened a new 5000 square foot physical store (sorry, a ‘slowroom’) close to my home, it became a retail destination. Hubby and I duly committed a few hours on Saturday for a bit of ‘loafing’.
I can’t fault the quality of service we received – polite, attentive and informed staff, well briefed on the language of the brand. At a functional level, with the opportunity to touch and try, sprawl on the sofas and take away (beautifully packaged) fabric samples, the visit was worthwhile. And I certainly wouldn’t consider shelling out for a sofa that will hopefully last 20 years without physically seeing and testing it, so this would definitely never be an online purchase.
But this experience still missed the mark for me, falling short of creating an immersive retail space that fully reflected the Loaf story. When he was interviewed for Retail Focus in April this year, Loaf founder Charlie Marshall said: ‘I had this vision that I wanted these big, quirky spaces where our customers can come and experience the brand. We want them to explore our laid-back world and flop around on our beds and sofas; chill out; smell, feel and even hear the brand, through the music we play.’
The reality for me was a store that felt like an old-fashioned warehouse of sofa and bed samples, admittedly arranged with plenty of space for customers to navigate between ‘Squishmeister’ and ‘Cuddlemuffin’ in comfort. There were a few glimpses of the loafing lifestyle – drinks fridges and an ice-cream counter are nice nods to the family-friendly, comfort-focused brand narrative.
But there were no room sets, not much in the way of styling, and little of the visual wow factor that the printed catalogues or the online imagery would lead me to expect. I arrived hoping for inspiration and expecting to leave with a vision of a desirable new living space and a long list of must-haves. Instead I found a functional ‘sofa shack’ with a few gimmicky touches.
When the time comes to make this investment purchase, the aesthetic and build quality of the products will be what compels me to buy from one brand or another, and Loaf will almost certainly be in the running. But this felt like a missed opportunity to really get me to buy in to the lifestyle vision I’ve taken from all previous touchpoints with a brand of which I’m already an avid fan.