High-Touch Retail

Companies and brands are providing more personalized experiences to connect emotionally with customers

February 8, 2017

By Anne Field



For lovers of beer and a casual, hip ambiance, Good Beer is the place to go. Located in Manhattan's trendy East Village, the six-year-old store sells hundreds of craft brews from local producers and some imported brews. "We stock all the small guys' brands," says owner and founder David Cichowicz. 

Customers can fashion their own six packs, mixing and matching beers, or order a growler from a long list of choices on tap. And if they so choose, they can sit at rustic wooden tables in the back of the store, enjoy a brew, chat with other beer enthusiasts, and, on occasion, listen to a talk from a local brew master.

In a world where e-commerce is growing rapidly, Good Beer is part of a distinctive breed of brick-and-mortar retailer moving in the other direction. These companies offer high-touch, one-on-one service and personalized products, often creating a mini-community of loyal fans at the same time. In the process, they're providing an antidote to what Kirk Olson, SVP and managing director of entertainment and trendsights at Horizon Media, a New York– and Los Angeles–based media services agency, calls "techno shock" — the feeling of being overwhelmed by relentless technology and connectivity, along with a need for human contact and the chance to appraise and feel products.

"People are still very interested in experiences that emphasize the human touch," Olson says. In Horizon Media's recent "Finger on the Pulse" survey conducted with 3,000 consumers, 67 percent agreed that "high-tech shopping is overrated."

High-touch retail is all about reinforcing consumers' connections to brands and providing experiences that tap deeper emotional truths likely to trigger specific purchasing behavior. "For the person who is emotionally connected to the beer category, for example, the chance to learn about and taste a variety of microbrews in a congenial atmosphere [is seen as] very high touch," says Christopher Brace, CEO of Syntegrate Consulting, a New York City–based marketing firm. "These experiences are super powerful."

They can be created around even the most prosaic products as well. Take PIRCH, a San Diego–based, multi-city chain that sells high-end home appliances and fixtures. In a massive space in New York City with elegantly displayed wares, customers can test drive ovens, grills, and other products, including a variety of shower heads. "The concept is that people can interact with these products," Brace says. "If you're buying high-end goods, you should be able to try before you buy."


Elevating the Experience

In many cases, having a trained, highly knowledgeable staff that can provide one-on-one service and a bit of luxury can make all the difference. Take the marketing approach developed by the Nestlé Group brand Nespresso, a maker of coffee and espresso machines and high quality coffees and espresso. At 450 boutiques worldwide, in addition to boutique-in-shop locations at retail partners like Bloomingdale's and Sur La Table, Nespresso coffee specialists help customers use the Nespresso machines to sample different coffees and espressos or, if they want to relax, customers can have a seat and order from a menu of light fare. People are still very interested in experiences that emphasize the human touch"
— Kirk Olson, SVP and managing director of entertainment and trendsights at Horizon Media
Most important, these trained coffee specialists are on hand to discuss everything from a coffee's origin to its flavor profile. It's a way to compete against ubiquitous products, such as the Keurig machine, that consumers can easily find online or at membership warehouses like Costco, marketing experts say.

Eataly, an Italian mega-market with some 30 locations worldwide, takes an even more creative approach. For example, the 50,000-square-foot NYC Flatiron location features six restaurants, four counters with such fare as gelato and panini, a book store, a wine shop next door, and a butcher, among other attractions. Customers even have access to an olive oil sommelier. Occasionally, Eataly hosts "Meet the Brewer" dinners at the rooftop restaurant at which diners can meet local brewers and enjoy a special menu specifically designed to pair with that brewer's beers. Eataly also offers weekly tours led by trained guides, including one for children during which they can learn Italian phrases.


Don't Rule Out Tech

Recognizing the variety of ways different audiences define high-touch is critical, Brace says. In some cases, the definition may include the use of technology. Case in point: the soon-to-open Amazon Go grocery store in Seattle. Customers who download the Amazon Go app will be able to enter a store, choose the items they want to purchase, and place them in a bag. The items will then be automatically scanned and charged to the customer's Amazon account upon exit, with no need to wait in a checkout line.

"If you love technology, this is definitely going to feel high-touch," Brace says. "They're trying to build a brick-and-mortar experience that leverages as much of the convenience and smart technology of the e-commerce counterpart."

Similarly, Capital One Cafes, located in various cities across seven states in the U.S., offer services that might seem particularly attractive to the tech-loving, hoodie-wearing crowd. There are no tellers to speak of, just friendly staff on hand to answer customers' questions about bank services or steer them to the company website. While there, customers can enjoy gourmet coffee, goodies, and free WiFi.


Hitting the Sweet Spot

It's also possible to add a high-touch retail component to a service, as long as the experience reinforces the core attributes of the brand, says Kersten Rivas, CEO of Source Marketing, a Norwalk, Conn.-based firm specializing in customer experience marketing. For example, since 2010, Chase Bank has built pop-up lounges at upscale malls in Short Hills, N.J., and San Francisco during the holiday shopping season. Open to Chase United MileagePlus cardholders and their guests, the lounges resemble plush private airport clubs. Services include bag checking while cardholders are shopping, coffee, access to bathrooms and comfortable seating, and perhaps the ultimate seasonal luxury, free gift wrapping.

The bottom line: By finding and catering to their customers' high-touch sweet spot, smart retailers can provide powerful experiences — and buck the e-commerce trend.




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