The loyalty of Apple customers is legendary. You’ve seen them lining up outside the stores just to be first to own the latest iPhone. Many will probably be scouring the internet for the latest Apple articles, stories and comments while standing in line. They are so loyal, detractors refer to them as “iSheep”.

In fact, there is something inherently human about this behaviour. Most of us like to feel we belong, whether we identify with a ‘tribe’, club or other group. Apple has built a brand that makes people feel this sense of belonging.

But, their magic formula isn’t really the product design. It’s their people and specifically the way Apple trains them to engage with customers and build relationships. An Apple store is more than a shop. It’s an event space. A fun place to visit even when you don’t need to buy anything.

“At the heart of every Apple Store is the desire to educate and inspire the communities we serve,” Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s senior vice president of Retail.

Apple’s free educational sessions cover everything from coding and design, to music and art. Their highly-trained team members deliver workshops for all abilities; families, students, teachers and small business owners.

Now, you may not have Apple’s budget but there’s still a lot you can do to create fun, engaging customer experiences. Here are just a few examples I’ve seen from leading brands that all help foster that sense of belonging.

Build a ‘club’ or ‘community’ feel

You can do this with a combination of online and in-store activity. Online groups are useful for delivering special offers and event invitations. But communities really come alive in a face-to-face environment.

Independent book shops have become adept at this in the face of stiff competition from Amazon. Book clubs, children’s story-times, author book signings, talks and presentations are just some of the ways they entice customers through the door. And keep them coming back for more.

Other big brands that do this well include Sweaty Betty with their running clubs and in-store exercise classes. Perhaps you’d prefer Lululemon, the yoga-inspired clothing retailer, where you can get free beer with your free yoga?

Independent businesses or smaller chains are just as well-placed to instigate their own take on this theme – perhaps in partnership with other complementary businesses.

Give back

What can you do to support your local community or a charity that resonates with your customers? H&M, for example, have drop off points in their stores where customers can recycle their unwanted clothes.

Barclays have developed their Digital Eagles team to give face-to-face advice to customers on new technology and Eagle Labs to attract small business clients into their branches.

Everyone loves a good story

Allowing your customers to see what goes into creating your product is a great way to build loyalty and engagement. So, if you have a good back story or brand heritage that would appeal to your customers, don’t hide it. L’Occitane does this across their website and stores.

Current projects can also make good news stories for your brand. Dulux is donating paint and expertise to deserving causes across the UK as part of its mission to Add Colour to People’s Lives.

A sensory retail experience

Appealing to all the senses is a key way big brands attract customers. Sometimes it’s high tech: Ralph Lauren stores now have interactive mirrors and touch screens that make personalised suggestions as an effective way to cross sell to customers. And, IKEA are piloting VR to allow customers to ‘place’ items in their own room to get a feel for how they look.

But it doesn’t have to be high tech. Hunter created a British feel to their Tokyo store, complete with a forest landscape, cloudy sky and the sound of rain.

Know your customer and your team

Whatever approach you take, it is essential to know and understand your target customers. This is where you need the detail. Think about how you would describe them. What are their habits and passions – and are there any barriers to them shopping with you? Customer research, including mystery shopping, allows retailers to define key issues with independent, tangible data.

It’s also important to get buy-in from your whole team. As Judy Randon Regional Director with Shopper Anonymous stresses, mystery shopping is also an opportunity to engage, reward and motivate the team and share best practice.

“While the product is a big part of the purchase, the ‘experience’ is more important. How the customer feels about the interaction is what creates a lasting memory, whether the purchase is made or not. When customer service is at the heart of an organisation, and by that I mean ensuring it is a central objective with a fully engaged team on board, statistics tell us that sales increase by over 30%. Take a moment to do the maths on that.”

Your marketing department can organise lots of fun events – at Christmas or Halloween for example. And, that’s great, but your whole team needs to be on board. They need to be motivated and engaged in order to make the event or experience interesting and fun for the customer.

It’s becoming more difficult to stand out from the competition. But, by designing really engaging retail experiences that connect with shoppers, you can attract loyal advocates who come back for more. To do that well, you need to keep your finger on the pulse and really understand your customer base.

I’d love to hear more about how you engage with your customers. Drop me a line if you want to discuss more.

Stephen Balmer-Walters

Author Stephen Balmer-Walters

An experienced international retail omni channel director with a wealth of knowledge. A strong leader able to communicate and negotiate at all levels.

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