Social media, e-commerce, and a new generation of consumers have upended the transactional nature of retail sales and changed the way small businesses compete. As customers eschew functionality in favor of a complete retail experience —frequently paying a premium for such services — “race to the bottom” price point competition is on the decline. Brand loyalty is no longer about the best products, it’s about developing an ongoing relationship with customers, preferably one that’s Instagram-worthy.

If small businesses want to attract and keep today’s loyal customers, they need to embrace experiential commerce. In some ways, the modern-day smoke and vape shop needs to become a digital Starbucks.

“Everyone laughs at the overpriced soy latte,” said Joseph Casanova, Head of Digital Marketing at Creative Propulsion Labs, a full-service marketing solutions agency located in Miami. “But Starbucks really pioneered everything we think of when talking about experiential commerce today. From the comfortable couches to the free wi-fi, Starbucks sells an experience. It’s a meeting place, an office, a gathering spot.”

“The experience is the reason they can charge so much for those drinks,” he continued.

Now, retailers need to double-down when it comes to experiential commerce, as customers expect a more interactive experience tailor-made for the digital age. With the advent of Snapchat and Instagram, people don’t just want to go somewhere; they want to show others where they’ve gone, what they’ve done. For smoke and vape shops, this means creating a place where customers come to visit, not just to buy things.

Growing Experiences By The Numbers
According to an Eventbrite survey conducted by Harris Poll in 2014, Americans have a growing desire for live experiences. Over the past 30 years spending on events compared to total consumer spend rose 70 percent. The numbers are even more jarring for millennials.

Over 75 percent of millennials aged 18-34 would choose to spend money on an experience rather than buy a “thing” they desired. Moreover, trust is a significant factor when it comes to purchasing for this generation. A more recent survey in Reader’s Digest showed that 71 percent of customers are willing to spend more money on brands they trust. Sixty-eight percent of consumers would be quick to leave a brand they considered untrustworthy.

“This is a generation that came of age during the Great Recession,” said Casanova, speaking of the millennials. “Not to bring politics into it, but these are consumers that graduated college when there were no jobs, and many of them lived through the housing crisis as well. Unlike earlier generations of consumers, they’re not as quick to drop money on any old brand, nor do they value ‘things’ as much either.”

The good news for small business owners is that the death of retail has been widely exaggerated. Although e-commerce continues to grow at an accelerated rate, it still only accounts for about 15 percent of consumer spending, meaning 85 percent of customers still shop at brick-and-mortar stores.

Store owners need to adapt a little to make sure they survive.

How To Compete In The Age of Experiential Commerce
Over the past few years, Apple has driven straight into experiential commerce with their Town Squares, retail stores that function more like a public space for people to gather. They include a redesigned Genius Bar called the Genius Grove, a daily experience called “Today at Apple,” and a variety of events such as coding classes and app development workshops. It’s more than a place to buy the next iPhone; it’s a place to spend an afternoon.

“We think of Apple Retail as Apple’s largest product,” said Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s senior vice president of retail and online stores when she announced the initiative, according to media reports.

Of course, experiential commerce can be seen on a much smaller scale across the country. Casanova talked about how his company helps clients incorporate the customer experience into their sales models.

“We have clients that have done some exciting things,” said Casanova, reflecting on the work of Creative Propulsion Labs. “One of our clients who happens to be adjacent to the smoke and vape space held a series of events across Miami — one was a series of yoga classes, and the other was a series of chef’s tastings. They were both big hits.”

He continued: “Too often retailers and small businesses go into an event or an experience like this and think that’s when you go in for the hard sell. But, again, that’s not what customers want. In fact, it will turn them off. Let the event or the experience be the product, let it create a sense of brand loyalty so that in two days or two weeks or two months when a customer needs what you sell, you’ll be top of mind.”

For smoke and vape shop owners a tasting bar or, if room permits, a small lounge where customers can come in and vape and chat with like-minded people is a great place to start when it comes to creating an experience. Whatever it is, make it a place where consumers want to be, and be seen.

Give Customers A Place To Share
It’s not a coincidence that experiential commerce took hold in the age of social media — in fact, experiential commerce is, in many ways a child of social media. Purchasing power among millennials doesn’t hold the same sway as the number of Instagram followers one has. Besides, experiences gain way more ‘likes.’

For retailers to succeed in gaining the long-term loyalty of their customers, they need to not only create great experiences, but they need to give customers somewhere to share those experiences. In other words, take advantage of the power of social media.

“We’re not talking about the days of putting up a homemade sign in your store that says ‘like us on facebook’ because that never works,” said Casanova. “Retailers today need to have active social media pages. Don’t wait for customers to post their experiences in your store, take some pictures and post it yourself —with permission of course. Engage on social media in an organic way and customers will find you trustworthy.”

A tremendous in-store experience hopefully translates into a broader social media audience. And don’t be afraid to try new and different mediums as well. Facebook is nice, but Instagram and Snapchat are better. It’s important to be where your customers are.

Better still, part of creating a great experience means creating engaging online content as well. An event doesn’t end just because it’s over, and retailers need to make sure that they carry the event online so that customers can come back to it over and over again. Pictures and video make the experience that much more engaging.

Creating a customer experience doesn’t have to be flashy or time-consuming — not everyone is going to build the next Town Square like Apple. But it does have to be honest and sincere. Consumers today, especially millennials are more selective with the disposable income that they have, and they expect retailers to earn every dollar they spend.

Millennials will gladly give up function for frills, and do so for a premium price. Experiential commerce means turning the vape shop into a digital Starbucks, making it a place where customers not only want to be but where they want to be seen on Instagram. SVBS

Brandon A. Dorfman is the Senior Writer/ Project Manager for Creative Propulsion Labs, a Miami-based marketing firm that provides comprehensive solutions in web, print, and digital marketing. Their services include user interface design, application design and development, web design, branding, corporate design services, digital advertising, social media marketing, content development, SEO, affiliate marketing, conversion optimization, and more. You can reach Creative Propulsion Labs at (786) 360-1669 or via email at [email protected] Or you can visit www.creativepl.com for more information.