• Retailers keep saying that they will bring shoppers back into their stores by making their shops more exciting.
• Few have rolled out strategies that bring newness into their stores but also serves a greater purpose.
It's one of the most common responses when retailers are asked how they plan to bring customers back into their shops: make the in-store experience more exciting.
But few have figured out what, exactly, that buzz phrase really means — and fewer still have made meaningful efforts to roll out an effective solution.
Time is running out. With mall traffic deteriorating in nearly every quarter since 2014, retailers need to hone in on what makes their brand unique and find a way to bring it alive for customers.
"I think people are falling back on experience [as a concept], and perhaps not thinking about it in the right way," Jeremy Bergstein, president of The Science Project, told CNBC. "They have to look at what their ownable qualities are."
Bergstein's company tries to help retailers find those kinds of distinct solutions. For example, if a swim shop wants to sell more bikinis, an interactive screen that virtually transports a customer to St. Bart's would likely be more impactful than a mundane "magic mirror," Bergstein said. Traditional magic mirror technologies allow shoppers to see things like what an item would look like in different colors without them having to try on multiple versions.
Thinking about what problem the retailer is trying to solve — whether it's turning more shoppers into buyers, or getting additional customers to enter a store from the street — allows The Science Project to come up with a "useful and meaningful innovation, rather than just novel innovation," Bergstein said.
Take, for instance, the company's recent partnership with The Frye Co. The two last year worked together
By using radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, shoppers can hold up a leather swatch in front of a custom screen. From there, they can shop an expanded assortment, knowing what the item's true color and texture would be.
"What we've learned is that customers sincerely want a hands-on experience," Frye's CEO, Adrienne Lazarus, told CNBC.
The technology is visible from the street, encouraging customers to come inside and interact with the brand, Lazarus said. But it also allows Frye to shrink its square footage and operate a more productive store.
Frye's goal with each of its shops is to offer a different experiential element that helps it connect with that neighborhood, Lazarus said. The brand's Nashville, Tennessee, store has a music stage as its centerpiece, and its Austin, Texas, shop incorporates custom-made guitars by local maker Moniker.
Yet even for retailers that get it right, an innovative store experience will only get them so far. Founded in 1997, Build-A-Bear Workshop was a pioneer at fusing retail with theater, allowing kids to select and customize their own stuffed animals. Even it has stumbled amid slower mall traffic, reporting its third consecutive quarterly sales decline in February.
For a retailer to succeed, it also needs to have the right product. And while technology can help deliver a dose of excitement in stores, it should also take some of the friction out of shopping, Deborah Weinswig, managing director of Fung Global Retail & Technology, told CNBC.
"There's a lot that's happening in terms of, 'how do you do things that are more one-off?'" Weinswig said. "If that's going to save retail, I'm not sure."