Hamleys is the template for retail experiential success

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Can other retailers learn from Hamleys long history of experiential?

Hamleys is a fixture in London’s retail landscape, but Way To Blue’s Alan Twigg argues its laser focus on experience ensures it a bright future…

I’ve worked with Hamleys for over 10 years. In that time I’ve seen them go from a single store legend with a handful of concession outlets to an international retail powerhouse with 167 shops in 18 countries. That transformation has been built by crafting immersive, interactive in-store experiences no matter the square footage.

It was clearly the right way to go. Over the last decade, the likes of Amazon started eating market share in toys, and one-dimensional retailers like Argos and Toys R Us piled it high, sold it cheap but frankly did little else to entice or reward their customers. The Hamleys customer base was not just being enticed online, but looking for something more meaningful, more personal, emotional or interactive.

Hamleys Director of Marketing, Digital, Buying and Merchandising, Matthew Gaunt is clear on the goal of today’s stores: “We set out to create wonderful memories that connect people – kids, adults, parents, grandparents, but that means constantly evolving to deliver an experience that is real, fun and always engaging.”

So you step inside to forget the screens, the daily grind, the madness, and you come and enjoy a distinct brand of contagious nuttiness. Lots of play, shedloads of adrenalin - flying toys, buzzing vehicles, sparkly magicians, artists, musicians, photo opportunities, construction builds, toy demonstrations every minute of the day and, most importantly, lots of toys you can actually play with. Done in the right way retail can be emotional, physical and also sensuous.

I reckon the investment in the theatrical experience has grown sixfold in 10 years. Of course, it takes a fair bit of trading space and therefore costs money, but it’s worth it. Average dwell time in the Regent Street flagship is 1 hour 44 minutes. Enough said.

They admittedly have to cover a lot, from dress up to board games, remote control vehicles to developmental learning, tech toys to arts, crafts, plush to iconic licensed characters and movie properties. In Russia, their flagship Moscow store is like a full-blown theme park. In China there’s STEM and curriculum-related activities, with communities are focused around learning on the shop floor. The retail formats continue to evolve, from malls to airports and trains stations – but so does the experiential.

Experience enabled by tech

Technology will obviously help create that immersive retail experience through VR, AR, robotics etc., but for me, it’s still essentially about human connectivity. Nurtured properly, that can pay back with interest in the shape of trust, loyalty and love. The sheer diversity of experiences in a retail environment creates a wonderful “what’s round the next corner?” type of buzz, and anticipation is what brings you across the threshold in the first place.

In 2016, the focus on experiential expanded as the store put on the first ever Hamleys Children’s Parade in Regent Street with over 500,000 attendees – bigger than the Macy’s Parade – in one swish of a sparkly wand. In 2017, it swelled to 750,000 attendees marching down that famous street, becoming the biggest children’s parade on the planet. Floats, characters, storytellers, dancers, jugglers, armies of entertainers – the brand stretch continues.

To truly elevate this kind of activity, however, I believe you also need to stand for something. An evolving youth audience yearns for experiences over products alone. So brands need to stand for something the genuinely care about. Don’t just back it, but live it – corporately, individually and as a total brand expression.

Hamleys embraces the values and role of play in developing young adults in life. So, genuine educational, socio-cultural expertise and knowledge are vital, customer service paramount. That means training teams who listen and understand customers and aside from giving them fun, deliver trusted information and intelligent advice. The next stage is customising and personalising the experiences online and in-store as we learn more through data or by teams properly engaging with customers on the shop floor. The best way to capture that engagement – eyeball to eyeball, face to face, smile to smile engagement - is through fun experiences.

Broadening the appeal

I love retail of all types, but the Hamleys experience makes me regularly ponder other retail categories. One particularly close to my heart, one that has evolved enormously over the past decade, is global travel retail. I went through the wonderful Schipol not so long ago and I saw no shortage of beautiful, luxurious, pristine retail fixtures in the sumptuous department format, multi-specialist stores slung between the seemingly countless terminals and gates.

For all the fine design, look and feel, I sensed something important was missing. The fixtures looked so well merchandised and curated that I didn’t feel comfortable touching, flipping, feeling, sniffing, prodding the product array.

Look at the spirits section the next time you fly. Experience is not a slightly dishevelled Scotsman in a cheap kilt with a plastic tray offering up his version of the Water of Life for what turns out to be a premium single malt or yet another flavoured gin made by an artisan.

Nor is experience to be found in the cosmetics aisles with an overly made-up and coiffured woman spraying my wrist with Givenchy. Think of the average dwell time for that captive audience, on a par with a Hamleys or a Selfridges: It seems criminal that in 2019, with technology, social and digital channels and smart entertainment, you can’t have any memorable retail experiences in some of the most expensive retail spaces in the world.

There’s always the shoeshine stand or the dubious looking vibrating massage seat I guess? Or sod it – just hit the bar.

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