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Last week, I was chatting to a friend about her weekend plans. “We’re going to Ikea” she blithely told me. “Not to buy anything, but just to look around”. I looked at her blankly. Had we really reached the age where we get excited by milling around a semi-industrial building with groups of couples arguing over whether the Billy bookcase is the right shade of beige?

However, it got me thinking- aren’t we supposed to be living in the ‘digital age’? Haven’t we been told that retail’s steady migration to mobile and e-commerce will be the death knell for bricks and mortar shops? And if that’s the case, why do so many people still treat a trip to a Scandinavian flat-pack furniture retailer on the outskirts of Romford like a family day out?

I think it comes down to one thing- ‘experience’. Online retailers like Amazon will always win on price. But what they can’t do is win on experience. And ultimately, it’s the experience that keeps people hooked.

Toys R Us (R.I.P) should be treated like a cautionary tale for retailers on how not to do it. What’s surprising about their collapse, is that it didn’t happen sooner. Their soulless sheds seemed immune to fun, lacked any excitement and were typically staffed by a team of slack-jawed teenagers whose idea of ‘customer service’ involved idly pointing in the general vicinity of the item you were looking for.

Surely a toy shop should be the ultimate retail experience? A place full of imagination and wonder with interactive demonstrations of the latest craze, somewhere for tired parents to grab a coffee, and above all else fun.  You could argue that it’s difficult to be dynamic when your shops exist on some far-flung industrial estate in the arse-end of nowhere.  But IKEA face the same geographical misfortune and yet shoppers in their hordes still flock to their outlets every week.

Arguably, this is because IKEA have baked brand experience into their DNA. Their success comes largely from offering other reasons to come to their store besides the need for a new bedside table. You can get a bite to eat. You can get design inspiration from their trendy mock-living room set ups. They even offer free babysitting to allow parents to browse the shop, without the risk of their children turning feral and jumping on the display beds or whinging about being bored.

Their experiential activity also spans beyond their stores. The retailer has experimented with several experiential campaigns to communicate its core values around utilitarian design, ethical products and accessibility. From an immersive exhibition, in-store festivals, pop-up restaurants and even a floating night-market on Regent’s Canal. These creative spin-offs make IKEA more than just a destination for flat-pack furniture but a brand that helps inspire, host and create better living spaces.

The experience economy is booming.  You can rail against it all you like, but when your dentist tells you they now offer VR headsets to patients, like they did at my last visit, you realise it’s serious. Experience is what makes people feel excited, valued, connected and ultimately want to spend their money with you. The battleground might be fierce, but the future of retail belongs to the brands that create meaningful and memorable branded experiences.


-Anna Melton, Marketing Manager