We have all got so used to shopping online that some commentators have sounded the alarm and warned that the high street is dead and the future for bricks and mortar retailers is bleak.

There is no doubt that online will continue to grow. It is also true that the retail sector will have to up its game to survive and thrive. And that’s just what we were treated to the Sunday before last. I ventured out with my wife – on our first shopping trip together in over a year – and we experienced in-store retail at its best.

Like everyone else we have made much more use of online retail over the past year – and we have enjoyed the convenience that comes with choosing from the comfort of home and delivery to the door. However, Sunday’s trip reminded us that a visit to a physical store can be enjoyable, fun and so much more satisfying than ordering via a screen.

As we come out of lockdown, the challenge for bricks and mortar retailers is to entice long-lost shoppers back in and that will only happen if the physical experience delivers something different, inspiring and worth leaving home for. If it doesn’t – why would we bother.

So, what did the retailers that we visited do to make our shopping trip special? Sitting at home, later that day, we listed five things that stood out for us.

1. Service. We visited three stores and in each of them we came out feeling like the interaction with the people added to our day. Their demeanour was pleasant, friendly and their focus was on us and our needs. Doing all they could for us felt, genuinely, like it was their number one concern.

2. Product knowledge. In all three stores the product knowledge of the people we met was outstanding. They knew all about their products and were able to answer all of our questions (and, according to my wife, I am a black belt in the art of the obscure question). More than that was the sense of pride they had in the quality and the special nature of what they were selling.

3. Merchandising. The stores we visited were easy to navigate with the products and the services well laid out. The pride employees had spilled over to the attention they gave to the way their store looked and how products were displayed.

4. Sales skills. We had a specific reason for visiting all three stores. We went to them with a specific purchase in mind – and in every case we came out with additional purchases that we had not planned to buy. We didn’t feel sold to. We felt the sales assistants had helpfully informed us of additional products and services that were relevant, and we might enjoy.

5. Problem solved. One of our store visits was prompted by a delayed online delivery and the store effortlessly dealt with the recovery (previously agreed with the company via their web chat). They apologised for the delivery problem, compensated us in store and apologised for the inconvenience. “No problem” we said and bought some additional items. More broadly we noticed that the staff members we met took ownership of the policies and procedures we needed to be aware of – including social distancing and the Covid-related precautions, without ever uttering the words “company policy”.

Two things struck us in looking back over our high points. First, whilst none of what we experienced seems that remarkable, my pre-lockdown memory reminds me that it’s rare for everything to come together so well in one, let alone all three stores we visited. The second, and most important point, is that everything we have noted about our shopping trip depended crucially on the people who served us. They were all well selected. They were proud of what they were doing and what they were selling. And they were incredibly well trained – in terms of products and their client-facing skills, which were exemplary. There’s a powerful lesson here on employee engagement from the three retailers: Jo Malone, The White Company and Nespresso.

The lesson

While delivering a customer experience that stands out, that drives customers to buy more and to remain loyal is difficult to do, your employees are your most powerful weapon. Execute your CX programme well and the prize is worth it: customers who recommend the company to friends, employees who are proud and profitable growth that keeps executives and shareholders happy.

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