Benita Chacko
Marketing

'Touch and feel' buying surpasses pandemic fear; brands once again woo consumers with experiential centers

Though brands like Somany Ceramics, Duroflex and Wakefit have digitised their experiential offerings, it is only complementing the physical experience and not replacing it.

M&M'S 25,000 square feet store selling chocolates and merchandise across three levels at Times Square or Apple’s famous Fifth Avenue store in New York city- brands have been selling consumers a splendid experience for a longtime now. During the pandemic, the fear of contracting the Covid19 virus had shifted many of these experiences online. Yet during this time we also saw many brands expanding their experiential offerings in brick and mortar stores.

In the recent months, we have seen several brands across categories expand their network of experiential centers to more parts of the country. Somany Ceramics, which specialises in ceramics and allied products segments launched its largest experience center in Morbi, Gujarat last month. In July, Dyson announced that they will be expanding their demo stores to two new cities, Hyderabad and Chandigarh, and also opening more such stores in Bengaluru and Chennai. With their entry into the home decor space, Asian Paints launched a Beautiful Homes Boutique in Ahmedabad in December last year. Mattress brands like Duroflex and Wakefit have also opened experiential stores in the past year.

The fear of the virus and the resulting need to stay indoors does not seem to have affected the growth of these experiential stores.

'Touch and feel' buying surpasses pandemic fear; brands once again woo consumers with experiential centers

Viren Razdan, managing director, Brand-o-nomics, a strategy consulting company, said that though brands have digitised their experiential offerings, it will only become complementary to the physical experience and not replace it.

"For every marketer, the pandemic is an interim situation and not the final destination. But this interim has given growth to different avenues. For example, a lot of brands have digitised their experiential offerings. The last two or three years has bucked that trend of digitalisation, but it will not replace the physical experience. It will become an access point. Even remote access to experience is a gratifying treat, but the experience store will definitely stay there," he said.

'Touch and feel' buying surpasses pandemic fear; brands once again woo consumers with experiential centers

Sameer Tobaccowala, CEO of Shobiz Experiential Communications, which is part of the Havas Group, said that though brands moved online due to the pandemic, the general understanding was that when normalcy returns, they will resume providing the touch and feel of the product. “The trend is distinctly moving to keep the consumers engaged because they have many other options. It cannot be just advertising anymore. If we don’t provide them the experience then they will check online reviews to see what others are saying,” he said.

Through these experience stores the brand is able to create an aura around it, like the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue. Beyond that they also give consumers a product experience before they purchase it.

"It is very important for people to get a tactile experience of new product categories or new technologies. Then not only do they become converts themselves, they also become evangelists and start talking about that experience. So the word of mouth or buzz marketing that brands are able to generate from this experience store is a great factor," Razdan adds.

Different categories have different reasons for having experiential stores. Razdan says that for a commoditised category like mattresses, it is imperative for consumers to be able to experience the product so they know the difference between the brands. With this they not only become converts themselves, but also promote the brand’s cause.

Duroflex's Whitefield store in Bengaluru
Duroflex's Whitefield store in Bengaluru

Duroflex launched their first store, about 2000 sq. ft. in size, in Whitefield, Bengaluru in June 2020. “While online is growing for us, there is a large section that still wants to touch and feel the product because it is an expensive investment. We want to be available across consumers' comfort points. It was important to have stores which talked about the brand and had the whole range,” said Smita Murarka, CMO at Duroflex.

'Touch and feel' buying surpasses pandemic fear; brands once again woo consumers with experiential centers

The store has a sleep lab with audiovisual guides and salespersons to explain the products. The store is designed in a way to give the consumers a sensory feel. Consumers can spend hours understanding the products they want to buy. The store also stresses on the importance of sleep and proposes to provide in-store sleep consultations. Murarka said that the conversions in these stores are as high as 80%. They now propose to open one every month and have 40 such stores by the end of this fiscal year across the country. “In normal times we will also encourage them to sleep on the mattress for some time,” she adds.

Duroflex also displays their range of Work-from-Home furniture at the store
Duroflex also displays their range of Work-from-Home furniture at the store

Wakefit also launched their first experiential store last year and since then have expanded to 15 locations. Since these are large format stores, they have opted to open them in areas where the real estate prices are slightly lower. The staff in the store are consultants with in-depth product knowledge, and not salespersons. They are trained to answer all kinds of questions from the consumers, ranging from ‘what will happen to the sofa foam if my kid jumps on it?’ to ‘Will the MDF board swell if my baby pees on it?’

'Touch and feel' buying surpasses pandemic fear; brands once again woo consumers with experiential centers

Chaitanya Ramalingegowda, co-founder, Wakefit, said that though people are open to buying products like mattresses online, they prefer to visit a store before buying furniture. “For example, while buying a study table or a coffee table, they are unsure if the grain of wood will go well with the remaining furniture in their house. Or if a particular L-shaped sofa will fit well in their room’s corner. These are categories where it's not about touch and feel or comfort, it's about how it will fit in their home,” he said.

Of their 15 stores, nine are in small towns and six are in metro cities. Ramalingegowda said that in tier-two cities, their physical stores aid their online sales. “Customers are comfortable buying products upto Rs. 5000-6000. But once the price crosses Rs. 8000-10000, we noticed that consumers want the online store to have a local address. We build a perception of trust by being local. In tier-two cities the footfalls are not high but having a store there ensures that the revenue goes up. It is only for the trust factor,” he said.

Tobaccowala believes that eventually these centers are not decisive factors and it ultimately comes down to the product. “The experience is only an add-on value for the consumer. Ultimately the product has to sell itself. So with a great product, a great experience is a win-win situation,” he adds.

Live shower cubicles at Somany's experiential center
Live shower cubicles at Somany's experiential center

Somany Ceramics opened its first experience center in Bengaluru in 2016 and currently has 18 such stores across the country. They plan to open one or two of these stores every year. These stores range between 5000-10000 sq.ft in size and are mostly located in metro cities. Each center showcases the products made in the nearest plant. They have live displays of their bathroom fittings. It has experts guiding the consumers as per their needs. They also have a software feature by which the buyer can see how a certain tile will look in their room.

'Touch and feel' buying surpasses pandemic fear; brands once again woo consumers with experiential centers

“But rarely does technology work for tiles. A customer is more satisfied when he comes to the store and feels the product," says Abhishek Somany, managing director & CEO, Somany Ceramics.

Asian Paints provided an experiential store to its customers back in 2009 with its 7,500 sq. ft. ‘Colour with Asian Paints’ store at Bandra West in Mumbai. In 2012, Usha International launched its signature experiential haberdashery store, ‘The Hab’ in Mumbai.

A display designed by fashion designer Manish Malhotra at The Hab
A display designed by fashion designer Manish Malhotra at The Hab

“Youngsters don't find sewing to be cool. Being a category leader, it is Usha’s responsibility to tell the youth that sewing is not about what their grandmother used to do. Sewing is about creative expression. When a category leader is wanting to influence perceptions about the category, they might engage the future audiences in such zones of experience,” says Razdan.

For brands like Dyson, the touch and feel aspect becomes imperative as they are new in the Indian market. “It is a new product category for India and so the experience is very important for people. That experience cannot be replaced by the digital medium,” he adds.

Dyson's experiential store
Dyson's experiential store

Most brands do not sell products at their experience centers. “Experience marketing is not about just selling the product, it is about a higher order experience for brands to sell the concept of their category. You will not be able to put a fiscal value to that experience, but the brand value of that experience is mammoth,” he says.

How do these stores fare in the post-pandemic world, where consumers feel safer to shop online?

Safety precautions taken at Duroflex store
Safety precautions taken at Duroflex store

Murarka said that they have become even more important because consumers are clearer about the kind of brands they want to buy. “Earlier, we would go down a street and visit 10 shops. But now, people don't want to do it because they know it's not worth the time and effort. They are clearer about what they want to buy. Online plays a role not only in conversion, but also in discovery. Almost 60-70 per cent of today's shopping decisions are made before they step out of the house, because there's so much information available. Then if they still want to touch and feel, they walk into a store and see the products,” she adds.

Somany has also witnessed a drop in footfalls post the pandemic. However, there are more serious consumers visiting the stores now. "Earlier if we had 100 visitors in a day only 50 were serious buyers. Today we may have only 50 visitors but at least 40 are serious. People are being more cautious going out. They want to visit one big branded store that ticks all the boxes. They make some kind of decision online, like colour, and then visit one store to make the purchase decision,” he says.

With soaring real-estate prices, what is the future of these stores? Razdan believes that in the future there will be fewer and larger format of experience centers. Citing an example of IKEA in Europe offering young couples to sleep over at the store in the night, he says that is the future of these stores, “where experience will be a mix of entertainment and personalisation.”