Experience is still central to the business of successful retailing

A visit to the men’s room in an Italian restaurant in Oxford on Friday proved instructive. Everything was just as you might expect it to be, but there was an unfamiliar female voice: somewhat disconcerting. On listening for a few moments, this turned out to be piped Italian lessons, provided for the amusement, and possibly education, of those in need of a comfort break: an experience.

Now consider what actually constitutes an experience, as it’s something that echoes around the corridors of retail design departments everywhere. Everything, of course, involves experience. It’s just that some examples may be rather more positive than others. There is little that is uplifting, for instance, about trawling the aisles of one of the older branches of a large supermarket. On the other hand if you were, say, to visit a new Waitrose or perhaps a revamped Sainsbury’s, there is quite a lot to divert the eye. Retail experience is in the eye of the beholder and things that are as old as the hills can be made to appear new, merely by changing the context in which they appear, as well as by being genuinely novel.

So why does this matter at the moment? The general news about high street trading makes somewhat depressing reading and you might struggle to work out why new shops are still opening. Yet Thursday saw the unveiling of a revamped Superdrug store in Wimbledon. The end of this week sees a brace of Boux Avenue stores, the new lingerie company from entrepreneur Theo Paphitis, opening around the country: a second Lee jeans store (in Westfield) and a Miss Sixty/Energie flagship on Carnaby Street, among others. And the success or otherwise of these enterprises will in large measure be dependent on how adept they prove to be at providing an experience.

Experiential retailing is a frequently used term, but it is often used without any real understanding of what is actually involved. There still seems no real shortage of new concepts or brands that are looking at moving onto the high street, but those that manage to upset expectations will be those that stay the course. Don’t knock experience, you never know where it might appear, even if it’s in the men’s room.