The ‘E’ in E-commerce now stands for ‘Experiential’—here’s why

by | Oct 15, 2021 | Analysis, Public Relations

Clicks and bricks. Omnichannel. Immersive retailing. Online shopping. No matter what you call it, e-commerce is here to stay, and it is lucrative. According to the 2021 Adobe Digital Economy Index, e-commerce in the United States grew by $183 billion during the 2020 pandemic, up 42 percent over 2019. Furthermore, Adobe predicts 2021 will end with between $850 billion and $930 billion in U.S. online sales and that 2022 is setting up to be the first trillion-dollar e-commerce sales year in our country’s history.

This substantial growth has clearly been accelerated by the human necessity to procure products and services during lockdowns and uncertainty

Seemingly overnight, customers changed behaviors and gravitated towards virtual, at-home shopping trips via mobile phones and laptops. It was convenient and most importantly it was safe. As more consumers embraced the security and ease of online shopping, brands rushed to offer digital solutions to make their customer’s online experience frictionless while scrambling to retain share in a “forced-upon us” digital retail landscape. And now, just like with the return of every other in-person experience, we are starting to see the pent-up demand and desire for physical experiences within the overall shopping event. In fact, so much so, that I contend the future of e-commerce is more about the experiential “e” than the “electronic “e.”

I founded my experiential company, AGAR, on the premise that as the world grows more and more digital, the value of a human experience inherently increases. For the decade leading up to the pandemic, we built live experiences and events that complemented as opposed to competing with digital solutions. We didn’t just co-exist, we thrived by the comingling of digital and physical experiences. Pre, during and post, digital components were leveraged to create a complete experience. Our events were promoted by digital marketing, amplified by digital social media and enhanced by interactive digital touchpoints. But, each experience was live not virtual; physical not augmented. Our reality consisted of real humans at the center of the story. And, if the past 18 months has shown us anything, it’s that humans crave connections and yearn for live experiences. Live experiences that are uniquely positioned to create memories, build engagement and inspire action in a way that digital can never truly do alone.

While the pandemic may have fast-forwarded the growth of e-commerce as a shopping platform, the wheels of evolution were already rolling prior to March 2020. DTC Darlings such as Allbirds, Dollar Shave Club and Warby Parker were realizing that they needed to meet their consumers where they were in a physical manner. And the physical experience would no longer look like the expected retail boutique. The lines of digital and physical would meld together into a unique atmosphere that was more about audience engagement than sales. If the experiential “e” is spot-on, the commerce “c” will follow.

So what does the future of experiential commerce look like?

Well, I believe it looks nothing like what we see in today’s malls, shopping centers or business districts. We are at the point, thanks to digital technology, that we no longer go shopping, we are always shopping. Commerce and experiences exist in places and spaces. Traditional storefronts, white boxes and pop-ups where merchandise is displayed and shoppers peruse aisles and racks are no longer relevant. We understand that humans are looking to engage, interact and ultimately purchase. We’ve created memories using the canvas of music festivals, public art events, food tastings, bars, restaurants and cafes and performances. We believe that any space can become a retail place. From alleyways to runways to driveways, we’ve designed underground music festivals and nightclubs that are literally beneath the ground. We’ve turned crumbling churches into ornate event centers. We’ve installed Rwandan tea fields in small corporate lobbies and built Japanese izakayas in mammoth loading dock warehouses. And each time, e-commerce merged with physical experience allowing a curated shopping opportunity in which the guest could literally purchase a piece of their memory.

So how is this different than a typical retail space? Well, in order to create experiential commerce, you have to give the consumers what they crave, while giving the brands the holy grail of not just delivering satisfied customers, but creating loyal, raving brand advocates. Reimagining the retail experience begins with throwing out the traditional playbook and incorporating new ways of using digital and physical to engage consumers at their core. At AGAR, we call our approach Experiential Retail and Design. A few of our learnings include:

Retail is all about places and spaces

Don’t settle for traditional, ordinary or expected. Any space can become a retail outlet and the more unique it is, the more memorable it will be for the guest.

Support a physical community

Brands are always focused on their online communities, and to be sure, that’s critical for scaling and reaching broader audiences. But you can’t forget the live, in-person community of like-minded individuals and ardent fans who come together around a communal passion. The power of connectivity is most powerful when it starts in person and amplifies digitally.

Create a content studio

Memorable experiences are best recalled through photos, video and audio. Brands can let their wares become props and support genuine content by turning their space, or a portion of it, into a well-designed hub that allows consumers to paint their own retail picture. Provide the tools for creative outputs and the brand is naturally integrated.

Customize and personalize

Connect with consumers on a personal level through interactive touchpoints. Provide ways to customize a cookie, personalize a scent, design a one-of-a-kind label, or record an audio greeting or song. In a world of mass production, brands that allow for on-the-spot personalization stand out and win.

Incorporate all 5 senses

Research repeatedly points to the fact that memories flood back through our senses. A particular song takes you back to a certain point in time. A specific scent reminds you of a special person. A taste of peppermint transports you to a well-loved winter vacation. Digital can only deliver three of the five. Use the whole palette in person and make the experience sensory and memorable.

These are just a few of the tools in our kit that we have used to design experiential commerce so that it achieves desired outcomes. Each experience is as unique and individualized as the brand, there can be no cookie-cutter approaches to experiential retail design. And as counterintuitive as it may seem to sales-sales-sales-driven brands, experiential commerce success starts with a commitment to marrying physical experience, digital surround and frictionless commerce. Fully engage the consumer first and the revenue and loyalty will follow.

Josh Heuser
Josh Heuser is Founder of AGAR.