When shoppers wander around Rogers Communications Canada Inc.’s newest store, their senses will be tickled by the smell of freshly ground coffee beans and the melody of Canadian crooner Tyler Shaw’s voice.
The former will be wafting from a café and the latter will come from on-demand, private concerts put on by a hologram that looks and sounds just like the musician.
Both are features customers would hardly imagine finding on a trip to pick up a new phone, but are key parts of Rogers’s plan to turn bankrupt retailer Forever 21’s former digs at Yonge and Dundas into a new store concept offering experiences, rather than pushing for sales.
The 9,000-square-foot, two-storey space — called Rogers 302 because of its address — will open on Thursday. It will still have phones for sale, but they will be less prominent. Instead, the space will focus on interactive stations, showcasing smart home gadgets, teaching shoppers about forthcoming 5G technology and helping them repair the Rogers products they have.
“Some people might criticize that traditional wireless retail has remained what I often call a phone museum. Look at all the phones. Look at all the sheets of glass,” Brent Johnston, Rogers’ president of wireless, told the Star.
“We are going to innovate there, but it’s really about…demonstrating diversified, new experiences.”
A rentable event space for entrepreneurs, a miniature Google smart city called Pixelville and NHL star meet-and-greets will be in the mix too. The store will operate like a “learning lab” to test ideas. If they’re successful, they will be duplicated elsewhere.
The store comes as bricks-and-mortar retail is shifting towards experiences. Where customers once had to visit a store to make purchases, a few clicks can now deliver a new product to their door in days — if not sooner.
But despite the rise of e-commerce, Canadians still see the value in visiting a bricks-and-mortar store for the right experience or product. According to consulting firm Accenture, in-store shopping is still the preferred retail channel for 82 per cent of millennials.
Many consumers still want to be able to see and hold a product before they fork over cash for it. A 2017 survey from online publication Retail Dive says that’s the number one reason why consumers shop in-store, followed by products looking different, long delivery times and high shipping costs.
Knowing this, retailers have gotten savvy. Many have opened pop-ups or stores delivering flashy experiences that will keep a brand top of mind for shoppers — and elicit Instagram attention.
Luxury coat maker Canada Goose Holdings Inc. opened a space last week that doesn’t stock jackets, but holds a -12 C, snow-filled room to let customers try clothing.
Meanwhile, Staples Canada has experimented with locations featuring co-working spaces, a community events area, journal, pen and audio bars and a weekly speaker series.
The Hudson’s Bay Co. has offered an Instagram-centric experience, where guests pose in whimsically designed rooms, and hosted Khloe Kardashian, Anna Olson and Fergie events.
Rogers wanted to join the experience-based retail club, Johnston said, because the company sees interactivity as a way to “future-proof” the business ahead of one of its most anticipated but confusing innovations yet: its 5G wireless network.
“This is super powerful, but often difficult for Canadians to fully grasp,” said Johnston. “This is an opportunity for us to demonstrate and create experiences that people can feel around what this technology can do.”
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Brynn Winegard, a marketing and retail expert who has worked for Pfizer Inc., Nestle Inc. and Johnson & Johnson Inc., said it can be easy for experiential retail to be perceived as a gimmick, but consumers are demanding stores evolve into “being spaces.”
“Being spaces” are spots where people want to spend time and be seen. Winegard used Apple stores with their trendiness, convenience and interactivity as an example.
“The Rogers stores are starting to have more in the way of like big red couches and seating areas, open-concept, white spaces, better demos and less pushy staff … but they’re just not there yet,” she said.
She’s noticed telecommunications companies in Canada are still “behind,” when it comes to the retail experience, because they “don’t have to work as hard for business” as similar brands in other countries where there is more competition.
Like Winegard, University of Toronto marketing professor David Soberman did not review the Rogers 302 plans, but he agrees telecommunications companies have room for improvement, especially when it comes to phone and internet plans or wait times when customers call to make complaints.
“If one of these companies really wanted to differentiate itself, I would argue that retail probably isn’t the right path,” he said. “Probably it’s coming up with a different model for doing customer service.”
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