5 things big retailers can learn about customer experience from indies

It’s a good time to be an independent retailer. While household names like M&S are struggling to get people through their doors and closing branches, small locally-owned shops are opening at record rates. In 2017, 762 independent stores opened in the UK; an increase of 27% compared to the previous year. Why?

Shopping habits and preferences have changed. The fact is, we don’t have to go into shops at all – we can buy a book from the comfort of our own beds, purchase a jumper on the tube or order a sofa in between meetings. If we’re going to venture out to the shops, we expect more than functionality – we can get that without leaving the house. Independent businesses understand this. They know that customers expect much more than just ‘stuff’.

From the personal touch to creating a memorable experience for shoppers, here’s how big retailers can harness some of that indie power…

1. The personal touch

If your brand doesn’t speak directly to individuals and make them feel valued, they’re likely to take their hard-earned cash somewhere else.

When you walk into a small store, there’s often someone there to greet you – or at least someone in sight in case you need help. Staff are usually knowledgeable and passionate about products and services – and there’s the feeling that they’re not bound by corporate red tape. If you have a request or a suggestion, rather than ‘computer says no’, the response is more likely to be ‘why not?’

Big retailers can compete with this by hiring the right staff, and training them the right way. A disinterested shrug or lack of knowledge can do more damage to your reputation than you might think. You need to ensure staff are engaged and properly trained in both customer services and product information.

John Lewis & Partners recognise the value in recruiting the right people and investing in them. Instead of just viewing their employees as staff, they think of them as Customer Service Ambassadors, in a bid to put quality personal interactions at the top of their minds.

Their ongoing commitment to ensuring staff are helpful, engaging and able to offer expertise in specific areas has paid dividends. While other brands struggle to get customers through the door, John Lewis remains beloved. The key? A reputation for excellent customer service – something which drives loyalty and keeps people coming back to their stores. All of John Lewis’ staff are also partners in the business, rather than employees, meaning they have a vested interest in the retailer’s success and up their game accordingly. Their recent brand change demonstrates the depth of their commitment.

Beyond this, there’s personalisation. Independent retailers make personal recommendations based on a deep understanding of their regular customers’ needs and concerns. While big brands with multiple locations can’t be as integrated with local communities, there is another way to achieve a personalised experience.

With significantly bigger budgets than most independents, big retailers can make use of their customers’ data history to create a curated, individual shopping experience. This isn’t just a nice-to-have: a report by Gartner found that brands which use personalisation could boost their revenues by up to 15% in 2018.

The IoT (Internet of Things) allows retailers to offer location-based personalisation. If you know a customer has been browsing armchairs, why not send them a special discount on armchairs when they’re near your shop? If you use digital signs in-store, beacons and shelf-sensors could display promotions or offers for products which they’ve looked at on their smartphones.

By merging the in-store experience with data from social media or online browsing, you can create a tailored, personalised experience for your customers. Instead of just hoping they’ll come into the shop and find what they need, you can direct and engage them, creating a win-win situation: a more useful, positive experience for the customer, increased brand loyalty and increased sales.

2. The identity

How would you describe the brand identity of House of Fraser, Debenhams or BHS? If you’re being kind, you might say they’re functional retail spaces: you could also say ‘uninspiring’.

From the signage to the interiors, independent shops trust the power of identity and aesthetics. More than ever before, the look and feel of a physical store need to be in synergy with the brand and product – and it needs to be enticing, because if it isn’t, people won’t come in.

Indies aren’t afraid to get creative with their aesthetics. They create spaces that people want to inhabit; spaces that are vibrant, tactile and inviting. You can even watch things being made, as in Bristol’s Art and Chocolate, where chocolate is churned and canvases are painted right in front of you – a far cry from the homogenous, this-could-be-anywhere feel of corporate retailers. So how can big retailers improve their in-store identity?

While it’s difficult for larger stores to mimic the cosy, idiosyncratic vibe of independents, they can use their size to their advantage and utilise experiential tactics to change the space, elevating their brand identity from the humdrum to the exceptional.

Le Bon Marche in Paris has featured imposing art installations by international artists including Ai Weiwei and Leandro Erlich (who transformed their escalators into an eye-catching work of art). Selfridges’ recent The Flipside exhibition invited luxury brands like Louis Vuitton to create in-house installations in their flagship London store. Also, John Lewis & Partners created a £2m pop-up apartment and made it available for free overnight stays.

These kinds of in-store events transform the space and give people an additional reason to visit the shop. As a bonus, their transient nature means they’ll create a buzz and urgency – the powerful Fear Of Missing Out.

3. The experience

More than ever before, consumers are driven by experiences. If people go into a physical shop, it’s usually because of want rather than need. Therefore, it’s crucial that the in-store experience makes people want to come in.

For independent retailers, creating a positive, memorable experience is relatively easy. With a smaller, more personal space, attentive staff, appealing aesthetics and the freedom to adapt to the needs of the customer, people are likely to leave feeling valued and engaged.

Chief Coffee in London has a ping pong table and pinball room; if you pop into Borough Wines, you can try your hand at cocktail making and Notting Hill’s famous bookshop, Books for Cooks, offers cookery classes.

For big retailers, in-store events, exhibitions and technology can help to create memorable, engaging experiences. US based retailer Macy’s provide a Virtual Reality opportunity for customers to create a 3D image of their own living room. They can fill their virtual space with furniture and soft furnishings – a hands-on try-before-you-buy experience which is both practical and fun.

In the UK, Selfridges have taken this experiential approach to the next level. On entering, the feeling is that you’ve entered a new world; one which inhabits multiple restaurants, pop-up boutiques, product demonstrations – even a tattoo parlour. Around each corner is a new discovery, accompanied by appropriately changing music and lighting. It’s exciting, it’s immersive – and the net result is that you want to stay as long as you possibly can.

Waterstone’s perfectly demonstrates the power of in-store experiences. They have coffee shops (which make the whole shop smell of teacakes and chai), children’s reading nooks, chalk boards and handwritten staff book recommendations. They host book signings, seasonal events and launch nights. The overall effect is a shop environment that’s warm, inviting and – most importantly – fun. You go in because it feels good – and because they’re more likely to have what you need. They’re the perfect blend of indie aesthetics and big brand supply clout.

Perhaps one of the biggest upsides of creating a memorable in-store experience is the shareability factor. When people see something impressive or unique, they tell their friends and they share it on social media. According to statistics from SMCG, 98% of customers create social content at experiential events and 100% of those customers share that content.

4. Social media

While smaller retailers can’t compete with the social media budgets of their larger counterparts, they can speak to their audience in a more direct and authentic way.

When it comes to the local community, their social presence means they can interact with other businesses and consumers to create an ongoing, real-time dialogue. This builds trust, engagement and makes it easier to promote offers or events without being too ‘salesy’.

They’re also not bound or slowed down by bureaucracy, corporate branding or a rigid tone of voice. Independent shops are free to engage in a chatty, informal way – something which isn’t always possible for larger retailers. While indies sound truthful, honest and real on social media, bigger retailers often sound slick, manufactured and inauthentic – everything they say and do the product of a marketers’ meeting.

How big retailers can learn from indies on social media

However, there are some big brands which have got the tone just right. Waterstone’s’ Twitter presence is a good example of how social media can be used to connect with customers in an authentic way. Each store has its own individual Twitter account, so it isn’t just a one-size-fits-all approach, and their tone of voice comes across as jovial and spontaneous, adding real value to their posts. Customers can follow their local store meaning they hear about events and offers that are relevant to them and they’re more likely to get a response if they have a query.

Social media isn’t just about reaching people, making noise or better visibility. How you do it is vital. By adopting the personal tone and style of independent shops, corporate stores can make consumers feel like they’re being spoken to as individuals.

5. Collaboration

Indies often collaborate with or support other indies. It’s an effective, mutually beneficial way of doing business. If you own a cafe, why not source your bread from the bakery three doors down? If you’re hosting an event, why not work with a local supplier? It reflects well on both parties, shows a commitment to ethical, local trading and can often help to reduce costs.

Big retailers operate differently. Due to their size, scale and multiple locations, they tend to keep themselves to themselves. But collaboration can be a powerful way to get people through the doors and to raise the brand profile. One way to do this is by creating an in-house event or exhibition where you invite other brands or individuals to come and offer their talents.

That’s exactly what Liberty of London have done. Their sewing school provides workshops and courses, tutored by international designers and tailors. It adds value to the brand, raises the profile of talented and emerging artists and offers something new and exciting for customers.

Sportswear brand Lululemon take a similar approach, offering free in-store yoga classes, taught by top professional yoga teachers. It fits with the brand’s identity, adds value and, importantly, gives people another reason to visit their stores.


While the trend for independent shops only seems to be growing, the truth is that big retailers will always have the upper hand – as long as they’re willing to adapt. By offering customers a more curated, personal experience, creating a unique identity and focusing on experience over functionality, big retail brands can effectively reach customers and keep them coming back for more.


If you want to learn more about creating a unique customer experience, check out how we do it.