Why experiential retail has never been more important

Picture the scene: A 400m maze with 8ft high walls and a tree-house retreat as its centrepiece, with yoga sessions held on its roof; immersive, interactive light shows that enchant young and old alike; exclusive events with global online influencers and 90s boyband popstars. These types of experiences are a far cry from the traditional image of a retail destination, yet they’ve all taken place at a Hammerson venue over the past few months.

It is clear that the once mainstream view of a shopping centre, with floor on floor of mid-market fashion and a food court made up of fast-food chains doesn’t cut the mustard anymore. It is no longer enough just to be in the right locations, or even to offer a must-have product, you need all that and more to attract customers. You need to deliver something memorable, something different that will live long in the memory (and ideally on Instagram as well).

Despite what you might hear on the news, there is still a huge appetite among consumers to leave the laptop at home, and experience what brands have to offer in person. In a recent survey, when asked about their most positive and memorable shopping experience, 72% of UK shoppers said that it involved physical retail. But there’s a catch. You have to offer a truly engaging mix of brands, across retail, leisure, and food and drink, and you also have to really focus on the experience, and on delivering something that is new and exciting.

A great recent example of this in action was Festival of Light, an immersive event which used state-of-the-art interactive light displays to deliver something truly unique for those who were lucky enough to  visit. You had to see it to believe it, but safe to say that the Festival of Light installations created a real sense of wonder, combining innovative technology with our innate love of colour, light, and energy.

This was the third year Hammerson has organised Festival of Light, and for the first time the event toured multiple locations – Westquay (Southampton), Bullring & Grand Central (Birmingham), and Dundrum (Dublin).

The numbers speak for themselves. Over 125,000 visitors are estimated to have flocked to the installations, driving significant increases in footfall at all three destinations, including a 9.8% year-on-year increase at Bullring & Grand Central. That represents thousands of extra customers for the brands at each destination.

But experiences like this do more than just drive footfall, they attract new customers and people who might not regularly visit a specific retail destination. For example, while Festival of Light was on at Bullring & Grand Central, 31% of visitors to the centre were new, and the number of consumers coming from beyond the destination’s core catchment rose by 5%. That can only be a good thing for these destinations, and also for the brands that partner with us and take part in these events.

And as with all our experiential events, the impact in terms of online reach and content was substantial. At Westquay alone, Festival of Light reached over 1.1m people on social media, and also led to a big rise in the number of consumers using the destination’s app and website.

The challenge of course is to deliver these types of events again and again, with each experience different from what has come before. Hammerson is investing £2m in its events programme this year alone – that programme includes The Maze at Westquay, a 400m extravaganza which ran during May half term, and drove a 12% rise in year-on-year footfall over the Bank Holiday Weekend. And every event has to work for our retailers and food and drink operators as well as for our customers. That’s why at the Maze, we ran a series of events in partnership with brands to build awareness and excitement, such as a teddy bear’s picnic with John Lewis & Partners, and a “find the diamond” competition with Laings.

Festival of Light 2019 was incredible – but next year it will be even better, whether that’s more localised installations, additional partnerships with local food and drink operators, or extra pop-ups.

Every successful event sets the bar for next time, and the goal always has to be to raise it higher and make every visit to our venues one to remember for our shoppers and a brand building experience for our retailers.

By Kathryn Malloch, head of customer experience, Hammerson

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