My first time. . . at a boutique hotel. . . and what it means to retail.

Omni Talk (subscribe here) welcomes omnichannel expert and guest blogger Anne Mezzenga as she humorously asks and answers what retail can learn from the hospitality industry. 

Retailers around the world are asking — what will it take to get people through their doors, to their sites, and to continue spending money with them in the next 3-5 years?

Retailers know we live in a “get it now” economy, which will increasingly require more effort to convince people to come to their stores. As a solution to that problem, we have seen retailers add some finishing touches, conveniences, and panache to make their experiences worth putting on your athleisure wear to cross their thresholds, or at the very least, to pull into their order pickup lanes.

Back in the day, a department store having package pickup was the pinnacle of luxury in a retail experience. I distinctly remember shopping at the Dayton’s department store in downtown Minneapolis with my grandmother and how she felt like royalty sending our packages down to the garage concierge-style so that we could finish shopping and dine at the luxurious, on-site Oak Room restaurant both worry- and hands-free.

Now customers are starting to see a return to these long forgotten luxuries. We have drive-thru pickup options at many local grocery chains. We have Nordstrom which has built a high end wine, coffee and juice bar that offers clients a drink and even manicures while they peruse the latest Stella McCartney collection. We have Amazon delivering our Taco Tuesday ingredients and the materials for tonight’s last minute science project, all within an hour. We even have Walmart, the most surprising of all, placing groceries directly into their customers refrigerators!

But these tactics aren’t all that revolutionary or even all that innovative. We just have not seen them much within retail over the last several years, especially from big box stores.

The tactics retailers are beginning to employ are ideas that the hospitality industry has been doing for years. To clarify, I am not talking about your run of the mill Holiday Inn hospitality experience here. In most cases, that still leaves room to be desired. I’m talking about a boutique hotel experience.

There’s something magical about a boutique hotel experience, especially for those of us who use “likelihood of no bedbugs” as a factor in our hotel selections. Receiving boutique-style unexpected service, either as the big box retail guest or as the 3-star hotel guest, can be life changing.

Let me, if you will, give you a bit of background into why.

I consider myself a pretty frugal person, like many big box retail shoppers. I typically use an online booking site to land the highest rated hotel possible. Price dictates my hotel experience, not luxury. Fancy hotels are for rich people, not for me. And I have always accepted that.

But when I started traveling for work, my world was rocked. Boutique hotels were the norm, not just something I had to scroll two pages past in my search to find the Courtyard by Marriott.

Your first time in a boutique hotel is an experience. I remember my first time. The Mondrian SoHo in New York City. Granted, this hotel is designed with a French fantasy film theme, but even in my wildest fantasies I couldn’t have imagined the experience.

I was whisked (honestly, I don’t even remember walking — it felt like gliding) up to a beautiful white desk with a pristinely dressed gentleman who sat me down next to the desk and brought me a glass of champagne while I checked in. Not a cheesy lacquered hotel chain logo or desk with crabby receptionists was in sight. The air smelled incredible, and I was surrounded by good music, and a magical, art exhibit of a lobby. Instead of just being handed keys to my room, I was asked genuine, personal questions, like: “How was your flight? Are you feeling OK? Could we make you a dinner reservation? You must be weary from your travel? Would you like a massage appointment? Could we plan transportation to your meeting tomorrow morning?”

I took another swig of champagne and contemplated never leaving my feather tufted chair. And, you know what, I didn’t have to. They told me to stay and relax there as long as I needed — they’d bring my luggage to my room.

Speaking of my room, it was the smallest room I’d ever seen. Honestly, I’m 5’8, and I had to sit diagonally on the toilet to pee. But because of my experience at the hotel up to this point, it didn’t matter. This is an area where, as my colleague Chris Walton likes to say to retailers, it’s not about your products with a small “p” but your Product with a capital “P”. Whether you’re selling me bulk toothpaste or a stay in a 200 square foot hotel room, it’s the Product or the experience that matters.

My room design was impeccably chic and there were Malin + Goetz products in the bathrooms. FOR FREE! (p.s. You better believe I was using citrus lime body wash compliments of the Mondrian for the next 3 months back home in Minneapolis)

Everything about my stay was incredible. It made me feel like I was a celebrity (A celebrity in a 200 square foot hotel room, but that’s beside the point). It made me FEEL.

This was almost 10 years ago. And I still can recall every detail of that experience. I can feel it. Taste it. Smell it. Hear it. See it.

That stay changed how I feel about what a hotel stay could be, and I believe the lesson I took from it could help retailers elevate what a retail experience should be. If retailers could create sensory experiences for things as common as buying razors, or simplify how a parent shops for new school clothing for their kids, the possibilities for the future of retail are endless!

It’s not just shopping anymore. It’s shopping AND…_____.

Why will it benefit retailers to take a tip or two from the hospitality industry, especially the boutique hotels? Because their customers aren’t expecting this level of service from them.

Customers apathetically have accepted the misery that comes with the savings of shopping at the IKEA’s and Costco’s of the world. But if retailers were smart, they would take the level of service that was once reserved for the upper echelon of shoppers and develop new ways to treat their everyday customers — they would seek to host their customers instead of treating them like another transaction. I’m talking providing concierge, don’t-lift-a-finger kind of service. Curbside product pickup, AI learning of their likes and dislikes to get them the things they need before they realize it, and a store that has conveniences like daycare or a place for people to post up and send a few emails before darting off to their next To-Do — that’s what I am talking about. It is about caring, genuinely, for customers and designing service experiences that show just how much.

If retailers can give even a sliver of this kind of experience to suburban moms and dads, the single college kid, the grandma, the every-person in this country just getting by, then they’ll have customers for life — people who will defend their brands as they test new concepts, people who will become brand advocates because of the good that a retailer is doing for them and their families’ qualities of life. (and maybe even the community too, depending on what that retailer does to “give back”).

Acquiring and maintaining the brand affinity from this kind of customer is a retailer’s dream — the dream of someone re-telling a story of his or her incredible experience shopping in a store because it was just so damn easy, a story that gets told, and re-told and can quickly get a retailer in the good graces of everyone in the book club, the hockey moms, and the parents at the neighborhood block party.

The power of an individual’s review creates a halo effect that is likely more valuable than the millions of dollars they are currently paying for traditional advertising mediums. Focusing their astronomical marketing and media budgets and strategies on being the ultimate hosts would tear at the heart and purse strings of retailers’ customers far more than buying TV spots and celebrity influencers.

So, retailers, moral of the story here: Stop paying Jessica Alba to try and convince me to buy your products and instead strive to design your experiences to give me and the rest of your customers the feeling of BEING Jessica Alba.

Make us feel again. Make us desire to come through your doors and to shop your Instagram posts because you roll out the red carpet when we least expect it. Give us time back with our families and our friends by eliminating our waits in checkout lines and our time online trying to figure out why we can’t just order body wash without signing up for Amazon Pantry.

Make us feel like we have VIP access to the champagne room when we’re buying juice boxes, and we’ll be shoppers for life.

Reprinted with permission from Anne Mezzenga. Anne is currently a devoted mother of two, a local entrepreneur, and an independent, omnichannel retail consultant.

If you are interested in contributing guest content to Omni Talk, please contact Omni Talk here or message @OmniTalk directly on twitter.  

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Chris Walton is an accomplished Senior Executive with nearly 20 years of success within the retail and retail technology industries. He is well-versed in merchandising, store operations, inventory management, product design, forecasting, e-commerce, pricing and promotions, and tech product development.

Chris was most recently a Vice President with Target, where he led the retailer’s Store of the Future project and also ran the Target’s home furnishing division for e-commerce. He previously worked for GAP, Inc., as a Distribution Analyst and Manager.

Chris holds a BA in Economics and History from Stanford University, and a MBA from Harvard Business School.

He likes to dress as Darth Vader for Halloween, and his wife also frequently asks him to ask Alexa, "to turn off the music."

  • Michele Tafoya
    November 9, 2017 at 9:11 pm

    Can’t wait to see more from you guys!! The possibilities are limitless!!

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