Alexis DeSalva
Alexis DeSalva is a Senior Research Analyst at Mintel. Alexis focuses on US Retail and eCommerce reports.

At the start of New York Fashion Week, designer Ralph Lauren chose to open the season’s runway show in an unusual setting. Instead of the traditional runway, the collection was presented inside Ralph’s Coffee, a coffee-shop pop-up inside the designer’s Manhattan store. Models walked through the café while attendees sat at tables, sipping coffee and eating breakfast. Taking the experiential concept one step further, the café remained open for an additional few days following the show, so everyday consumers not in attendance during fashion week could enjoy the unique atmosphere.

It’s not just haute couture designers who are thinking outside the normal retail box. Special events such as exercise classes, pop-up libraries, guest speakers, mixers and in-store dining options are becoming increasingly popular offerings for consumers across the country. Consumers are looking to explore and feel more connected to the products they’re buying. Experiences help consumers understand and identify with a particular brand, prompting return visits.

Here, we breakdown some unique experiential concepts currently in retail:

3 Arts Café at Restoration Hardware (Chicago)

Eating truffle grilled cheese and browsing for a new couch might not seem like two acts that go hand in hand, but Restoration Hardware is making that a possibility with their in-store café in Chicago. The 3 Arts Café is a unique dining experience that is situated in the heart of the brick-and-mortar location rather than in a separate, closed-off section as is the case with most department store cafes.

New shoppers to the Restoration Hardware location are likely surprised to discover the restaurant and might be more inclined to treat themselves to lunch or dinner, especially if they’re out shopping with others and want the full social experience. It’s doubtful every visit leads to a purchase or a meal, but it does increase the retailer’s presence to a broader group of consumers.

#DoingThings with Outdoor Voices (Nationwide)

Activewear brand Outdoor Voices has built its business around activity. Their brand motto of “Doing Things” is visible in nearly every aspect of the business. Prompting consumers to embrace their brand message, Outdoor Voices offers on-going events such as in-store classes, dog-walking groups and roller skating derbys.

Participating in an Outdoor Voices events feels like hanging out with a group of friends. In-store classes are typically held at the end of the day, offering attendees the chance to unwind and have fun in the store after hours. It’s a pressure-free atmosphere that not only motivates people to be active, but to come back for more. Given that the classes are held on the sales floor among the latest Outdoor Voices styles, it’s likely many attendees also feel the motivation to pick up some new gear for their next class.

Sweating and shopping at Bandier (New York City)

Activewear brand Bandier has made the move from online to offline in a unique way. In addition to a newly renovated flagship location, the retailer operates a stand-alone fitness studio conveniently located down the block, offering shoppers the chance to shop and then sweat in essentially one visit. Studio B is a fully functioning studio offering multiple classes daily across a variety of workouts, ranging from yoga to dance cardio to boot camps.

Consumers can visit the Bandier store a few blocks away and pick up a new pair of sneakers or sports bra and head to class, putting their gear to action. In some ways, Bandier is offering shoppers a sort of test-and-learn opportunity, proving their products do what they’re designed to.

Hudson Yards: The next evolution of malls (New York City)

Whoever claims malls are a thing of the past hasn’t been to Hudson Yards. The new concept is home to the latest in retail, food and art. Consumers can shop the latest trends regardless of interest or budget, choosing from fast-fashion-focused retailers like Zara to luxe designers like Fendi. Hungry shoppers also have a bevy of food options to choose from, including fast casuals like Sweetgreen, a market experience like Citarella where shoppers can buy fresh oysters; while those looking to quench their thirst can pick up a beverage from a cooler stocked with Dirty Lemon and simply text what they took to the provided number in order to pay.

Hudson Yards is a departure from the typical mall and features concepts seemingly designed for Instagram. The Conservatory, a store touting products from a number of brands across categories, offers consumers a way to “shop online, in real life.” Shoppers can browse products from over 50 brand products and make purchases in a consolidated manner by way of The Conservatory website. Customers must create an account with the store, and then can add items to their cart and purchase in one transaction, while receiving order updates directly from the brands.

What we think

The possibilities are seemingly endless for experiential retail, with collaborations across fashion, technology and food. Experiential retail evolves the traditional relationship buyers have with sellers. This concept makes the shopping process more meaningful and personal, which in an increasingly competitive retail landscape, is crucial for fostering future loyalty. Consumers have endless options to choose from when it comes to deciding where to shop. Innovative experiences give consumers more reason to consider shopping at a particular retailer or buying a particular product over another.

Additionally, the truly special, “share worthy” experiences that compel a consumer to not only participate, but share with others, helps reach more consumers and potential customers. Expect to see more retailers – brick-and-mortar and direct-to-consumer – innovate new experiences in-store, online and through social media.