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When it comes to experiential retail, beauty retailers have been doing it for years. And, they’ve gotten good at it — most feature gorgeous products in infinite rainbows of color palettes, all prominently displayed in beautiful arrangements to entice customers to stop and look.

While eye-popping visual merchandising is certainly a key element to any brick-and-mortar beauty brand, the key driver of sales in these stores is having customers actually play with the products. Shoppers should be able to spritz on perfumes, sit down for a mini-makeover, try on different shades of lipstick or eye shadow, get a professional skincare consultation, and receive any number of other samples and services to entice them to buy — experiences they simply cannot get shopping online at home.

L’OCCITANE en Provence has always encouraged shoppers to experience their range of skincare, body care, and fragrance products in-store, but with their latest flagship concept, which first opened in Toronto's Yorkdale Shopping Centre two years ago, they have taken the experiential component of the physical store to a whole new level.

During his talk at RetailSpaces, Paul Blackburn, Vice President of Retail Development, Design & Merchandising at L'OCCITANE, took audience members through this new flagship concept to highlight the ways they have elevated the store experience, deepening excitement and engagement with customers.

A New Way For Customers to Immerse Themselves 

"With the ever-increasing prominence of online shopping, the in-store experience is more important than ever," Blackburn said. "Shoppers still want to see, test, and demo beauty products in real life. They still place a really high value on the immersive experience of a physical store."

With this store, and the other flagships modeled after it that have opened since — including the Retail Design Institute’s 2018 Store of the Year at 555 Fifth Avenue in New York City and the World Retail Awards 2019 Outstanding Store Design winner on Regent Street in London — L'OCCITANE has attempted to reimagine the in-store shopping experience.

"With the ever-increasing prominence of online shopping, the in-store experience is more important than ever"

There are still gorgeously packaged products arranged in eye-catching displays, of course, but there is also a floral canopy that covers the ceiling made using 3,000 bunches of the brand's iconic yellow immortelle flowers that hail from the French island of Corsica. The store's interior is defined by a series of yellow resin arches, reminiscent of the ancient triumphal arches seen throughout Provence.

Another highlight is the rain shower sinks, large, communal sinks that activate as customers step up to them with a gentle rainfall water flow that falls from an overhead pod. While shoppers have become accustomed to seeing sinks inside L'OCCITANE stores, the rain shower sink is more of an immersive experience that everyone who came together can share in together. 

"In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, when the brilliant Willy Wonka takes the children into the chocolate factory for the first time, that sense of wonderment was undeniably uplifting," Blackburn said. "That same feeling is the feeling [founder] Olivier [Baussan] had when he first walked in the lavender fields of Provence, and that is the same feeling that we wanted to create here."

Schermafbeelding 2020-01-17 om 17.17.22

Using Technology to Enhance the Hands-On Experience

Digital technology is fully embraced inside the store. It features a curved LED video screen above the storefront and a giant video wall behind the cashier, but what customers — and Blackburn — seem most excited about are the immersion pods, which look vaguely like something out of a sci-fi movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Customers walk into one of the immersion pods and wave their hand to learn more about products, the history of the company, and all the unique things that make the L'OCCITANE special.

At the new Fifth Avenue flagship store, customers can experience the brand's first virtual reality experience with a 360-degree hot air balloon ride through the south of France, and there is an area dedicated to social media with a live feed of the company's Instagram account. When it first opened, shoppers could also "bike" through Provence using stationary bikes set against the backdrop of a charming French village in the countryside — all for the 'gram, of course.

"We have created products and brand experiences that are both sensorial and magical," Blackburn said. "They will pique curiosity, spark discovery, and leave customers wondering, 'What will I find next?' Wherever they are in their journey through this store, wonderment will develop."

Constant Evolution is Key 

At each of the new flagship stores, the themes change quarterly so the experience is constantly being updated and refreshed. This isn't just a seasonal floorset change, but a whole new campaign with an entirely different look and feel (and new Instagram moments!), often paying homage to the brand's story and history.

"What do all these ever-changing experiences give us?" Blackburn asked rhetorically. "They give us an incredible opportunity to test and learn. They give us a playground to be more disruptive.”

Additionally, at a time when retailers across the board are reporting declining foot traffic, Blackburn said they're attracting three times more customers in their flagships than their average store in the U.S., and also generating a lot of praise from the media and great attention on social networks. The best part of all though, he said, is that they're doing all of it for a fraction of the cap-ex cost of a typical flagship store.

But, he cautioned, "The caveat on that is the operational demands of this constant evolution are extremely intense and as a result, I caution everybody: it's wonderful, it's exciting, but it's really challenging."

He concluded his talk by saying that the format, reception, and success of the flagship stores are influencing what they're doing in the next evolution of their core concept stores. "Certainly the enhanced fulfillment services and agility is something we're using to inspire those."

Nicole Rupersburg

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Nicole Rupersburg is a content and conference producer for influence group focused on education healthcare and hospitality. She also is a frequent freelance writer covering food, travel, arts, culture, and what-have-you.

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