Holiday’s Mission Impossible – Can Stores Still Surprise & Delight? | RetailNext

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Holiday’s Mission Impossible – Can Stores Still Surprise & Delight?

Bridget Johns
Bridget Johns
Head of Marketing and Customer Experience

Armed with a desire to “get back to the store” this Holiday season, Bridget Johns, RetailNext’s head of customer success, entered the shopping fray hoping to be surprised and delighted – here’s her report card.

holiday shopping - lower resAfter buying most of my Holiday gifts online the past couple of years, I decided this year I would get back to the store, in part because spending time in stores is an important part of my role at RetailNext (a hardship, I know), but mostly because I was hoping retail had changed.

At RetailNext we spend much of our time speaking to retailers about how they can measure their initiatives to stay relevant to today’s ever-changing consumer.  This year, our conversations have focused on three areas:

  1. How the consumer is in charge – she wants what she wants, when she wants it at the price she is willing to pay.
  2. The idea that the in-store shopping experience should be seamless and void of friction points.
  3. The in-store experience should leave a customer with something she can’t do or get online – she should be surprised and delighted!

My holiday shopping experience has been decidedly mixed across these three criteria. Retailers are working very hard to bridge the gap in service and customer experience, but it’s largely a work in progress. Many retailers have legacy systems, legacy processes and legacy employees – so monumental change is proving slow and difficult.

Below is a review of what I saw working, and what still needs work.

My mission:  Purchase a birthday gift for a friend with a Christmas birthday.

My experience:  I went to Lululemon on Santana Row in San Jose, and the experience was fantastic. The staff was extremely helpful – a team member who was approximately the same size as my friend helped me get the right size and the very best part was when I paid and asked if they could ship it to my friend’s home in Atlanta and what it would cost. They replied, “Of course, and it’s free because we have free online shipping right now.” How nice is that?? I was surprised and delighted!

The Outcome:  I was converted. Lululemon will now be on my list for gift-giving needs.

My mission:  Buy my son the only thing he asked Santa for – a Mack Truck Car Carrier.

My experience:  I started at a specialty toy retailer in Valley Fair (San Jose) where there were plenty of “Cars” branded products on display. I didn’t see this particular item, so I asked an associate, who indicated that he may have one in the back and went to check. He returned to tell me they didn’t have one in stock but they might get one in the next week because they get shipments every day. When I asked if that item would be in a shipment, he replied, “You’ll have to stop back to see.” Sigh. There was no offer to look in another store or to see if it was available online. Double Sigh.  I sulked out and licked my wounds at the Lego store where I had a wonderful experience – and spent $100 on Duplo and Lego sets that my son does not really need!

The Outcome:  Good News/Bad News, I was able to find the item on Amazon, but was slightly confused when it arrived in a box that said “available only at Toys R Us.”  Now I feel like Santa is bringing my son a gift from the gray market.

My mission:  Send two packs of books to friends’ kids in two states and to bring some additional books home for my son.

My experience:  I live in the Willow Glen neighborhood of San Jose, and we are lucky to have an excellent kids’ bookstore – Hicklebee’s is an institution, and it’s the perfect small town specialty store. The associates know you by name, they know the products exceptionally well, and they are friendly and caring. I know I can find the books they sell for less on Amazon, but I also know I would never find half of the books I buy without the physical store, so I am happy to spend a couple of dollars more per book. On this particular night, I ran in at 5:30, knowing I had to be out the door by 5:50 to pick my son up from daycare. In 20 minutes I picked out my books and gave the associated shipping addresses and signed cards. She quickly rang the sale– remembering to send the out of state packages tax free – and had me on my way.

The Outcome:  I continue to be a raving fan of Hicklebee’s.  I was reminded of this seamless experience when I was in a specialty cooking shop and wanted to send four copies of Ina Garten’s new cookbook to four friends at four separate addresses. I was willing to spend more for the cookbooks because they were signed by the author, but I was less willing to stand in line for 45 minutes while the associates tried to figure out how to ring the transaction. They got there in the end, for the most part, but there was little concession or concern for me, the customer. I felt like the store team was doing me a huge favor, even after I paid 50% more for the book than the price offered on Amazon, paid for shipping, and paid for it with my precious time.  Next time, I will probably visit the store to get some ideas and order online.

My mission:  Buy my son some new clothes for Christmas.

My experience:  I was at Nordstrom’s and loved a Mini Boden Rocket T-shirt.  Unfortunately, they didn’t have my son’s size. The associate was wonderful. He offered to find the shirt and ship it to my house for free. He also recommended the Mini Boden dinosaur t-shirt. I ended up buying them both, and have been very happy with both purchases. I also went to another large department store (one that competes with Nordstrom) to shop for my son and for some other gifts.  Unfortunately, the experience was as opposite as possible. The product assortment was uninspired, I was never approached by an associate, and when I walked up to a group of 5 associates clustered together chatting to ask where a specific department was, they pointed to the direction I needed to go instead of escorting me there. When I went into the fitting room, it was messy and I wasn’t offered assistance. In turn, I didn’t buy a thing.

The Outcome:  Nordstrom wins.  The other guy? Not so much.

With all of the innovation and technology available to retailers today, I found it remarkable that almost all of my holiday shopping experiences have been either wonderful or disappointing for some really basic reasons. In many cases, I felt like the retailers had lost focus on what actually drives performance. And where my experiences exceeded expectations, it was for simple, basic reasons – great product assortment and excellent service.

Early indications point to an “okay” holiday season. There will be some winners and losers, and a lot of folks in the middle. If physical retail wants to win, they must get better – more inspiring products and a shopping experience that surprises and delights. All the technology in the world won’t solve those problems.

Now, for your mission (if you choose to accept it):  Share with me your Holiday in-store shopping experience in the comments, below. Were your expectations met? Are stores delivering value to your shopping experience that you can’t find online? Who is winning at retail?

Join the #retail conversation on Twitter with @BridgetJohns and @RetailNext, and at


  • Ray Hartjen

    Interesting that you asked a retailer to ship from in-store. I would so have taken the books to the post office myself. A new shopping paradigm, and I now know I should – and can – expect more from retailers who want to earn my business. Also a big fan of Nordstrom, and since I don’t shop often, I stop by there first in the hopes it’s my last stop too.

  • Bill Adamec

    Hi Bridget. I wanted to share a holiday shopping experience involving an item (laptop) that I normally would have purchased at Amazon or Newegg, but ended up getting at Best Buy. I started at the aforementioned online stores but found a not-so-well-organized array of specs and unlimited choices. Also impossible to gauge was look and feel. Armed with comparables, I went to Best Buy and ended up finding a great choice that happened to be out of stock. But the sales associate pointed me to Best Buy website which offered free 2-day shipping, and in-store return privileges so I ordered it from them. I suspect it’s a good example of how a retailer can use showrooming to their advantage.

    Oh, one last unrelated comment. on a recent holiday mall trip I found parking so difficult and oppressing (45 minutes) that I very nearly just drove away and shopped online instead. Not sure what retailers can do about this but certainly put a damper on the whole experience.