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Signs Point to the Arrival of Experiential Retail in the 'Burbs

In recent years, as my Fitbit Friends know well, I have taken to walking as my primary defense against Father Time's relentless assault upon my anatomy. And I do mean, walking. Most weeks, I accumulate close to 125,000 steps. Or, if my math is correct (no guarantee), a little more than nine miles a day. So you can believe me when I tell you that I have walked – and walked, and walked, and walked – along every inch of the 18 square miles of my hometown of Encinitas California.

A quiet surf hamlet of some 60,000 people, Encinitas (as I have described in this space before) is very far removed from anything remotely resembling a big city. We are probably most well-known for surfers' love of our world-class right reef point break at Swami's beach.

Ask almost any Encinitas resident, and they will insist that the lengths of our palm-lined beaches far outnumber the lengths of our strip mall-lined sidewalks. While the truth is that several strip malls have in fact set up shop here (this is still Southern California, after all), Encinitas is definitely not a big-time retail destination. The closest thing to what one might call a "flagship store" lies 100 miles to the North, in one of the many shopping meccas to be found in and around Los Angeles.

Encouraging Signs

As someone who makes their living helping retailers find success in these turbulent times, I spend a great number of my many walking hours carefully observing what is happening in my quiet corner of the retail industry. And it is with pleasant surprise, as I diligently traverse the terrain of my humble hometown, that I am beginning to see a multitude of sandwich boards that proudly proclaim what I interpret to be the arrival of experiential retail to the suburbs.

These artsy sidewalk signs alert me to any number of activities designed to make what happens inside the stores a bigger part of my lifestyle: cooking classes, holiday season kickoff parties, wine tastings, book readings (not inside book stores) and athletic challenges all await. No, celebrities and chauffeurs aren't included in these events, as one might find at a flagship fete, but investments are nonetheless being made in experiences – lots of experiences – designed to make stores more relevant to me…and many of my suburban neighbors.

I am thrilled, in fact, to see so many meaningful investments in store experiences in my neighborhood. In recent years we have witnessed the sand shifting beneath our feet as shopper expectations of the store have dramatically changed. Long-held consumer demands for speed and efficiency have now been replaced by expectations of entertainment, engagement and empowerment. Shoppers have told us in no uncertain terms – with their wallets – that if they want fast and efficient, they will look to Amazon.

Flying the Experiential Retail Flag(ship)

The burden is now clearly on the stores to adapt. It's long past time we rethink the role of the store. We now need to think of the store less as a transaction center and more as an experience center.

And, you know, we actually have begun to evolve. Lately we have seen lots of retailers – big and small - making splashy investments in new store experiences. Just last month, Barney's Madison Avenue flagship hosted a highly publicized and well-attended two-day event featuring exclusive product drops from some of the hottest streetwear designers…complete with DJs, food, celebrity panel discussions and tattoo artists.

Unfortunately, too many experiences like the extravaganza at Barney's have been confined to high-profile and high-traffic locations - typically flagship stores. "Average" stores in small towns like Encinitas are typically ignored, and store managers are forced to try to survive via an endless litany of deep discounts painted on window signs that scream "business as usual being done here."

And we all know how well business as usual has worked out.

One Small Step for the Suburbs

But I am genuinely encouraged by the sights I see on my long walks around town. Retailers, despite the challenges so many suburban stores continue to face, are indeed beginning to evolve. Every sandwich board I see makes me that much more optimistic about their future.

They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And every day, as I add more steps to my Fitbit, I am happy to report that more and more suburban stores seem to be taking their own steps… toward joining the experiential retail revolution.


Editor's Note:

At Aptos, we recognize how hard reinvention can be, and we realize that we can't just talk the talk through blog posts like this. We know we have to walk the walk. To that end, we are investing in a multi-month, multi-media program designed specifically to help our clients – and all retailers – as they embark on their own journeys to experiential retail.

We have conducted significant in-depth research into reinvention strategies, tactics and best practices. We have interviewed numerous thought leaders to gather insights, success stories and recommendations.  And we have begun the process of compiling our research into a series of experiential retail checklists, listicles, eBooks, podcasts and more. Each of these assets are full of insights and, most importantly, recommendations. More assets will be released every couple weeks for the foreseeable future.

If you would like to be notified when new assets are published, send an email to We'll be sure you are among the first to know when new content is available.