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Would you like a boxed water with that? Retailers reenvision the customer experience

Shopping used to mean spending hours in a crowded galleria that smelled faintly of churros and the food court, searching through crowded racks of clothes for a gem that might spark joy. A trip to the mall could be a long haul, leaving your feet sore and your throat parched.

In hindsight, now that malls across America are shuttering as customers shop online from the comfort of their homes, it sounds like a nightmarish experience. But the death of mall culture doesn’t mean retail is dying. The future of retail is just being reinvented. Modern retailers are skipping the middleman by selling directly to consumers, often taking an online-first approach, and creating physical retail experiences that look and feel like stepping into a beautifully simple website.

The future of retail: hands-on service

Reformation’s new storefront in San Francisco is a glass cube with carefully curated, delicately displayed swaths of fabric. The temperature-regulated box is outfitted with a handful of associates dressed in the same creepy-cute, Where’s Waldo aesthetic: a red and white striped shirt and washed out jeans.

As I browsed the collection of clothes, only one of each style on display, the Reformation Waldos walked around with iPads in hand. When I found something I liked, I told the associate my size and she smiled, tapped away at her iPad, and led me to the dressing room.

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Source: Reformation website

The spacious dressing room’s magical dresser contained the shirt I selected, in my size. A screen mounted on the wall allowed me to request a different size, or to change the lighting or plug in my phone to listen to my own music. Since I don’t have an apartment with a living room (give me a break, San Francisco rent is ridiculous), I could easily see myself going to hang out in Reformation’s dressing rooms whenever I might need some downtime. I spent the first ten minutes dancing to music in front of the mirror.

Since I don't have an apartment with a living room (give me a break, San Francisco rent is ridiculous), I could easily see myself going to hang out in Reformation's dressing rooms whenever I might need some downtime.

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Photographer: Matthew Millman

Even though I didn’t end up buying anything, Reformation’s tech-enabled retail concept certainly helped me enjoy time spent in their store. I didn’t have to sort through piles of clothes, hunt down an associate to help me find a size, or carry around a pile of clothing until I was ready to try them on.

Reformation isn’t the only retailer improving the customer experience in this way. Everlane has a similar brick and mortar concept. The company doesn’t let more than twenty or so people in the store at a time, and they keep boxed water at the ready in their dressing rooms.

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Photographer: Carlos Chavarria

Both Everlane and Reformation built shopping experiences with the end user in mind. Gone are the days of crowded malls and draining shopping experiences, and of needing a gas mask and a flashlight to survive Hollister’s cologne-drenched, dark space. Instead, they’ve made shopping fun and easy, and into an experience that might incite dancing or even joy. I’m talking boxed water joy.

Try before you buy

Shopping from the comfort of your own home, where pants are optional, is a hard experience to beat. Brick and mortar stores need a reason for people to come in; they need to create an experience that’s worth putting pants on for.

Brick and mortar stores need a reason for people to come in; they need to create an experience that’s worth putting pants on for.

Aside from these clean and simple, low-effort website-like experiences, brands have begun to take their customers on a journey once they step foot in the store, immersing them in an interactive environment where they experience the brand’s products. I recently went into Sephora to buy the same mascara I’ve worn for the past three years, but ended up walking out with three items I didn’t realize I needed until the sales associate informed that I did, in fact, need them.

Here’s how Sephora managed to convince me I was crazy for not already owning their products: They offered free facials. An associate tested my skin’s hydration levels and identified my skin type. Then, the associate massaged my face with top-notch skin-loving products, personalized to my skin type, until I was basically purring. Finally, in a relaxed and content state, the associate struck and asked how the products felt, telling me my skin was glowing (because it was). Then, with a Square reader in hand, she rang me up right at the facial station, so that I didn’t have to wait in line.

As I was leaving Sephora, I passed a makeup lesson that was just beginning. Girls held up blush brushes, poised and ready to paint. What better way to get customers to buy a product than to show them how to use it in person and how to personalize their own look?

Sephora isn’t the only business catching on to the experience economy. LuluLemon, a high-end yoga retailer, began offering yoga classes to practice what they preach. Sports-retailer REI now offers outdoor classes and activities. Customers gain knowledge and get to see products in action before they buy.

Personalized experiences (and purchases) are better

The future of retail aims high—creating better customer experiences in-store, online, and through personalization, often tech-enabled. Brands like Levi’s now offer personalized tailoring and monogramming right in store. Away, an online direct-to-consumer company that sells travel gear, personalizes the customer experience by selling quirky stickers that buyers can use to dress their suitcases their own way.

These retailers enable customers to choose their journey, online and in-store, for an experience that ultimately feels good, and with products that make you feel more like you—especially when a product line is designed to be limited and utilitarian. Hopefully we can avoid everyone walking the streets of San Francisco like an army of modern, utilitarian techies and hipsters garbed in normcore clothes, Allbirds sneakers, and varying shades of washed out denim.

Amanda Roosa is a content marketer for Zendesk and a frequent contributor to Relate. When she's not petting other people's dogs, she's exploring where technology and humanity converge. Find her on Twitter: @mandyroosa.