Online sales have become more transactional as their frequency increases, and the personal touch shoppers get in physical stores can be a brand differentiator that fosters customer loyalty.
“The world is going to demand that we be more specialized and more unique, because people want a great experience,” Cunningham says. “They want to go and discover and find things, and that’s where we’re going to have to go.”
On this episode of “The Commerce Marketer Podcast,” we're joined by Harry Cunningham, vice president of retail brand experience at Vera Bradley, to discuss what goes into designing modern-day brick-and-mortar stores with immersive experiences, why they matter, and what tech and in-store elements drive engagement.
Cunningham starts by describing Vera Bradley’s origins, business and customer base before describing his role: focusing on how the brand “comes to life at retail” and ensuring consistent brand voice across physical retail points.
“You probably can’t think of a lot of other brands where the granddaughter would be as proud to carry a product as their grandmother,” he said. “We’ve built this community of women across all ages.”
The first stores were modeled after one of the co-founder’s personal interior design style, but as the brand expanded its products to meet what consumers asked for, it also wanted to shift its stores to simplify shopping and modernize its look.
“It was about modernizing the look, the aesthetic, and embrace the fact that we were a true physical retailer as well — which is not how we started the company,” he says. “We’re the same brand and we need to hold onto our heritage, but we want to push ourselves to a more current place.”
Cunningham goes on to describe what it’s like to redesign a store concept for an established brand and the things that are important to keep in mind: Challenges to the store and challenges for the consumer.
For a company known for its vibrant prints — of which new ones come out every month — the first challenge was figuring out how to help shoppers find their way to the prints they’d love. According to Cunningham, in the beginning there was so much going on that shoppers didn’t know where to start. He explains how Vera Bradley shifted the flow in stores to “highlight the hero” and promote new prints while not letting other items get lost in the shuffle.
“I was not a Vera Bradley customer before I came here,” Cunningham says. “You have to get in, you have to listen, you have to know who you’re speaking to, and who has to live in the world every day.”
He then explains how his team combined intuition and online data to focus on certain high-performing products — they used online sales data to see which products they should shape their stores around. With the help of data, Cunningham also found success planning stores around their local demographics.
“Regardless of their age, today’s shopper is very focused on the in-store experience,” he says. “I’m not saying that every consumer wants the in-store shopping experience. Our goal is just to give them a great time when they’re in our stores.”
Part of the focus for any brand is to keep their brand voice consistent across channels, but when it comes to physical locations, Vera Bradley aims to fit in with their community — from their SoHo location to Disney.
“We’re always looking for something that has a heart and soul already that we can bring back to life, or back to life in a happier way,” Cunningham says.
After describing how Vera Bradley adapts its new stores to their environments, he shifts to how they’ve updated older stores, particularly in how they’ve made technology part of their brick-and-mortar strategy — from hashtags to creating Instagram moments.
He also tells the story of how virtual reality (VR) found its way into the stores when Vera Bradley launched a pillow and bedding line. They couldn’t fit multiple beds in every store, so they launched a VR app that allowed shoppers to see how the prints would look outside of the package.
“I’m a big believer in VR and AR, and there are a myriad of applications for us,” he says. “We’re going to explore that and see if there’s a wholesale application — touching our consumer in a different way with a different approach.”
As Cunningham describes the importance of being up to date on tech trends and how he knows when it’s time to redesign a store, a pattern becomes clear: For Vera Bradley, brick-and-mortar success is closely connected to anticipating what customers want.
“There’s still something that anyone walking into a physical store is looking for, and it’s our job is to making it exciting,” he says. “We don’t design it for an age, we design it for a brand experience.”
We close out the episode with Cunningham detailing where to find creative ideas and the importance of teams in the creative process, before finally musing on the future of retail — but whatever it holds, the odds are that Vera Bradley will be keeping pace.
“I don’t think we’re done yet. The best retail is never done,” he says. “The best retail space and experience and interaction with consumer should be ever-evolving.”