The Experience Equation

Do you remember the last time you really enjoyed an in-store shopping experience? Most likely the store sold items that held your interest, fulfilled a desire, or helped you reach a goal. But what made that experience so enjoyable? Was it because you were able to interact with the product, touch it, try it on, or try it out? Was it because a knowledgeable salesperson was available to help you through your decision process, educating you along the way?

In a multichannel world, there is much that the online and catalog channels can learn from the “four-walled” channel when it comes to creating a shopping experience that resonates and generates sales.

You may be thinking, “But a store has the advantage of a three-dimensional format where customers can truly experience products.” This is true. But let’s take a look at an industry that over the years has perfected the art of entertaining within a two-dimensional format: the magazine industry. The next time you visit the doctor, take a look around the waiting room and observe how many people are immersed in a magazine article or are intently thumbing through the pages, digesting pictures. Magazines understand the art of entertaining within a two-dimensional format, just as stores have perfected how to create an experience within four walls.

What both of these industries have achieved is the ability to capture the attention of consumers and hold it. If your Website and catalog could do the same and truly capture the hearts of your customers and prospects, your response rates and average order sizes would certainly increase.

Granted, catalogs and Websites have limitations, but many successful companies have found economical ways to create engaging experiences online and in print. Ultimately they have created differentiation and demand by selling to the hearts of customers.

How can your catalog and Website reach experiential nirvana? Simply put, by following an equation combining two concepts that provide a blueprint for tactical execution:



First, your entire team must have a clear understanding of your merchandise (M) concept and its brand (B) uniqueness. The two concepts are individually defined but should appear as tight as a double helix.

A merchandise concept is a unique collection of products and price points representing a highly defined need that will resonate with a core audience. Great merchants are able to hone their product set as a unique concept, not 300 SKUs.

An example of this would be two catalogers within the same category: TravelSmith and The Territory Ahead. It could be argued that these two brands compete for the same dollar, as both sell apparel within a travel theme, but each truly owns a unique concept. TravelSmith sells functional clothing created for the efficient and savvy traveler, while Territory Ahead sells fashion and style wrapped in a travel concept. Curiously, both catalogs present their apparel off-model and include National Geographic-type travel photos, but you would never mistake one for the other because of the other factor in this equation: the execution of their brand.

A brand can be defined as the benefits, attributes, and values associated with your merchandise concept. How you present that, with a unique voice and consistent creative — online and offline — is your brand identity.

Why are your merchandise concept and your brand so important to the experiential formula? Well, first of all, it really is all about the merchandise! Without a clearly defined concept, how could you possibly expect consumers to think of you first when they have a product need?

For example, TravelSmith’s customers know that when shopping the company’s Website or the catalog, they will find travel garments with their specific needs in mind (wrinkle-free, drip-dry, lightweight). They know this because TravelSmith’s merchandise and creative teams have consistently presented a clearly defined brand across its selling channels.


It’s all about relevance (R). To achieve experiential selling you must sell your merchandise concept in a method that engages. To accomplish this, you must first understand what is relevant to customers.

Do you really know your customers? Do you know what they do in their spare time? Are you aware of which magazines they read? Do you know anything about them beyond specific buying habits and response rates? Do you understand their decision process and why they choose to shop with you?

As marketers we often have our head in the sand and forget about what is going on in our wide, ever-expanding, global marketplace. While many of us think we do not have time to engage in current events, the entertainment world, pop culture or fashionable trends, we are missing huge opportunities to become more connected with consumers. Why do magazines such as Lucky and Real Simple have such huge readerships? How does this relate to your little niche in the world?

For example, if you sell gourmet food or kitchen gadgets, it’s possible that your customer is poring over or relaxing with cooking magazines. Take that thought one step further. What are these magazines doing to engage their readers? Are they using beautiful, trendy, and artful shots of food? Perhaps including simple tips or recipes? Now compare that with your catalog and Website: Are you including relevant “eye candy” or simple cooking tips that engage readers?

Your creative and merchandise teams need to work together to understand this dynamic and then brainstorm techniques that will bring this sort of relevancy alive online and in your catalog. Ideally your marketing team should have subscriptions to relevant periodicals or should watch niche cable shows to understand the current culture of your market segment.

Many mailers are squeamish about giving up a square inch of selling space to anything other than a product. The fear is understandable, but it can also hold your business back. In the catalog format, it’s a matter of building spreads that engage, using copy and photographs that mirror attitudes and concepts important to your customer. Online, where space is not at a premium, it’s about providing the information relevant to visitors, then guiding them to it, with search, tabs, drop-downs, and other tools.

Looking internally to clearly define and consistently present your merchandise concept and brand, then adding the external factor of what’s relevant to your customers results in an opportunity to create a buying experience for customers. And by creating a memorable experience, you will differentiate your company from the competition as well as engage your customer’s heart and retain his loyalty.

As a formula, “(M + B) + R = experiential selling” may seem simple enough, but few multichannel merchants spend time trying to achieve this concept outside of their store channel. It takes a conscious effort on the part of the entire marketing team to understand the formula and, even more important, to develop a logical creative plan that you can execute consistently in your catalog and on your Website.

Recommendation: With every season or marketing event, all stakeholders should bring their collective research, get together, and discuss how to achieve and execute techniques that will engage, entertain, and create a shopping experience for customers.

Below are two examples of catalog/online merchants that understand the concept of experiential selling and put the aforementioned formula into practice. Each sells a different experience, relevant to their customers’ needs and desires.


It’s immediately obvious that Spiegel has reinvented itself and understands its marketplace. The company’s catalog and online presence almost mirrors what is presented in the popular fashion magazines its customers would read.

Instead of page after page of one garment after another, Spiegel shows how you can mix and match items or accessorize them to create multiple looks. It creates spreads with a specific theme (“Feminine Accents,” “Accessory Dressing”) even if it means reselling an item shown elsewhere in the catalog.

Spiegel also features its own celebrity designers telling you what is “hot” and fashionable and offering fashion tips, providing a service that is aligned with its merchandise concept. While all this may seem “editorial,” the catalog still understands the art of selling, with easy-to-find descriptive copy, options, and pricing.

Online, Spiegel continues this theme on its home page by telling you what the next “big thing” in fashion will be. Along the left-hand navigation column it uses fashion terms such as “collections,” and provides engaging prompts such as “Trend Watch,” “Reality Dressing,” “Fall’s Top 50 Finds,” and “Stylist Advice,” terms also used in relevant magazines and cable shows. Customers can self-select what is important to them, creating an experience that meets their own unique needs and wants.


This cataloger sells chef-inspired, already-prepared gourmet meals, but it also sells an experience. The tagline — “The Art of Dining In” — supports the merchandise concept.

In both its print catalog and its Website, Impromptu Gourmet uses creative techniques to help customers create their own special dining experience. Beautiful photographs showcase gourmet entrees, with the chefs offering advice on side dishes and appetizers in informative sidebars.

Impromptu Gourmet had started out offering complete meals for two, but research showed that customers were interested in creating their own menus — selecting the side dishes and appetizers themselves rather than having them preselected. Armed with this knowledge of what was relevant to their customers, the company developed spreads in which the chefs make core recommendations but customers create their own menus, from the appetizer and the entrée to the side dishes and the dessert. Everything is presented in an easy-to-use format so that customers are involved in the process, right alongside the chef.

The experience does not stop once the order is taken. The food arrives in a beautiful designer shipping container and includes a dining guide with information on wine selection, napkin folding, and plate presentation. Some packages even include a CD of dining music to complete the gourmet dining experience.

Lois Boyle is president of J. Schmid & Associates, a catalog consultancy based in Mission, KS.