Try it, you’ll like it

Back in the early part of this century there was a scene in the film High Fidelity where record shop owner, John Cusack, at the counter in the middle of his crowded store, whispers to his assistant, “I will now sell five copies of 3EPs by the Beta Band”.

He plays the first track, Dry the Rain, and watches as the customers one by one follow him in getting into the groove. Eventually one pipes up.

Customer: Who is that?

Cusack: It’s the Beta Band.

Customer: It’s good.

Cusack: I know (with a smug smile).

It’s great retail. Cusack’s character Rob has correctly gauged the overall mood in the store and has played the perfect record to match it. He’s just given his customers a free sample of something that they weren’t looking for and now they all want it.

But it’s not the CD they want to buy, it’s the mood they were in when they heard it.

Now, few such stores exist, and if you hear a piece of music you like you Shazam it and purchase it instantly on iTunes.

But there are shopping experiences that the internet cannot replace.

The internet is totally geared to the senses of sight and hearing. It’s not much wonder that music, books, and to a certain extent, fashion, have migrated online.

But it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine that catering to the other senses will follow. Touch, taste, and smell are just not available online.

So if we are talking about keeping physical retailing relevant to customers, we need to think about stimulating those three senses.

I remember the first time I visited a Wholefoods Market in California.

Although the store manager had little idea who we were, he eagerly explained that you could taste anything you wanted instore, and ripped open a packet of wholegrain chips to prove the point.

Wholefoods love to offer samples – anything from exotic cheeses to fruit juices and coffee. Baskin Robbins have been offering tasting spoons for years. Locally, Baker’s Delight are known for sampling at the counter.

It seems logical that if you want someone to buy something new, you’ll stand a better chance of selling it to them if you let them try it first.

It may seem really obvious, but if an item isn’t even on someone’s radar then it’s highly unlikely that they will seek it out and buy it. Giving them a sample is the ideal way to get them to notice it.

But this idea extends further than food items.

It’s ridiculous to me that retailers spend money on technology that simulates trying clothes on in store.

What more interactive experience could you have than trying on clothes for real? You get the feel of the material, how and where the garment fits, even the aroma of new clothes. Who doesn’t enjoy the smell of fresh new denim?

But here’s the thing – it’s also about giving a taste of the end experience. It’s not really about how the garment fits, it’s how you’ll feel wearing it.

So why are dressing rooms often an after thought? After all, this is where you’re supposed to be converting sales.

The basics of privacy, plenty of hooks, and a shelf for your bag are easy to provide. But let’s not forget that the purpose of trying something on is not to see if it fits – it’s to see how good it makes you feel.

So let’s make the customer feel her best by careful choice of lighting, mirrors, and finishes. Give her a sample of how great she will feel in those new jeans and your conversion rate will go up.

Ted Baker does an exemplary job of this by extending its surreal Englishness into its dressing rooms. You never forget that you could be dressing up for Cruft’s dog show or an exclusive garden party. And that’s part of the Ted Baker experience.

At the opening of the Ted Baker store in Westfield Sydney I was offered a complimentary gin and tonic – a true taste of Ted Baker. Did I buy something as a result of this? Of course I did. And I still do.

National Geographic on Regent St in London go to more extreme lengths to let customers sample the experience.

To test its cold weather gear you can use the cold room, where arctic temperatures are simulated (not that you always need to do that during the English summer). By offering a sample of the experience they are bringing the offer to life in a way that transcends garments on racks.

Samples don’t always have to be free. I spent some time in a Japanese wine store where you paid to sample a selection of wines from temperature controlled self service dispensers.

I’ve also rented a top of the range mountain bike for a day to test it out on a long and demanding ride, and considered it good value in terms of helping me make a choice in buying a new bike. Of course, the cost was credited back to me on the purchase price. 

But what if you did that with cars? Driving your potential new BMW around crowded suburban streets is no match for being invited to drive it around a long, winding mountain road as shown in the TV commercials. And most potential customers would be willing to pay for the experience. After a day’s driving and feeling that the car was your own, who wouldn’t want to buy it?

Robert Cialdini in his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, talks about reciprocity  being one of the six key factors of persuasion.

In social psychology, reciprocity is the simple act of responding to positive action with another positive action. A small favour can result in the obligation to return a larger favour. The Hare Krishnas know about this: I give you a flower, you give me a donation.

It also works in retail. Make me feel like I’m going out in London, I buy a new suit. Give me a taste of the Arctic wastes, I buy a parka from you. Open a bag of chips for me and I’ll fill an entire shopping trolley. Give me a taste of owning something and I’ll start coming round to the idea that I really need to buy it from you.

Nespresso do a brilliant job of sampling. It goes without saying that you get a free coffee in store. But it’s not just free, it’s served in the specially commissioned and exclusive cups that are sold instore.

As a taste of the experience it’s perfect. The next step is to become a member of the Nespresso club, which offers absolutely no benefits of membership other than that you are a member. As is George Clooney, among others.

You can get a coffee anywhere, but this is Nespresso. And because you’ve given me a coffee, I’ll now have a look at that coffee machine.

As designers of stores, we should be thinking about sampling, not just as something on a cocktail stick, but as something that gives the customer a flavour of how they will feel when they purchase the product. 

There is the argument that cynical customers will sample instore and buy online. That’s where the reciprocity comes in.

Do a good enough job of giving the sample and your customers will want to repay the favour.

* Gary McCartney is the owner of McCartney Design and a regular contributor to Inside Retail. You can reach him at

This feature first appeared in the August/September 2012 edition of Inside Retail Magazine. For more stories like this, subscribe to Inside Retail Magazine’s bi-monthly print edition here.

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