James Cook is the Americas Director of Research for Retail at JLL, and has been researching retail for almost 20 years.

In this episode of People in Places, he shares the 6 dimensions that every retailer needs to consider in-order to maximize the experience for their guests.

He breaks down the intuitive, human, meaningful, immersive, accessible, and personalized dimensions, and shows how each of them should be the bedrock of your in-store value proposition to your customers.

Listen below, or on: Apple Podcasts, Pocket CastsStitcher, Google Play, SoundCloudSpotify

Read the Transcript

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John Rougeux: Hi everyone, and welcome to another episode of People In Places, a podcast that’s all about helping you improve the visitor experience. I’m John Rougeux, and your host for today’s episode. Our guest for today is James Cook, the Americas Director of Research for Retail at JLL, a global property consultancy that specializes in property services and investment management. If you haven’t heard of JLL, there’s a good chance you’ve walked through one of their properties, as they manage over 4.6 billion square feet around the world.

John Rougeux: James has spent about 20 years in the real estate and analytics space, and in today’s interview, he’s going to talk to us about the six dimensions of retail experience that he and his team have uncovered in their research games. James, great to have you on the show today, thanks for being with me.

James Cook: Yeah, I’m really excited to be here, thank you.

John Rougeux: Yeah, sure thing. It’s always great to have someone in research on the show because you have so much knowledge to draw from. So, tell us a little bit about your background and your role at JLL.

James Cook: Okay, cool, I’ll try to keep it short. So I have been researching retail and real estate for almost 20 years now, shocking I don’t know where the time has gone; I started when I was six years old, though I didn’t of course.

John Rougeux: Of course.

James Cook: But when I was a kid, when I was growing up, I was always captivated by themed environments; places that would transport you to another world. Be it Disney World, or haunted houses, or theme parks, or shopping malls. And so today, I get to take all of that fun stuff that I enjoyed growing up, and it’s part of my work.

James Cook: So I lead a retail research team at JLL, and we work with both retailers and owners of shopping centers to do a lot of different things; but I would say, in general, to help them understand kind of the state and the future state of retail and retail real estate. And probably the most fun thing that we do, is we do a podcast called ‘Where We Buy’, and it’s just an opportunity for us to share all of this interesting new stuff that we’re learning with the public.

John Rougeux: Good deal, and can you tell me just a little bit about JLL, and I know you guys operate a few billion square feet, or manage that much property; I’d just love to get a little more context about where JLL fits in in terms of the commercial real estate space.

James Cook: Yeah so JLL is a global real estate services company; we’re the second biggest one in the world. So we’re fortune 500 company, and we do all kinds of services around commercial real estate. So that might mean managing property, it might mean helping somebody sell a property, helping somebody lease a property, we manage the construction of properties; all kinds of stuff. And I focus on a very small sliver of that, just the retail space and most of the work that I do is with owners and retailers within retail real estate.

John Rougeux: So speaking of research, your team did some work last year around identifying the six factors for what makes a remarkable experience for shoppers. So in a moment, we’re going to dive into those six dimensions, but before we do that, can you just give us kind of the lay of the land of the retail environment today?

James Cook: Yeah, it’s funny, it’s an exciting time; it is not boring in retail. I mean, it’s almost like, who said it? Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times.” And actually it’s not the worst of times; it’s not bad, it’s just in flux. Since the kind of the birth and growth of online retail, it’s forced all traditional retailers to reexamine and reinvent what they do. And the same thing is true with shopping center owners; we’ve had to redefine what the purpose and the needs that are served by a shopping center.

James Cook: One of the funny things, though, is that you just talk to somebody in the general public who is just sort of a general consumer of news, and they’ll say “Oh my gosh, isn’t retail over, isn’t everything purchased online now?” And actually, only about 10 percent of all retail sales occur online. So the vast majority, 90 percent of retail, still occurs in physical bricks and mortar locations.

James Cook: So we’re still a bricks and mortar retail world, although it’s slowly shifting, but we have to figure out what the purpose of bricks and mortar is; and so that’s a lot of what I do is figuring out what needs physical real estate serves.

John Rougeux: Yeah, that’s a point that I’ve heard several people make this year and last year. This transformation from retail going from more of a transactional environment and a utility offering, to more of experience. And I know that’s not true in every case, but for certain retailers and the few that I know you’re going to mention in your research, that’s been really key to why they’ve been so successful.

John Rougeux: So, maybe as a next step, can you walk us through … Just give us a high level overview of these six dimensions of what makes a great experience. Let’s list them off, and then we’ll kind of dive into each one, one by one.

James Cook: Okay, awesome sounds great. Yeah, so we partnered with … Internally within JLL, we have a retail design firm; so they actually design these retail experiences. And they’ve designed stores that I’m sure you’ve been inside like Under Armour or Aldi, for example, and a lot of other places. So we sat down with them to kind of figure out, and name, and define, what went into creating a retail experience.

James Cook: And also a big part of this research was we did a survey of 2,000 American consumers to see how important each of these dimensions were to them; so that was another thing, was us kind of weighting these by importance. But the six dimensions are: intuitive, human, meaningful, immersive, accessible, and personalized.

John Rougeux: Okay, so intuitive, human, meaningful, immersive, and accessible, and personalized. I would ask you to start at intuitive, since you listed that first, but I’m curious which one you’re most drawn to? Which one are you most excited about?

James Cook: Oh my gosh, for me, it’s immersive. I mentioned my love of theme parks, and that just extends to everything. I love going into a store that makes me feel I’m in another land; it’s so much fun.

John Rougeux: Yeah, it’s kind of that experience of being at a Disney. Or even a Disney Store, I remember it’s certainly just kind of full on with experience and just the entire visual array of things that are in there. So what exactly does immersive mean, how does a retailer become immersive; who’s doing immersive really well?

James Cook: Yeah, so when I think of immersive, I get instant goosebumps when I think about Starbucks Roastery. There’s a handful of these locations, have you ever been to a Starbucks Roastery?

John Rougeux: This is like their high end-

James Cook: It’s-

John Rougeux: Offering beyond what the normal Starbucks would offer?

James Cook: This is the Willy Wonka of coffee; we’re talking 40 or 50,000, square feet. There’s a couple of locations around … There’s probably maybe four or five locations around the world. There are two in the US right now, so there’s one in Seattle, that was the first, and then they recently opened up one in the Meatpacking District in New York.

James Cook: And you are transported into the world of coffee; so it’s not any other Starbucks you’ve been to. There’s a whole area where they’re actually roasting beans, and the guys who are doing the roasting are there to answer your questions and tell you about the process. They’ve got food, they’ve got these big tubes that run in the ceiling from the roasting area to behind the bar.

James Cook: So basically you’re getting the freshest roasted beans you possibly could get; they’re being roasted and then ground right there and served in front of you. They have all these different, unique ways of brewing coffee that you haven’t seen before, they have food and beverage, and it really does feel like the movie Willy Wonka; it’s a whole other world.

John Rougeux: Except, hopefully, no one’s falling in a river of chocolate and getting sucked away.

James Cook: If somebody needs to fall into a river of espresso, I’m willing to do it.

John Rougeux: You want to volunteer for that?

James Cook: Yeah.

John Rougeux: Okay, all right. So is immersive something that just applies to food and beverage type brands, or is it something that can apply to something like fashion or cosmetics or something that?

James Cook: It applies to any retailer to different degrees, and it’s really just about are you designing the interior and the exterior of your store to be first, at the least appealing but at the other end, captivating and transportive? So if you’re a retailer that’s a value oriented retailer where you’re competing based on price and not experience, then obviously you’re not going to have the kind of money to put into a store that, say, a Starbucks would have, but you still have the opportunity to make your store appealing, and make somebody when they walk in, feel good.

James Cook: I mean, I do a lot of shopping at a lot of kind of value oriented retailers, and you walk into, say, a Target and they’re pleasantly designed. You’re like “Oh, I like it here, there’s all the things that I like to buy laid out in a nice fashion, and it feels good.”

John Rougeux: That actually kind of is a good segue, I think, to that first one intuitive, I think you guys have defined that as making it easy for people to find what they’re looking for. So tell me a little bit more about that one.

James Cook: Yeah, intuitive is really easy to describe and tough to do. You walk into, especially, a discount department store, a large store and you want the shopper to walk in and not have to navigate using signage, but be able to kind of find their way around, the store’s laid out logically.

James Cook: I remember, there’s a grocery store that I shop that every Saturday, and I remember this about six months ago, they redesigned the store; so redesigned the entire store layout. And you would have thought it was the end of the world; everybody in the store on this Saturday morning is just totally freaking out, nobody can find anything. Because “Coffee’s always been here and now it’s not here.” And, of course in the long term, it was a better store design; it made sense what they were doing. But in the short term, they were messing with everybody’s intuition, which is you want an intuitive environment so people feel uncomfortable; even if they can’t put words to it.

John Rougeux: Yeah, I know that when my wife is doing her shopping at different stores, there’s certain ones that she knows where everything is, she can go in and get it. And that’s also why she chooses to go one place versus another, because there’s not that stress of trying to find things and look at them and walk through the store to figure out where they are. Is intuitive, do you see that more applicable to a big box like you mentioned grocery, but maybe a big box electronic store, or is this something that smaller footprint retailers need to be mindful of as well?

James Cook: I think everybody needs to be aware of it and thinking about it when they’re designing stores, but it’s most important … The bigger you are, the more intuitive design is important.

John Rougeux: Yeah. Okay, cool. Well, we’ve got two down, four to go James; which one do you want to tackle next?

James Cook: Well let’s go to human. And human is really about quality interactions with the associates in your store; with people who treat you fairly and make you feel good. I often think about Trader Joe’s when I think about human. Do you ever shopping at Trader Joe’s?

John Rougeux: I’ve been there a couple of times, yeah.

James Cook: Yeah, so Trader Joe’s when they hire their staff, they screen purely on social skills. And then they do, I think, two weeks of training at Trader Joe’s, and most of their training is not about how to use the POS, not about how to use the point of sale system, not about how to stock shelves; most of their training is how to have positive interactions with customers.

James Cook: And, you notice that when you’re in the store, their technology isn’t second to none, the way they queue up wines isn’t the most efficient way; but man, the people who work there are out of sight. They’re friendly, and outgoing, and they have genuine connections with you whenever you talk to them.

John Rougeux: That reminds me of a situation that we encountered with a few people I work with here in town; and because this is an example of how it can go the other way. There’s a coffee lunch type chain, kind of a regional chain here, and people started commenting that they got some new hires in, and they just weren’t real friendly, they’re just kind of going about their job and not really making the experience pleasant.

John Rougeux: And there’s a lot of places to eat where we live, and so people stopped going there. And you know what James? A few months later, they went out of business, so perfect example of what you’re describing of just that human element making that experience positive; that’s so crucial to getting people to come in and then come back.

James Cook: Yeah, and we forgive so much of retailers, if we have a human interaction with them. It’s our friends, we forgive them their faults because they’re our friends.

John Rougeux: Yeah, that’s a great point. And so this kind of reminds me of meaningful, as well, which is I think the third point on your list; you guys described that as a retailer who makes a difference in the lives of shoppers. And I think REI was one example, I’d love to hear more about since you cited that in your report.

James Cook: Yeah so meaningfulness is really about do you feel a sense of pride by shopping at a retailer? And, yeah, we talk about in the report, REI, because it’s a co-op. And so the way that it’s organized, it’s not as much around profit as it is around serving all of its members. And so the way they treat their employees is a little bit different but, I mean, there’s so many … It seems right now is a great time for meaningful retailers; there’s a lot of new brands that are popping up.

James Cook: I think of Toms Shoes; where you buy a pair, and they’ll donate a pair. Or Everlane, which has this concept of radical transparency where you can be assured that no child labor, no sweatshop labor went into the creation of the clothing that you buy there. So it’s, of course, not always it’s not always the top of mind for shoppers; sometimes people are purely buying things based on price. But people want to feel good about themselves, all things being equal, and so that meaningful dimension is really important.

John Rougeux: So you saw that in REI, the co-op, you mentioned Toms Shoes. Is this something that you’re seeing retailers, or sorry, brick and mortar retailers do better job at beyond than the online space, or who’s leading the way here; and how did this trend kind of coming about? Because I don’t really remember this being talked about 10, 15 years ago; except maybe Toms Shoes.

James Cook: Right. Yeah, I mean, it’s across the board, everybody I think all retailers, be they digital only retailers, or omni-channel retailers, or pure bricks and mortar. I mean, almost all retailers, think about it to a certain extent. It’s only a handful of retailers, would I say, it’s a part of their identity. That is, the retailer embodies a specific set of values, and people feel like when they shop there, they’re voting with their dollars to support those values.

John Rougeux: Okay, so it’s more of an alignment with someone’s way of viewing the world and, like you said, their values, and shopping becomes kind of an extension of their identity, in a way, because their behavior is supporting the kind of values, the type of kind of outlook they want to see in the world; is that what you’re saying?

James Cook: Yep, but I don’t want to go so far as to make it sound we’re talking about politics here. Because a great, meaningful retailer that I would say is, relatively, apolitical is Apple. And people shop, when they shop at an Apple store, they feel pride. But it’s pride in creativity, in Apple’s brand that people who use Apple products are unique and are perhaps more creative than the average; and so that’s the kind of meaningfulness that somebody would get from shopping at an Apple store, as an example.

John Rougeux: Okay, so I want to throw a recent example at you, and I’m curious if this counts as meaningful or this is off of your chart of six degrees. Dick’s Sporting Goods, they just stopped carrying assault style rifles in all of their stores, across the board, is a decision their CEO made, and I think they did this about one year ago.

John Rougeux: At the time, certain people were really upset, other people really lauded them for that decision. So you mentioned sometimes it isn’t always political; this was a very political decision, or this could be viewed that way. So what’s your take on that experience, are they providing a more meaningful experience because they’re aligning with certain values, or is this kind of a different take on branding that, again, may be outside of the six dimensions you look at?

James Cook: Yeah, that’s a merchandising decision, so it’s a little bit outside of retail experience. But, I mean, it certainly does lend itself to that meaningful dimension. The CEO, I heard an interview with him, he was watching coverage of the Parkland shooting, and it was so emotional, it brought him to tears. And he kind of had this realization that “I don’t want my chain to be contributing to these kinds of things.” So not that they had, but he didn’t want that to ever happen in the future.

James Cook: So, yeah, it’s certainly a decision that was a personal decision for that company that ended up having political ramifications, and I do think it falls within the meaningful dimension; because I’m sure it has caused some to not shop there, and others to shop there.

John Rougeux: Yeah, it seems like meaningful, of these six, might be one of the most difficult to measure.

James Cook: Yeah, yeah, well I mean, again, it comes down to pride; we did try to measure all these. We surveyed shoppers, and I think … I don’t have the survey tool in front of me, but I think the question was “Do you feel pride in having shopped here?” And, no surprise, many retailers didn’t score very high on this at all. It wasn’t that people didn’t feel pride, it’s just they didn’t really feel anything; it wasn’t a huge dimension.

John Rougeux: Sure, that makes sense. All right, we got two more, personalized and accessible. Let’s go to personalized since that’s kind of related to what you were just talking about.

James Cook: Yeah, personalized is something that you’re going to really get at a retailer where goods are more expensively priced. Discount department store, you’re not going to expect much of a personalized experience; although with technology, who knows, maybe that’s going to change in the future.

James Cook: Great retailer who’s always done a good job with personalization is the department store Nordstrom, and they’ve been trying to spin that out now with their Nordstrom local concept. So basically instead of a huge department store, it’s just a few thousand square feet, and it’s in a neighborhood location.

James Cook: And, basically, you can go into the store and meet with a personal shopper, you can get your nails done, they have a coffee shop, they have a tailor, you can buy stuff online and pick it up there, you can do all kinds of stuff. So basically, all the services that you would get at a Nordstrom are there, without any of this stock of a big department store; so it ends up being a highly personalized experience.

John Rougeux: And this last one is maybe a little bit more data oriented since it’s accessible and, I believe, you guys define this as shopping when and where customers want. So that might mean in store, it might be online, or a combination of the two. So, how is this playing out?

James Cook: Yeah so accessible, it’s so important, as a retailer, if you want to capture as much market share as you can. You need to be … We use this buzzword omni-channel, which really means that your brand is able to sell things to people in whatever way they want. And I’m seeing so many retailers investing a lot of money in this right now, because it really does require a lot of technology.

James Cook: So for example, Kroger, the grocery store Kroger, has put a lot into their ClickList app, so you can, on your phone, create a shopping list. And then you could do a couple of different things, you can take that shopping list with you and buy this stuff yourself in the store, you can say “I just want somebody to organize my order for me, and then I’m just going to go and pick it up.” And Kroger’s actually rolled out a new thing called Kroger Ship, so they’ll even now mail your orders to you at home. And it’s the idea that you can just get something from that brand in whatever’s easiest for you; so that’s the accessible dimension.

John Rougeux: Good deal. Yeah, I think that’s really interesting because there’s so much changing there, especially in the kind of delivery and pick up options that are now available to people; there’s so much that’s being blurred between the online and the offline space.

James Cook: Yeah, do you-

John Rougeux: You mentioned, sorry, go ahead.

James Cook: I was just gonna ask you if you do any click and collect yourself, if you’re a big fan of that?

John Rougeux: Yeah we actually talked about this with Rachel Elias Wein a little bit in her interview. And I think I mentioned to her that we had tried it, my wife and I tried it, but it was not a great experience. I think maybe my wife had ordered a bunch of produce or some specific items, maybe some baby food that she wanted, just to reiterate brand, just the right flavor. I didn’t have them, she didn’t get quite what she needed, she had to go in the store and-

James Cook: Oh no.

John Rougeux: Yeah so she said, “Well, I’m not going to try this for a while, it’s not worth my time to drive here, get 80 percent of what I need and then go back in to pick it up.” But I know that it’s just kind of a growing pain of how this technology is coming to market. But I know… Have you tried it yourself, and what’s your experience been?

James Cook: Oh yeah, I feel like as a researcher, I have to try out everything, so I’ve tried click and collect with all of the different retailers that are offering it, and had vastly different experiences. Some of them similar to what you described, and others awesome, others great. So it’s like you said, I think it just takes some time to iron it out and figure out the process. So those early adopters they might have some speed bumps, but give it a couple of years and it’s going to be real smooth.

John Rougeux: Right, it wasn’t all that long ago when, at least in my memory, when ordering a pizza online seemed like something, “Was this even gonna work? How is this possible? Is it going to get here today?” And, obviously, now it’s been a very standard thing to do for several years. But, yeah early on, it’s like people just have to get a custom to what the expectations are, how it works, and of course the retailers themselves had to adapt to make sure that experience is what it needs to be.

James Cook: Yeah. Yeah, no doubt.

John Rougeux: So, in your report you mentioned a few brands, companies Apple, Victoria’s Secret, Ulta that are doing experience really well across all these six metrics. James, what have you seen those companies have in common? Is it a certain type of leadership, is it product category, is it certain philosophy on marketing? I’m just curious, what are you seeing these really great experience driving companies have that allows them to do that so well?

James Cook: Yeah, so we surveyed 2,000 consumers, about 20 different brands; we tried to just choose some of the most popular brands across multiple retail sectors. And we’d ask them, not just questions to see how each retailer ranked in each dimension, but what was really important for us was to know how important each dimension was to that shopper.

James Cook: So for example, maybe a store’s really intuitive, but that shopper doesn’t really care how intuitive the store is; so we use that in weighting our ranking. And all the retailers that we scored did relatively well, I mean, we only chose retailers who are sort of at the top of their game right now. But top of the list was Apple, talked about that a little bit before, they had the highest overall aggregate score.

James Cook: People find their stores … They’re not huge, so maybe that is easy for them, but they find their stores very intuitive, they find the geniuses at the Genius Bar to be very human. Of course, you get a personalized experience whenever you visit an Apple store, and I was talking about meaningfulness before, they got a very high meaningful score as well.

James Cook: What do these retailers have in common? They have a very deep understanding of who their target shoppers are, and what their target shoppers find most important. And so that can kind of vary from sector to sector, but across the board, they’re understanding what people want.

John Rougeux: So, really focused on understanding customers, understanding the experience that they care about, and really mapping out their needs and interests? Good stuff. All right, James let’s just recap these six dimensions before we wrap up for today.

John Rougeux: We’ve got: intuitive, making it simple and easy for shoppers to find what they’re looking for. Being human, number two, shoppers to have great interactions with the people who are working there. Number three is meaningful kind of emboldening a sense of pride in the brand when people shop there.

John Rougeux: Number four was immersive and five was accessible, making things easy for the client. Again, allowing shoppers to conduct business kind of where they want and when they want. And then number six was personalized; I think you mentioned Nordstrom as a real good example of that.

John Rougeux: So you mentioned your podcast earlier, but I wanted to ask you to mention it one more time just in case someone didn’t catch it at the beginning, since it’s a great resource. Can you walk us through the name of that and where to find it real quick?

James Cook: Yeah, it’s called Where We Buy, and it’s available through any podcast app that you might use and it’s on Spotify as well, just search for Where We Buy. And the website for the podcast is wherewebuy.show.

John Rougeux: Wherewebuy.show? All right, good deal James. If one of our listeners wants to get in touch with you, what’s the best way for them to do that?

James Cook: Probably on Twitter. Tweet at me @Jamesdcook. And, of course, if you Google me, my email address and phone number is out there as well.

John Rougeux: All right, good stuff, we will look for you on Twitter then. James, it was a real pleasure having you on the show today, thanks for being with us.

James Cook: Yes, thank you so much, this has been fun, John.

John Rougeux: Yeah, you bet.

John Rougeux: Well, that wraps up this episode of People In Places. This show is produced by our team at Skyfii, where we’re helping physical venues measure, predict and influence visitor behavior both offline and online. You can review People In Place on Apple podcasts, and to get notified of new episodes, just follow Skyfii on LinkedIn, or subscribe to our newsletter at Skyfii.com. That’s S-K-Y-F-I-I dot com. I’m John Rougeux, thanks for listening, we’ll see you next time.

People in Places is a podcast dedicated to helping today’s shopping centers, retail outlets, airports, museums, universities, and other physical locations optimize the experience of their visitors. Get in-touch: podcast@skyfii.com. See all current episodes on our website here.

Show Notes:

  1. Checkout Jame’s podcast on retail and real estate called Where We Buy
  2. Follow James on Twitter.
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