Monday 14 March 2011

What can online learn from Hollister stores?

In a previous post, I wrote about three things high street stores could learn from ecommerce websites. What I didn't explain was that in the early days, online borrowed heavily from the stores and I think there are things that websites can still learn from them.

One store that sticks out in my mind above others is Hollister, the US fashion brand from the same people that brought us Abercrombie & Fitch.

I first came across Hollister when I saw a queue outside their shop in the Westfield Centre in Shepherds Bush, London. The only queues I had ever seen outside any shop were at the Next January sale, Waterstones on the night one of the new Harry Potter books was published and HMV when Ocean Colour Scene did an in-store signing. How I wish it was 1995 again. I couldn't believe people (young people) would queue up outside a store when there was no sale or special guests signing CDs.

I had the opportunity to visit a Hollister store recently, without queueing, so I went in to understand what the fuss was all about. I was immediately greeted by his 'n' her models, him wearing nothing but shorts and her wearing a bikini. Bearing in mind this was February in New York and -9 outside, you'll begin to appreciate what type of brand experience Hollister stores create. Not surprisingly, Hollister is aimed at teenagers as a laid-back Californian surf and beach lifestyle brand. Their stores are reminiscent of a surf shack and take on a casual and reasonably informal vibe.

Inside, the store was pretty dark and I became engulfed by a sweet smell, which was pumped throughout the two levels I visited. Everyone that worked in the store appeared to be the most attractive person in New York City. Behind my wife of course. And me. I walked past pretty girl after handsome guy and each one, clad in Hollister branded clothing, smiled and asked me how I was doing.

In the store are lounge chairs that don't match and large green plants that bring the outside in. The store itself felt quite cramped with low ceilings and not much space in the aisles. This meant that regardless of how many people were in there, it always looked busy. 

It's clear that the company has put a huge amount of thought into creating a unique experience for its customers. A visit to Hollister certainly is an experience and I can now appreciate why teenagers want to wear the brand and queue up outside its stores. So what can online learn from Hollister?

Hollister has created a level of exclusivity for the company. You're not just buying a t-shirt, you are buying into that exclusive club. Making customers queue up and operating a one-in-one-out policy furthers the exclusivity and interest and makes for a wonderful, free marketing tactic.

How many people walk past a queue without asking what the people are queuing for? I did when I first walked past the Hollister queue. Many shops use January sales queues as a PR opportunity, building it up as an event in itself. Next and Harrods do this every year. Hollister has taken this once-in-a-year opportunity and turned it into a once-every-Saturday event.

In many ways, some websites have used this concept and translated it for the web. Voyage Prive and Cocosa are examples of websites that only allow registered members to view their deals and offers, which are time limited. In truth, its quite easy to register on these sites for free, however not only does this give these new websites an instant opportunity to build a database of e-mail addresses, it generates this feeling of exclusivity.

Can other ecommerce stores translate this feeling of exclusivity elsewhere? Frequent flyer schemes have managed to do this by offering membership benefits that aren't afforded to people outside of the club. Membership sections and benefits for repeat customers can easily become a part of a website's strategy to begin creating this feeling of exclusivity.

The experience that Hollister creates in its stores is difficult to simulate online, however not impossible.

The online industry has invested a huge amount of resources researching how visitors interact with websites. This has made them easier to use and much more intuitive. This means we've got largely standardised ecommerce sites so that visitors know exactly what to do once they first arrive. Nothing is left to chance.

What this means is that little thought is given to creating something memorable and unique for the people who come to visit. Think about the last time you visited an ecommerce website and came away with these feelings? There is an opportunity to translate Hollister's in-store experience online and deliver something memorable for visitors and this has to be a challenge for brands. 

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