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Come for the experience, leave with the goods

Getting customers to interact with products giving boost to retailers

The Cold Room at Canada Goose at The Mall at Short Hills.-(PHOTOS BY AARON HOUSTON)

Traditional brick-and-mortar retailers are moving more toward experiential shopping to get people in the door. At Canada Goose in The Mall at Short Hills, customers can try on the brand’s parkas in what’s called The Cold Room, which can get down to as low as -13 degrees.

It’s only November, but it’s already -13 degrees in Short Hills.

In a small refrigerated room at The Mall at Short Hills, outdoor clothing retailer Canada Goose gives customers the opportunity to try on the brand’s full line of luxury parkas to prove the point their coats are really warm and will protect you from the elements in an extremely cold environment.

Canada Goose’s The Cold Room is the brand’s new concept, introduced in September, and is part of a growing trend in experiential retail in which brick-and-mortar stores can offer customers something tangible that online sellers cannot.

“Customers are just bored with the same old store. It gives you no reason to get off your couch and not order off of Amazon when all you’re doing is putting out the product and opening the door for business,” said David Townes, senior director of retail services at commercial real estate developer Cushman & Wakefield in East Rutherford. “Customers have tons of options to get that product in their house, and you have to give them a reason to come to the store.”

While electronics and crafts stores have for years offered experiences beyond browsing and purchasing — playing with PhotoBooth on Macs in the Apple Store, for instance, or taking a free cake-decorating class at Michaels — other retailers are now jumping in.

Canada Goose is one such retailer that opened in New Jersey within the last year.

According to JLL, the largest third-party manager of retail property in the country, experiential retail has six dimensions: It’s intuitive, or simple and easy for shoppers to find what they’re looking for; shoppers engage with people who know the products; it’s meaningful in that it makes a difference in lives and gives customers a sense of pride for shopping there; it’s visually appealing and therefore immersive; is accessible in that it has both an in-store and mobile component; and it’s personalized, so store associates can look at past behavior and current needs to determine which products are right for a customer.

At Canada Goose, The Cold Room taps into many of those tenets.

“The Cold Room is our response to ensure our customers can test the product and truly experience the functionality they’re buying into,” said Chief Marketing Officer Penny Brook. “Our proprietary index, Thermal Experience Index, ranks each coat from one to five; one for the most lightweight and five for the coldest places on earth. We know cold is relative and everyone experiences temperature differently, thus the creation of the TEI. The index allows our consumer to find the right jacket for their body, activity, temperature and style.”

Dropping down to -13 degrees is a nod to its Canadian heritage, too. According to Brook, that temperature is comparable to spring in Churchill, Manitoba, home of conservation nonprofit Polar Bears International, which is supported in part by the sale of Canada Goose’s PBI line of parkas.

Not far in the mall from Canada Goose is the Casper mattress store, a brick-and-mortar iteration of a brand that existed exclusively online from 2014 to 2017 before it opened pop-up stores across the U.S. and then its first permanent location in February.

Instead of the typical mattress store where customers come in and try out a mattress for a moment or two with store personnel looming over, at Casper they can book 20-minute sleep sessions online for the chance to snuggle up and assess if it’s worth splurging $999 or even $1,999 on a better bed.

Technically, a Casper representative said, nothing officially prohibits booking multiple sessions back-to-back for a longer sleep session.

“It’s much more offering the private trial experience — but that being said, a lot of people do doze off, because our products are super comfortable,” she said.

Though the Casper representative wouldn’t discuss how much the 20-minute sessions boost sales, she said they do see a halo effect in the market surrounding its store locations.

“We recognize the customer journey is very unique,” she said. “A mattress is very personal and you’ll have it for several years. Some people might buy it right then and there, some might buy it online at a later date, but I’d definitely would say that having the Short Hills location fuels sales and growth online.”

Some national brands are downsizing their traditional layout for a smaller, boutique-like feel, cluing into the immersive nature JLL outlined as an experiential retail hallmark.

At the 3,580-square-foot Sephora Studio in Hoboken, the service area is a more central component to the store, offering a variety of free-of-charge services like mini-makeovers and color match services. At a normal Sephora, the service area might take up a tenth of the store, whereas at Sephora Studio, it takes up a quarter.

The Hoboken location opened in May and is only the second in the country. In a tech-laden experience, an employee wields a handheld gadget to the customer’s face to indicate useful information like its moisture level and undertones, best directing them to the right moisturizer or makeup for their skin.

Another tool called Virtual Artist uses augmented reality, allowing a customer to apply thousands of shades of eyeshadow, lipstick and foundation virtually on a mobile phone screen without ever getting a brush dirty.

Customers are also allotted free beauty and skin care services with the purchase of a certain amount of product — a free full-face makeover with a purchase of $50 or more, or hydrating facial when spending $75 or more.

“At Sephora, we are constantly asking ourselves how we can improve the client experience. One thing that we have learned and that remains constant for us: The best way to create meaningful connections with clients is through personalized experiences and a customized approach to beauty. Sephora Studio was conceived with this in mind,” said Rob Trujillo, vice president of stores, East.

In addition to being the most digitally enhanced stores, the consultants at Studio have five weeks of training before hitting the floor, earning them the highest levels of certification through the whole company.

Trujillo calls the service level at Studio stores “unparalleled.”

Cushman & Wakefield’s Townes said that’s how places like Studio keep customers coming through the doors.

“It’s not about just putting out your product on display and having [customers] see what they like to purchase,” he said. “They realize that having the customer interact with the product [creates] an experience. It’s become paramount to retailers’ success to differentiate themselves and stand out.”

An experience won’t replace the cost savings the internet offers for commodity items, said Brian Whitmer, executive director of the metropolitan area capital markets group at Cushman & Wakefield.

There are places where experiential retail will be effective and those where it won’t, Whitmer said. But in places where it is effective, it’ll stay that way, he added.

Bruce Condit, vice president of communications at Professional Retail Store Maintenance Association, used car dealerships as an example.

“If you’re a car dealer and you can get someone to test drive your car you’re probably six steps closer to selling it to them,” he said. “Shopping is no longer the destination. The destination is what I can experience, or how can I be entertained. That’s what’s driving retail at this point.”

Gabrielle Saulsbery
Albany, N.Y. native Gabrielle Saulsbery is a staff writer for NJBIZ and the newest thing in New Jersey. You can contact her at