How Retailers Boost the Customer Experience Through Building Community

Today, some of the best shopping inspirations come from an unexpected source: the heart and soul of your customers. And few places spark that inspiration better than community. If you want to show your retail audience that you understand them, that you care about their values—if you want them to spend their money and time with you—then you need to embrace their local community, its philanthropic heartbeat, and its beloved artisans.

Physical store retailers are vulnerable to e-commerce. The best way to draw shoppers into brick and mortar stores is to create a connection beyond the transaction. In order to move forward, both large and small retailers need to get beyond the efficiencies of uniformity and look back to the days when stores naturally supported their communities.

Uniformity is great in many respects. You can always count on a Starbucks latte to have the same robust flavor in Miami as in Minneapolis. Fall asleep in a Marriott hotel room—and wake to the same setup, in Dallas and Denver.

But there’s a limit to the comfort of uniformity; after all, we’re human. The expected is nice, but the unexpected is what you remember.

Empower your store managers to drive community in-store

Shoppers crave authenticity—especially Millennials and Gen Z’s. But unless a store manager is empowered with local decision making, it’s impossible to generate real traction (and we use the word “real” deliberately!).

Here’s 6 ways physical stores can boost customer experience in their communities:

  1. Invite locals to share their knowledge
  2. Share space with community
  3. Organize interior space to foster community dialogue
  4. Special collections create strong connections
  5. Champion young local brands
  6. Bring it all together with displays that create a cohesive vision

Lululemon’s store designs represent an understanding of its customer base. “The Hub” features inviting spaces to hang out and relax away from the selling floor.  Lululemon invites guest instructors to teach early morning and end-of-day classes in their stores. Managers enthusiastically post pictures and profiles of these local events to social media and loyal customers (and their friends!) turn out in droves. And through its Here to Be program, Lululemon is bringing yoga and meditation—the cornerstones of what that brand stands for—to underserved populations across local communities. They are even providing space in Lulu’s stores for nonprofits to host training sessions.

Image result for lululemon flatiron
Photo credit: Lululemon

Starbucks found its footing not only in creating community with cozy open seating but by prominently positioning their community bulletin boards (as seen below) where they’re easily accessed, and willingly donating cartons of “joe” to local fundraisers – from bike tours to school carnivals. But Starbucks also recognized that local communities could use a helping hand. In 2015, it launched Community Stores. Aside from hiring underserved populations, it partnered with local women and minority-owned businesses and set aside space for classrooms to provide in-store training for young people who aren’t in school or working.

Image result for starbucks community board
Photo credit: Starbucks

The Urban Outfitters’ Community Cares initiative brings together community in an assortment of ways: through specialized collections, active engagement with local fundraising activities, and community building. According to their website, “UO Community Care projects are brought to life via in-store displays. We invite our customers to connect in-person with like-minded peers in order to promote the importance of dialogue, interpersonal exchanges and working together.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. While other youth-oriented brands flounder, UO’s authentic and inclusive connection has made it a favorite of both millennials and Gen Z. Recently Forbes proclaimed, “Urban Outfitters riding high on increased consumer spending.”

Recreational Equipment, Inc. similarly brings a devoted coterie of nature lovers, cyclists and campers together to its stores. As a co-op with a passion for the outdoors, REI has always been about community. Now, newer REI stores are turning sales space over to community space with an amazing array of daily activities throughout the year. The Washington, D.C., flagship (the co-op’s fifth) features in-store classes and shops that flow into common areas so that all visitors can be inspired and delighted by new information and how to get the maximum enjoyment out of nearby recreational areas.  The June “100 Days of Summer” in-store Calendar Display is packed with daily happenings that make REI an inclusive HUB of the communities and interest groups it serves.

Supermarkets have long been a staple in their communities, allowing girl scouts to sell their cookies and the Salvation Army to install their red kettle in front of their stores. But Whole Foods showed a whole new way to support communities. Like a lot of large food retailers, they make generous in-kind donations to local fundraising events. WF also champions young brands—packaged baked goods, pasta sauces, snacks, and beverages—and local producers. Despite having a national footprint, WF makes room for up-and-comers in local stores. Some of these packaged goods have gone on to having shelf space across the national Whole Foods network (let’s hope this community spirit continues under Amazon’s ownership!).

As a family-based business, ShopRite, the largest retailer cooperative in the U.S. with headquarters in New Jersey, has long been an ardent supporter of local food banks. Now they are also bringing their community emphasis in-store. Under ShopRite’s banner and the tagline, “Helping Families Live Better”, they are giving greater attention to initiatives like Bagging for Charity, food collection events, food rescue programs, and holiday donation bags. With floor to ceiling signage, they are inviting the community in so that food insecurity can go out.

Wegmans, based in Rochester, NY and also family-owned, places a similar emphasis on helping the hungry. But this brand, with an enviable cult following (read the press about its upcoming store opening in Brooklyn to the delight of “Wegamaniacs”), finds room to tie into and promote local events outside of the food sphere. With displays for local sports teams gear and other fundraisers, Wegmans lives the mantra supporting its local communities.

Unless you do it on time, in full, at every site, you are not executing at all

The revitalized in-store experience paradigm

Walking into a store and feeling pride for your community, engaging with local nonprofits, partaking in hands-on learning, joining in lively discussion, and being exposed to new products and rising artists – these are experiences that can’t be replicated on a screen. Some large retailers baked the community experience into their DNA decades ago. They don’t see themselves residing in a community, they see themselves as part of their communities.

Create customer experiences that engage, involve, and excite and everyone benefits. Shoppers look to physical retail as more than a place for transaction, they look to it as a place for bonding, support, and surprise.

With more than 50 years of retail marketing expertise, Medallion Retail knows how to marry large scale efficiencies with local execution. To boost both your community presence and your customer’s experience, please visit our website at

About the Author

author bio

Michael Decker is the Vice President, Marketing Strategy at Medallion Retail and its wholly-owned subsidiary MR Pop-Up.  Medallion Retail is a leading retail marketing agency that plans, creates, produces and supports customized retail signage and displays – creating in-store shopper moments® for retailer and retail brand customers around the world.

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