Monday, April 22, 2013

Driving the Downtown Experience

Williams-Sonoma offers demonstrations
of its products. 
I found my inspiration today in a two-year old article in the NYTimes ["But Will It Make You Happy?" NYTimes, 8/7/10]. While the article may be a tad dated, the question posed, "how do people derive happiness?" is timeless. The answer to this question holds significant implications for how we design and manage downtown environments. According to the article, new research suggests that "people are happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material objects." Some of the more relevant findings include:

  • "Make consumers feel special by giving them access to exclusive events and more personal customer service"
  • "Spending money for an experience - concert tickets, French lessons, sushi-rolling classes, a hotel room in Monaco - produces longer-lasting satisfaction than spending money on plain old stuff."
  • Recently public research examining nine major categories of consumption discovered that "the only category to be positively related to happiness was leisure: vacations, entertainment, sports and equipment like golf clubs and fishing poles"

If that is really true, then how should retailers - and the downtown organizations that serve them - respond? 

The Beanrunner Cafe in Peekskill, NY has a
kids room. What a great amenity!
In my experience, retailers and downtowns that are doing well are not just managing the sale of products, they are also curating an experience with the product. Consider retailers offer classes on how to use the product (i.e. Williams Sonoma cooking classes, or wine tasting at the wine store, or jewelry making classes at Michael's crafts). Downtown organizations might consider encouraging retailers to create these kinds of offerings, and then include these on a downtown events calendar that gets distributed widely throughout the community. I am also intrigued by businesses that really know their customer and offer complimentary amenities - like the Beanrunner Coffee House in downtown Peekskill, NY. Upon entry, I was delighted to discover a small play space for kids. Too bad I live nearly an hour away, or I would be there every weekend with my 3-year old son! 

Another implication for the commercial district manager is the need to improve the overall experience of visiting downtown. If you manage a downtown with a great restaurant row, work hard to make the window browsing - even if stores are closed - interesting and inviting. Encourage retailers to improve their window displays and keep them lit in the evening. The experience of walking hand in hand during an after-dinner stroll down a lovely street can be the sweetest part of the evening - the memory of which causes people to return again and again. 

Simply put, make your district not just about what you buy, but what you experience. 

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