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Customer experience: The secret to retail success

Personalized customer service helped these retailers flourish

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Myrna Burlock reached into her kitchen cupboard one day and discovered she was out of olive oil. That fateful moment launched her out of retirement and into an unexpected, astonishingly successful business venture.

The olive oil Burlock had run out of wasn’t just any old brand from the corner store. It was a high-quality extra virgin olive oil from Provence, in southern France. And it smelled and tasted just like the olive oil she fell in love with as a child, when her mom used to smear it on Burlock’s skin to treat eczema.

But after calling suppliers, she discovered the oil from Provence wasn’t available in Canada. She had bought hers at an olive oil tasting bar in Arizona, where customers could sample various types of oil before buying.

That’s when inspiration struck. Maybe there was a market for the same thing in Canada. Burlock could order some for herself and at the same time turn her love of olive oil into a business. She and her husband Bill McArthur put the idea to the test when they opened the Liquid Gold Tasting Bar & All Things Olive, in Halifax’s upscale Hydrostone Market.

Taking a big risk

Burlock and McArthur knew they were taking a big risk. Liquid Gold’s launch in 2010 coincided with a rough economy and declining sales for many retailers.

“We were quite nervous about opening the store,” says Burlock, whose previous jobs included designing kitchens, driving a school bus and running a cleaning business. “We had no idea how to be merchants. Many people thought we were crazy.”

But the store was a success from day one. Business grew so quickly that customers had to wait in line outside to get into the busy store during its first Christmas shopping season. Burlock even ran out of oil to sell.

The couple has since expanded to five stores across the Maritimes and also opened six smaller boutiques offering their wares in other shops.

Focusing on customer experience

The couple’s secret has been a highly personal touch, with an emphasis on educating consumers about their products, which include balsamic vinegars. “Once you taste a good olive oil, you’re hooked,” Burlock says. “You will never reach for store-bought oil again.”

Liquid Gold’s success highlights important lessons for retailers in today’s quickly changing, ultra-competitive market, says BDC Business Advisor Chris O’Shea. Most important, he says, is creating a memorable customer experience, focused on personalization. “They’ve really understood personalization,” he says of Burlock and McArthur. “They make it a fun experience from the moment you walk in.”

The desire for a personalized experience is one of the most important trends driving consumer behaviour today, according to a BDC report titled Five Game-Changing Consumer Trends

The secret to personalization is to understand your customers, why they spend money on a product and how to reach them, O’Shea says. “You have to own your niche and form a relationship with your customer.”

O’Shea says Liquid Gold “has hit the right notes and tone” in its pursuit of personalization. O’Shea is a convert himself. He regularly shops at the Liquid Gold outlet in Halifax and gives its products as gifts. “You get a special experience that you won’t find elsewhere,” he says. “Trying before buying allows customers to make an informed buying decision. It’s the choose-your-own-adventure mindset.”

We’re old-school merchants—find the best products, become experts and share your knowledge with customers.

Exemplifying personalization

Burlock and McArthur seem to exemplify the personalization trend. It’s not unusual for them to spend up to 40 minutes with a customer, expounding upon olive oil’s health benefits and fascinating history (olive cultivation is older than writing).

Customers also get a lesson in how to sample olive oils using a technique called strippaggio. Akin to tasting wine, it involves smelling the aroma, then slurping the oil and savouring its fruity flavours and pungency.

The couple spends a lot of time on the road travelling between stores, making sure employees are educated on new products. The staff includes chefs and nutritionists. “We’re very careful about who we hire. They have to have an interest in healthy food and living,” Burlock says.

Creating a unique in-store experience

When the couple was approached with offers to franchise their outlets, they rejected the idea because they didn’t want far-flung cookie-cutter stores that lacked their personal touch.

“We want to be sure our presence is felt in every store as much as possible,” Burlock says.

The company supplements its physical stores with an attractive website that features an online shop and educational content on olive oil. Each store also has its own Facebook page, with about 4,000 followers in all.

However, the in-store experience is what fuels the business. The wife-and-husband team works hard to keep things fresh with constant innovation in products and merchandizing.

“We’re old-school merchants—find the best products, become experts and share your knowledge with customers,” Burlock says. “We love that experience.”

How to add the personal touch to your retail business

1. Know your customers

The better you know your customers, the more you can offer them a special, highly personalized experience.

2. Share your passion

Passion is infectious. Spend time with customers to educate them about your products and turn them into your ambassadors.

3. Keep innovating

Don’t be complacent. Stay on top of changing trends, and renew your customer experience to keep it fresh.

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