Squirrel Spotting: The Sensory Experience in Retail

IndependentsDec 13, 2016

Squirrel Spotting: The Sensory Experience in Retail

Peter Smith shares snapshots of three jewelry stores that he says knock it out of the park when it comes to the retail experience.

Examples of great retail touches include, clockwise from top, the showcases at Roberson’s, the exposed brick walls at Kevin Main Jewelry and the “Love Wall” at Ottawa jewelry store True Bijoux.

If you are even a casual reader of books, blogs and articles on the changing retail dynamic, you can’t help but notice how often writers address the necessity of creating a great retail experience.

Peter Smith has more than 30 years of experience building wholesale and retail sales teams. He currently is president of Vibhor Gems.
Years ago, we would have interpreted that concept to mean having great salespeople, providing excellent service and, potentially, having a fish tank, a children’s room stacked with Disney videos and an ample supply of beverages for your customer. But, times have changed.

When we hear the retail “futurists” or branding experts like Doug Stephens (The Retail Revival), Martin Lindstrom (Buy-Ology) and Sanford Stein (Retail Schmetail) speak or write on the topic, they take the idea of the retail experience to an entirely different level.

In their world, it becomes sensory and experiential, and the decline of standard malls--coupled with the ascendency of more lifestyle shopping experiences--would seem to support their premise.

So, what does the concept of sensory and experiential mean for independent retail jewelry stores?

One of the great joys of my job is that I get to visit retail stores all over the country on an ongoing basis. I see the good, the bad and the indifferent, and I’m always on the lookout for interesting elements or experiences as I soak in the environments.

While there are numerous examples of interesting stores to choose from, I’ll pick three that caught my attention for different reasons.

From the first time I visited, I became a fan of Roberson’s in Little Rock, Arkansas. Before you even enter the store, the custom-made door handles (see below) are a great touch that promises more to come once the customer enters the business.

A shot of the interior of Roberson’s Fine Jewelry in Little Rock, Arkansas provided by the author

Once inside, Trish Roberson’s signature (and her background in interior design) can be found in a multitude of carefully chosen details, from the paint colors on the walls to the contemporary light fixtures and the interesting cases, which reminded me of the original De Beers store in London, albeit executed in a much more cohesive way at Roberson’s.

Then there is Kevin Main Jewelry in San Luis Obispo, California.

A shot of the inside of Kevin Main Jewelry Design & Studio in San Luis Obispo,
California provided by the author; below, an employee training session taking place in the store

With a floor made of old-growth Douglas firs and walls of original, exposed brick, Kevin and Kathi Main have created an exciting environment that seems to be of its town (as a point of reference, San Luis Obispo is the only North American “Blue Zone,” as detailed in Dan Buettner’s book The Blue Zones) while setting a higher bar for other retail establishments in their market.

The store is welcoming and authentic, with complementary product stories and a great use of the space.

And lastly, it is impossible not to love what Lindsey Appotive has done with her store, True Bijoux, in downtown Ottawa. There are so many great details in this otherwise narrow and challenging space that it would be hard to imagine any scenario that could improve upon what she has created.

The author’s shot of the interior of Ottawa jewelry store True Bijoux and, below, the retailer’s “Love Wall”

It’s a great space, from the front window displays to the bold choice of colors inside to the “Love Wall,” which is executed beautifully and with a touch that’s indicative of the store’s culture of re-imagination and re-purposing of materials and customization.

As I thought about these three retailers, it seemed to me that as different as they are in so many respects, they had two things in common.

In the first instance, the physical retail stores were respectful of their immediate environments, even as they set a bar just a little higher than their neighbors. They did not stand out for the wrong reasons, i.e., “Let’s do something different to be different!” I was reminded of how the early Starbucks stores seemed to be more cognizant of the physical space around them and worked within that, even as they put their own unique spin on their space.

The second thing I noticed about these three operations is that their unique aesthetics--colors, displays, lighting, music, flooring, etc.--underscored their particular business DNA.

You can sense the synergy between what they are communicating and to whom they are communicating it; Lindsey’s message of fun and affordable re-purposing, Kevin’s message of quality and authenticity, and Trish’s message of catering to customers with a discerning taste and a desire for a special experience.

Robin Lewis and Michael Dart wrote in The New Rules of Retail: “We believe neurological connectivity is achieved when a retailer, brand or service creates a strong psychological and emotional response that operates on a subconscious level for the customer in a way that is typically neither readily understood nor necessarily recognized by the consumer.”

It is true that it is oftentimes easier to recognize something special than it is to articulate what it might be. In the case of Roberson’s, Kevin Main and True Bijoux, they’ve knocked it out of the park and they ought to be an inspiration to anyone who treasures great retail experiences.

Peter Smith, author of Hiring Squirrels: 12 Essential Interview Questions to Uncover Great Retail Sales Talent, has spent more than 30 years building sales teams at retail and at wholesale. He currently is president of Vibhor Gems. Email him at, or reach him on LinkedIn.
Peter Smithis president of Memoire and Hearts On Fire, and author of three books, “Hiring Squirrels,” “Sell Something,” and “The Sales Minute.”

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