As a recent Apple convert, I was thrilled to hear about the new flagship Apple store in Shanghai—the first in the city and only the second in mainland China (the first opened in Beijing in 2008). Shrouded in secrecy for months, Asia’s largest Apple store is an impressive sight: a beautiful 40-foot glass tower welcomes visitors down into a 1,500 square meters store where they directly interact with an extensive selection of Macs, iPods and iPhones (though the new iPhone 4 is noticeably absent). Over 175 blue t-shirt clad Apple employees roam the vast space and answer questions at the world’s largest Genius Bar. On opening day, thousands of Apple enthusiasts and the just-plain-curious lined the plaza to await their chance to see this sight for themselves.
Just a few weeks earlier across town, iconic guitar-manufacturer Gibson had opened a flagship store of its own—its first location outside of the U.S. and only its third total. Though hundreds of its iconic Gibson guitars hang for sale on the walls, this store aims to sell an experience and serve as a creative hub as much as it intends to sell instruments. The location features a live-music stage that will showcase local guitar enthusiasts, product demos and jam sessions, as well as a bar—all designed to create an immersive, authentic Gibson experience that creates affinity for the brand.
Though the opening of an Apple or Gibson store might not be newsworthy in other markets these days, these recent Shanghai openings are an important step not just for the companies and their growth plans here, but also for the advancement of immersive, engaging brand experiences in China’s retail market. This market, which has surged in lockstep with increased consumer buying power, is too often undifferentiated and uninteresting. Product offerings seem indistinguishable from one store to the next, cookie-cutter store designs pay little attention to actual customer needs and buying behaviors, and poorly trained employees offer little reason, excitement or motivation for you to buy their products.
The hope is that brands like Apple and Gibson raise the bar for China’s retail experiences. Though retailers need not hire an architectural firm to design a towering glass entrance or turn every store into a “creative hub,” the fact is the store environment is the lifeblood for their brand and unmatched in its ability to present their brand in the way it is meant to be experienced. Both Apple and Gibson demonstrate how thoughtful physical expressions of their brand promise, differentiated product offerings and an inspired staff of brand evangelists can shape experiences that create lasting customer relationships.
Eric Lin is the general manager for the Siegel+Gale Shanghai office.