06/17/2014 02:35 pm ET Updated Aug 17, 2014

Keeping Up With Consumers: Shoppers Shop for That Unique Experience

While walking up the familiar cobbled stoned streets of Arroyo de la Miel, a sleepy village in Southern Spain, I realised that I had walked right passed the hair salon where I had my appointment. I walked back down and still couldn't find it. How odd, I make it a point to visit this salon at least once a year when I am in Spain. Sheepishly, I asked a lady for directions, "I am looking for Juan." She pointed at a shop window directly beneath us, "right there," she said. I could have sworn that I'd looked in there and realised it's not the salon, but taking her word for it, I came down and peered in. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that the salon was now also a vintage clothes shop, and when I'd looked in quickly, I'd missed it entirely.

Innovating with retail space is now a pretty widespread phenomenon, in fact, at one particular store in Nolita, New York, I got to pet a rabbit, try on a t-shirt and sip a Martini while chatting about my upcoming trip to Los Angeles. For me, the process of buying a t-shirt had been transformed to cocktail party meets casual chat with 'friends'. For them, this was their opportunity to demonstrate to me that they really knew what I liked. Sometimes that means being able to buy socks at a household furniture shop or soap at a clothes store, but the message is clear: Let us tell you what you need and how you like it best.

Come to think of it, I seem to remember the rabbit and shop assistant more than the t-shirt (which I bought of course). What I didn't expect was that this 'multilayered marketing' approach would have also reached Arroyo de la Miel. While I browsed for a new skirt and waited for my turn, I thought of the types of questions brands and stores ask themselves these days.

Do you really know who your customers are? What do they look like, and where do they live?

To stay competitive and interesting, stores now need to give shoppers a good excuse to drop by. In fact, often product inventory is scarcer at the physical location, so retailers have to work even harder. Providing deep product expertise, or a unique experience, is an attractive approach, and makes the customer feel personally connected to the merchandise. Costumers will then make choices based on how they feel in that atmosphere. The same applies when making choices on services, there is no shortage of grocery stores in a metropolitan area these days, but how many actually give you the story of where the produce came from? Whole Foods, as it expands and becomes increasingly esoteric, has started doing just that; offering an individual story to assign to products, connecting consumers to the source by shortening distances through information.

As for Warby Parker, it's hard to say whether co-founder Neil Blumenthal and his colleagues would have gotten very far without the hipsters. On the subway headed to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I commented on how nice someone's glasses looked; "Oh thanks, they are Warby Parker, just like everyone else's."

What about the latest technologies?

One way to justify having a storefront these days given the strength of digital services is to merge the two together. For instance, Apple's new senior VP of retail and online stores -- Angela Ahrendts was hired to sprinkle some of her digital transformation onto Apple's retail strategy. Her revival of Burberry using innovative digital displays at the flagship stores in London caught Apple's eye as they hope to blur the lines between their digital and physical presence, and integrate the retail experience more tightly.

Savvy retailers have already started using data and analytics to think of new targeted promotions and to find new ways to segment customers. The New York Times use data analytics to dissect their reader base and, with figures for digital readers soaring, they have started segmenting depending on reader preference or loyalty to better tailor accessible content to user needs.

Are you using personal stories to shape marketing efforts?

Facebook, once a social enabler for staying in touch with friends, has now produced a data rich community of online trends. The suite of services once packaged and offered by Facebook have been broken down into bits and pieces and offered separately. Witty status updates? Pretty pictures? Connecting with friends of friends you found attractive? These focused offerings had a particular brilliance behind them; people led the efforts by highlighting their needs simply by interacting socially, and it is the marketer's job to facilitate it.

Social media has created the equivalent of a small village community relying on word of mouth to advertise and propagate ideas, products or services. The real power behind this community is that it is also readily available to the masses.

Back in Arroyo de la Miel, I asked Juan why he'd decided to turn his hairdressing space into a vintage store. It seemed Juan had identified and was now part of a movement he wasn't even aware existed.

"Well, Maria across the road lost her retail space, so we decided to split the rent on this space and I'd make room for her here. Plus, this way while people wait they can also browse and see if they'd like to buy something, no other hairdresser around here can offer the same thing, also, I guess her style fits my clients quite well..."

Whether or not the origins of product sharing was in real estate savings or not - when considering the location of my next hair cut, I'll make sure that at the very least I can walk out with a new skirt too.