With foot traffic expected to be down by at least 25% this holiday season, more and more retailers are adopting virtual events to drive engagement and build community. In this short post, we’ll take a look at five retailers who are using online experiences and virtual events to their advantage.

The trend of retailers leveraging online experiences such as classes pre-dates COVID-19 but has accelerated this year. The social restrictions in place in much of the world have unlocked creativity and ingenuity from brands, something we tracked in a recent analysis of over 200 branded experiences, the insights of which are available in an ebook

How’s it going?
Online experiences are proving to be very popular with consumers and lucrative for brands. In fact, in a recent poll by AnyRoad, we discovered that 51% of retailers ran their first online experiences this year and that 61% are very satisfied with performance.

Classes appear to be the most popular format for online events and experiences. They account for 27% of the experiences tracked in our analysis. We believe this is because of the lower production values required for classes. In fact, four of the examples we reference below are classes.

In terms of technology of choice, most retailers are using Zoom (31%) but Instagram Live is a close second (29%).

In terms of challenges, measurement is the biggest challenge with 47% of poll respondents citing it as their biggest challenge.

Now, let’s take a look at the brands.

Michaels Stores
The Michaels Companies, Inc. is North America’s largest retailer of arts and crafts materials. With 1,250 locations across the US and Canada they are a go-to destination for Makers of all ages.

Michaels Community Classroom program pre-dates COVID and at its peak, involved 20,000 in-store classes per year. 

Like countless other businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic struck the core of Michaels business. 

Because Michaels recognized the value of community, continuity of the Community Classroom experiences became a priority. This strategy centered on a pivot to online classes and today Michaels offers up to 30 weekly classes. Viewership of these classes is growing between parents and kids. Over only a six-month time frame, they recorded over 400,000 sign-ups.

Michaels Online Classes Retailer

H-E-B
H-E-B Grocery Company, LP is an American privately held supermarket chain based in San Antonio, Texas, with more than 340 stores throughout the U.S. state of Texas, as well as in northeast Mexico.

The brand has experimented with a number of virtual event formats this year including a special graduation event, a running of the bulls and more recently investing in online classes in time for the holidays.

Sur La Table
With one of the most established in-person experience programs in retail, Sur La Table expanded their online classroom offering this year. For those less familiar, Sur La Table, Inc. is a privately held retail company based in Seattle, Washington, that sells kitchenware including cookware, cutlery, cooks’ tools, small electrics, tabletop and linens, bakeware, glassware and bar, housewares, food, and outdoor products.

Customers are drawn to their experiential retail stores by enticing design, carefully curated products and an excellent selection of classes. The brand has been making investments in building their digital footprint and online classes are a tenet of this strategy. 

These experiences, delivered by Sur La Table’s in-house chef’s and experts are wonderfully engaging and authentic. 

Sur La Table Virtual Events

John Lewis
On the international front, John Lewis & Partners (formerly John Lewis) is a brand of high-end department stores operating throughout Great Britain, with concessions also located in the Republic of Ireland and Australia.

What’s interesting about their online classes is that they involve partnerships with brands such as Glenfiddich. Bringing tastings like this online adds extra reach to sampling that may have been done in-store previously.

John Lewis Online Whiskey Tasting with Glenfiddich

Dicks Sporting Goods
Dick’s Sporting Goods, Inc. is an American sporting goods retail company, based in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania. The company was established by Richard “Dick” Stack in 1948, and has approximately 850 stores and 30,000 employees.

The brand has been experimenting with multiple types of online events including a virtual marathon in Pittsburgh as well as virtual meet and greets with sports stars.

The sponsorship / partnership model for the Pittsburgh marathon is an interesting use case that I expect more of in the coming year.

Dicks Sporting Good Virtual Marathon

Parting thoughts
This list is just a snapshot of the retailers adopting virtual events. A quick search query of your favorite retailers or a visit to our idea list will uncover more. 

With budgets for virtual events set to increase next year, if you have yet to run an online experience, now is the time to get started.

I’ll leave you with three tips to maximize impact:

  • Establish a measurement framework – If you aren’t capturing data, generating feedback or measuring results, you will face an uphill battle. AnyRoad has plenty of advice on measurement including leveraging Brand Conversion as a leading indicator of success.
  • Think about multisensory – The most successful online experiences trigger the senses. This can be accomplished by tying experiences to physical product, direct mail or audio. Read more here
  • Take inspiration from others – Your first events don’t have to be groundbreaking in their creativity. Look to other brands for inspiration. I hope you will find some here.

AnyRoad is here to support you on your virtual experiences journey. To learn more, check out AnyRoad AtHome or contact us.