For years, bakeries have created space for icers to show off their frosting prowess in front of customers in hopes of selling more cakes. But you don't have to be in the food business to amp up the interactivity with prospective buyers.
"We live in such an age of disassociation, with most of our customer experience ending up being with a call center in Mumbai," says Stanton Kawer, CEO of Blue Chip Marketing Worldwide, a Chicago agency that specializes in retail branding. One way to build a relationship with your product, service or the people behind it is to show customers how things get done.
Here are five different businesses that can attest to the benefits of letting customers watch their employees work:
Auto-repair shops have traditionally been among the biggest targets for customer complaints. But one Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company believes it has solved the problem of consumer trust. Honest-1 Auto Care, a chain of 26 auto-repair and maintenance shops, lets customers watch through a lobby window as their cars are being repaired.
"Many people like the knowledge that it's an option for them to watch their cars being worked on. Most customers will periodically stand at the window," says Jack Keilt, president and CEO. "With our name being Honest-1 Auto Care and the normal perception-mistrust of the automotive repair business, we wanted to create a way to build trust with our customers."
This "honest approach" results in customers referring Honest-1 to friends and family, Keilt says, as well as a lot of repeat business. Honest-1 estimates that about two-thirds of customers come back for future repairs.
RVP 1875, a furniture shop in Jefferson, Iowa, puts on quite a show for customers. Employees dress in clothing circa 1875 and build furniture using only 19th century tools and techniques. "Having people watch the process is a giant part of our draw," says Robby Pedersen, a furniture maker and owner of RVP 1875. "We double as a working museum, and I find that a typical customer is far more likely to order a piece after I demonstrate some tools and techniques of the trade. Our customers tell their friends and family about what they've seen and heard at our store and an order may come from that."
He estimates that 75 percent of buyers have watched him work before deciding to buy. In addition, RVP 1875 offers classes and apprenticeships in furniture making, as well as a general store where other artisans, such as tinsmiths, soap makers and stained-glass artists, perform their trade and sell their wares.
Many shops let customers get involved in framing a favorite photo or print. But the team at CanvasPop, a 6,000-square-foot art factory in Las Vegas, Nev., takes this concept one step further. Customers can watch their favorite photos go from printing on canvas to framing. "This is a way for us to show people our approach to handcrafting high-quality canvas prints," says Adrian Salamunovic, co-founder. "Our employees take great pride in their work. Having customers visit our art factory allows our employees to see our customers as real people – it's amazing for morale." Workers sign the back of each canvas with a sticker that says, "Lovingly Framed By ________."
"This touch really makes our products and the experience even more human," Salamunovic says. Another plus: Inviting in customers enables CanvasPop to get feedback. "We use this time together to ask customers questions about their product preferences," Salamunovic says. About 200 customers visit the factory each year, but the majority of orders are made online.
At Standing Sun Wines, a family-owned winery in Buellton, Calif., the tasting room provides a clear view of the processing equipment that de-stems, crushes, ferments and presses the grapes. So, while you sip wine, you can see how it's made, too. When people see multiple things going on, they inevitably begin to ask questions, says John Wright, owner and winemaker. "These questions lead to increased interest, and increased interest leads directly to sales."
Many people email Wright later to learn more about the wine that was being produced on the day of their visit. "I tell them which wine they saw produced that day and they buy it," Wright says. "They feel a connection to that wine. Maybe they saw it as grapes coming in on a truck or maybe they watched it being de-stemmed or crushed." Since the winery opened the tasting room in September 2011, more visitors have joined its cellar club, boosting club member sales by 50 percent.
Some people who visit Simon Pearce's pottery and hand-blown glass facility in Queechee, Vt., say they find it "hypnotic" to watch the craftsmen at work. "Allowing guests to visit our workshops and speak with our glassblowers is the best marketing we can do," Ross Evans, director of marketing, says of the more than 300,000 people who visit the manufacturing facility every year. "It's a real competitive advantage to allow guests to look under the hood and really experience the process."
Although Evans can't quantify how much customer engagement translates into sales, he believes the more educated customers are about the process of glassblowing, the more likely they are to buy a vase they've seen being made. "The reality is, so many of the things we buy today are made overseas, we have lost that connection to the maker," Evans says. "By keeping our workshops open to the public, we allow guests to feel deeply connected to the process of making glass, and in turn, they form a stronger connection to specific products. It also means they form a stronger connection to the brand."
Lambeth Hochwald is a freelance journalist, whose stories have appeared in magazines such as Coastal Living, O The Oprah Magazine, Real Simple and Redbook. She is also an adjunct professor at NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.