How Museum of Ice Cream gives customers a taste for experiential retail
The popular locations are filled with colorful, sensory-driven installations that encourage customers to interact with both the physical space and the staff.
Everything in the room is a bubblegum pink color — from the floors to the tiled walls to the pool floats, which lie casually around, leaving the surface of the water undisturbed. Except it's not water — and this isn't a pool. Well, it's not a swimming pool in the traditional sense of the word.
This is the Museum of Ice Cream — and the light pink rectangle in the floor is a sprinkle pool.
It's the dream child of Maryellis Bunn, co-founder of the Museum of Ice Cream, who "always dreamt of the ocean being filled with sprinkles she could swim in," Head of Retail Trina Chan said.
And it isn't a small business, either. Since opening the company's first location in New York, followed by more in Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco, the experience-heavy Museum of Ice Cream has seen over 1 million visitors — and a social media following of more than 300,000.
There's a lot to learn from the Museum of Ice Cream.
Art of the tangible, carefree experience
A $38 ticket will get you into the Museum of Ice Cream and guarantees ice cold samples along the way. But the merchandise — from ice cream cone earrings to pale pink sweatshirts — is exclusive and one of the many draws for visitors. It's an immersive experience that mixes a childlike fascination and a for-profit program.
One doesn't have to search online very long for a glimpse of the Museum of Ice Cream. Images of the dessert-themed rooms are plastered all over social media — and they’re filled with the faces of excitable kids and slaphappy adults. Say what you will about museums, this one is certainly not boring and experience is a key part of that equation.
"Every room within our exhibit plays to one of the senses," Chan told Retail Dive. "There's always something you can eat or smell or touch. This is something that everyone, regardless of age group, is drawn to and is able to really understand and appreciate."
And she's right. We've seen it in a countless number of studies exploring the in-store experience. Customers love to touch things. For 62% of customers, that's the main reason they head into a store, along with 49% who like the immediacy of taking items home with them. But how a store is set up can also have a big impact on customers — 84% of shoppers enjoy shopping more when there's music, for example, and 81% of customers say their mood improves when they hear it, according to Mood Media.
Fostering a positive, upbeat atmosphere is one of the museum's secrets to success, according to Chan. And the company makes an effort to create a sense of "childlike wonder" at each location — something they haven't found in any other retail environment.
"At our core, it's making sure that everyone can check their anxieties and their insecurities at the door," Chan said. "We foster a place that people feel comfortable in being themselves and talking to people and making friends and building those lasting relationships within our space. So if there's any feeling or emotion we want to convey, it's a feeling of inclusivity."
"Oftentimes I'll read about big companies focusing their sights on high-tech enhancements in the name of experiential retail, but technology is really only a small part of the overall pie."
Head of Retail at Museum of Ice Cream
It's easy to talk a big game when it comes to experience, but how do you go about actually doing it? For a retailer like Sephora, experience is created through playful store concepts, with tech-enhanced beauty bars and augmented reality apps. But Chan warns retailers to stay away from technology if it's not there to serve a real purpose — and claims that true experiential retail is much simpler to achieve.
"[Experiential retail] is misunderstood," Chan said. "Oftentimes I'll read about big companies focusing their sights on high-tech enhancements in the name of experiential retail but technology is really only a small part of the overall pie. At the core, all shoppers want the same thing: They're looking for a seamless experience that's customer-focused, informative and easy to navigate."
Art of the well-trained store associate
Colorful, engaging aesthetics and interactive displays will only get you so far, though. According to Chan, the real focus at Museum of Ice Cream is on the staff. The company places a huge emphasis on training employees so that they're familiar with products and comfortable engaging with customers on a one-to-one level — something Chan thinks the rest of retail could learn.
"It all really starts with the staff's knowledge," Chan said. "Regardless of how your store is set up, even if it's set up in the most beautiful way, if your salesperson can't speak to that product, to the benefits, or hasn't used that product and can't give recommendations as to how a user can implement it in their everyday lives — that's a huge loss."
"No one is behind the counter unless a visitor is ready to check out."
Head of Retail at Museum of Ice Cream
Not only is it a loss to the company, but customers take notice of how capable a store associate is. According to a study by Tulip Retail, 83% of customers think they're more knowledgeable about the product than the store associates. At the same time, 79% think it's important to be able to interact with store associates who actually know what they're talking about. Not being appropriately staffed is also a problem — retailers lost 6% of possible sales over the holidays because customers couldn't find someone to talk to, according to a report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management.
Understaffing is the antithesis of Museum of Ice Cream's model. According to Chan, "Nine times out of 10" a visitor's review will talk about the store associates and how much they liked spending time with them. The staff is encouraged to have meaningful conversations with customers, rather than just a quick sell — something Chan calls bringing back "the art of selling."
"The rule I always implement is that no one is behind the counter unless a visitor is ready to check out," Chan said, "and that's because visitor attention is key. We want to hear about each person's experience — what their favorite rooms were, which treats tasted the best, and of course gather any points that we need to improve on. It goes back to the importance of having sales associates who know how to tell the story behind each product … and of course it's a bonus if they're not afraid to dance along the way too."
Ultimately, it's a good day for Museum of Ice Cream if their employees are happy and excited about what they're doing because that same excitement will (in theory) carry through to customers. Chan notes that all members of the leadership team are still highly involved in the day-to-day activities of running the business, from working the register to welcoming guests at the front door — all in the name of creating an experience based on the happiness of the customer.
"My personal take on what experiential retail is comprised of," Chan said, "and I say this time and time again — it's 80% customer service, it's 15% product and then 5% add ons."
In this case, the add ons are things like AR, VR and other tech enhancements, which —while helpful — are not the end-all be-all of the customer experience. In fact, a recent study by Fujitsu found that 25% of U.K. retailers think technology actually disrupts face-to-face customer relationships, and consumers still aren't 100% comfortable with in-store tech like robots and chatbots.
Art of adaptability
It's often said that there can be no growth without change, but that doesn't mean retailers have to commit to upending their business model every few years. On the contrary, meaningful — if seemingly minute — changes and adjustments can go a long way in making the retail experience feel fun, fresh and intimate.
At the Museum of Ice Cream, that means making every single location unique. A customer will never find two rooms that are exactly the same, and the retailer puts efforts into making the museum a reflection of whichever city it resides in. In Los Angeles, that meant recreating the "Hollywood" sign so that it spells out "Ice Cream." In San Francisco, it meant building in a rainbow room to capture the diversity of the city and give a nod to the local culture. In fact, the only constant in each museum is the sprinkle pool — and even that changes shape depending on the location.
"We're sort of, of course, confined to our building space," Chan said of the challenges in designing a unique and interesting aesthetic. "The Los Angeles layout was a huge warehouse, and in San Francisco, we have the fourth oldest building in the city and it used to be a bank vault — so we sort of have to re-imagine our spaces."
But the uniqueness of every location is what keeps customers coming back. Chan notes that the company has a large following of repeat visitors, who come to every new location, knowing it won't be something they've seen before. Naturally, that means that spending plenty of time and thought on the design of each room and building is paramount. Not just to make sure that it's different, but also to make sure it's the same.
"I think it's the importance of consistency," Chan said, noting that the company has a guiding principle of keeping everything on brand. "Every time a visitor interacts with our brand, regardless if it's online or offline, they'll find that our brand elements are consistent. And I think without that system in place, it's very easy for any company, big or small, to lose sight of their brand identity."
A brand without a brand identity? Why, that would be like ice cream without sprinkles.
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