Online shopping has decimated brick-and-mortar retailers, spurring the most innovative retailers to fight back with exceptional customer service and memorable in-store experiences that can’t be replicated online. They realize digital interactions can be cold and alienating, and consumers not only want but still need face-to-face interactions. Call it the personal touch. It’s a lesson multifamily housing developers and real estate asset managers should heed.
These retailers are maximizing the experience of shopping in person — an activity that already offers consumers enjoyable moments. Shopping can involve leisurely strolls (often shielded from bad weather by malls), stops to search for special items or see new things and a chance to meet and eat with family and friends. By adding experience design to the equation, brick-and-mortar retailers are creating customer interactions that will make lasting impressions, turn their shops into destinations and win repeat business.
Take the American Girl stores. They no longer simply have dolls on the shelves. A child can create and design clothing at a computer kiosk and have lunch with their doll at the café. Then they can both get makeovers at the salon. For other toy retailers, in-store play has morphed into party rooms with zip lines and bounce rooms, like the Toys R Us Adventure popups in Atlanta and Chicago. The Whole Foods shopper can browse the aisles with a glass of wine, and Wegmans customers can join employees in the produce section for stretching exercises. Retailers have advanced from in-store cooking demonstrations to Apple Store augmented reality sessions, Jo-Ann and Michaels quilting workshops and Lululemon yoga classes.
Multifamily housing developers and asset managers must embrace experience design in a similar way if they hope to survive and thrive today. An engaging customer experience must be a goal in designing, staffing and marketing rental communities to encourage prospects to move in and current tenants to renew leases. When tenants feel at home, they’ll plant roots. As real estate asset managers, we must want them to say, “I don’t want to leave because I have friends here. I love this place.”
At Origin, we’ve already embraced this strategy. Here are seven ways to enhance customer experiences to transform multifamily properties into places tenants want to live in and don’t want to leave:
1. Design to make life simple. Experience design creates a floor plan that makes it easy for tenants to work from home, stream movies or entertain friends. Folding furniture from wall beds to desks to modular sofas helps maximize space in small units. Well-lit countertops and shelves make task areas more functional. When units are renovated, keyless entry can reduce hassles not only for residents, but also for their dog walkers or delivery services. At a minimum, unit renovations should install enough convenience outlets to accommodate today’s wider use of monitors, computers and other electronic devices.
2. Serve tenants the whole enchilada. Consumer marketers stage popup events not only to build brand loyalty, but also to attract publicity — for example, when Taco Bell staged a hotel takeover in Palm Springs, California, complete with spa treatments. Rental communities can stage more modest events to attract attention before a leasing push. A weekend craft fair, parking-lot community event or other affair will raise the profile of the building and draw interest from prospective tenants.
3. Create a sense of community. Real estate asset managers can differentiate properties with amenities that build community, from coffee bars and group gardens to multifunctional gathering places or multipurpose craft rooms. A fitness center, lounge or dog wash station would not just add convenience, but also a place for tenants to meet. Equipped with video monitors for gameplay or TV watching, common areas will encourage neighbors to linger and socialize.
4. Make introductions. A fruit basket is all well and good on moving day, but a welcome package of takeout menus and discount coupons will help new residents make adjustments during their first days in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Real estate asset managers must set expectations for apartment managers to promote a customer service mindset. Apartment managers are matchmakers — they orient new tenants to the neighborhood and build an authentic community atmosphere. They should greet residents by name and direct them to local goods and services.
5. Break the ice. Apartment managers must be tasked with taking the lead in setting up social interactions among tenants. These can include potlucks, taco Tuesdays or other mixers. Some of our properties have event planners on-site, who organize pool parties or pet events in return for a rent discount. At a multifamily housing property in Georgia, tenants without family plans for Thanksgiving reserved the clubhouse to have a residents’ holiday meal. Successful event planning takes on a life of its own.
6. Create Instagram moments. As more rental community searches are conducted online, social media offers a powerful way for prospective tenants to picture a new lifestyle. Announcing a “Wine Down Wednesday” or other mixer on social platforms spreads awareness of the community’s sociability. When residents share their own customer experiences, their posts act as new tenant referrals. One annual survey consistently finds that consumers trust online reviews as much as friend-and-family recommendations.
7. Say thank you. A surprise bonus in a rental community is as welcome to tenants as an in-store sampling or a blue-light special is to shoppers. Free pastries, a happy hour or a unexpected customer service like car detailing are fun ways to show appreciation and form bonds with customers.
Real estate asset management must cultivate a customer service culture to capitalize on memorable experiences. Taking frequent tenant surveys will reveal both good and bad impressions, and the sign of a good apartment manager is a quick response to any lapses. The experiential design approach of multifamily housing can help all businesses improve their customer experience and get a new lease on life — and, more significantly, new or repeat leases from tenants.