The cruise retail recipe for success – a column with Harding+

In this contributed column dedicated to the cruise sector, leading retailer Harding+ shares the four key strategies to optimise this on-the-move retail experience for a willingly captive audience.

There is no more dynamic part of the retail world than the cruise space. No other arena changes physical location, destination vibes or season in the same way, if at all. And sometimes radically from the Fjords to the Caribbean within the same host ship, depending on time of year.

No other retail hub serves an audience happy to be captive and actively looking to shopping as a daily entertainment (or education) activity. Which is a massive opportunity for brands looking to build deeper levels of audience engagement.

At Harding+, where the mission is to make every cruise better for guests, live and fluid retail planning harmoniously blends well-honed science and large doses of art. There is no room for retail to be boring or to lack freshness. There is a constant need to work with the changing dynamics and broadening demographics of the cruise guest.

The optimal cruise retail experience needs to factor in four key strategies – store design, brand theatre, exclusivity and efficiency; all of which need to be informed by deep and reliable data mining and, for Harding+, an unparalleled investment in understanding cruise guests.

Brand theatre and engagement to the fore onboard Sun Princess

Smart store design

This is about thinking above and beyond four walls in layout and design, and about the need to compete with and outplay the best of landside retail, so that the cruise experience feels different, tailored and guest first.

Harding+ has recently partnered with the two biggest launches of the year, onboard Princess Cruise’s Sun Princess and Cunard’s Queen Anne, and for both retail design was paramount.

Fitting the style of each ship and its personality is the bespoke start point. It is not a rinse and repeat model, but about creating a one-off experience that fits with the guest flow rather than being interruptive for the wrong reasons. As well as being smart around available space.

For both Sun Princess and Queen Anne, different takes on open design have been built into the core of the model.

“Whatever the size and scale of the ship, collaborative ‘what if’ thinking powered by data around people, products and retail trends are at the heart”

On Sun Princess, broad bay windows along wide aisles enable guests to see more of the store interiors while moving through the ship. Taking advantage of the natural light, these retail walkways play host to pop-up shops and specially curated selections to turn heads. Most retail units also benefit from lounge and seating areas to encourage the idea that it’s a place passengers can spend time, rather than just shop.

For Queen Anne, a similar focus on natural light and retail warmth was a priority. At the heart sits an ‘Experience Lounge’, designed to give guests more hands-on time with brands. As heritage is a key part of the Cunard story, the stores are peppered with historical information, both digitally and in print, to land the unique cruise persona.

Whatever the size and scale of the ship, collaborative ‘what if’ thinking powered by data around people, products and retail trends are at the heart, together with careful space planning and a goal to build an appealing guest journey – key to this can be brand theatre.

Building the beauty offer onboard Sun Princess

Bringing brands to life

Cruises are experiential in nature, delivering a heady blend of the entertaining and the educational. Onboard retail needs to match in energy, the presentation of something new and content that engages the guest full on.

Harding+ guest data makes the appeal of special experiences abundantly clear, and resulting sales data from those brands that invest in the above and beyond matches that insight with commercial rewards.

The interactivity often includes mixology workshops, beauty seminars, watch care masterclasses and insightful behind-the-scenes and ‘money can’t buy’ talks from brand founders and ambassadors.

Product showcases are elevated to levels that bring a range to life with backstory, with live digital displays or the opportunity to get more hands on with the detail and take things beyond a casual browse.

Livening up logo onboard

Harding+ retail teams are primed and trained on all the intricate details of the brands and products, with a mission to bring those stories to life when engaging with guests. On Queen Anne, this extends to a personal shopping host who can guide passengers through their retail journey.

High-end level of detail and guest attention always makes the difference; with the goal of showcasing a retail experience that is something they won’t experience anywhere else. Stand out and talkability matters for the captive audience.

On Queen Anne, a highly talkable brand theatre centrepiece is the Cabinet of Curiosities. A one-of-a-kind immersive and multi-sensory gallery, state-of-the-art screens and illuminated cabinets for an eclectic and rare set of brands and ‘curiosities’ tell the Cunard story. Available to both admire and buy, many items have never been available at sea before.

Which links to the third part of the recipe: exclusivity.

Putting vision into practice: Queen Anne, Cunard’s largest ship to date, features curated brands, experiences and customer insight-led detailing

Exclusives and firsts

Brands see the value of being part of the cruise model at all levels. Global icons, punchy challengers, sustainable pioneers and destination-driven local heroes all play a part in a smart curated retail mix.

But for each new or refurbished ship, the opportunity to look afresh at brands and products that have never been sold on that cruise line, or have never been sold at sea at all, creates fresh energy, guest hype and anticipation, and opportunities to do something new. All partners win: cruise line added value, guest intrigue and brand opportunity to add levels of understanding and immersion behind their product or range.

The promotional journey for a brand or product new to cruise takes in digital pre-cruise marketing opportunities as well as on-board publicity and can shape and input into the retail space planning. When global brands introduce new retail concepts and products, that can spark fresh store design. When bespoke blends of classic drinks brands land exclusively, the taste and trial experience bleeds from retail into onboard bars and serves. When pioneering newer brands arrive, the energy of a founder or ambassador often accompanies that launch to maximise the stand out and storytelling.

All can come with appealing promotional strategies in cabin and across the ships to boost their new-to-sea debuts, and Harding+ also works in partnership to create special ranges totally exclusive to a specific ship. For example, on Princess Cruises Pendleton recently produced a blanket specifically for Alaska voyages, lovingly handmade and designed to honour the beautiful landscape, something which naturally earns storytelling and promotional support.

Being able to say ‘first-at-sea’ is the initial stepping stone to something amazing, so long as that lands with the right level of efficiency behind it.

A prominent place for pre-owned luxury, a growing category onboard


Less visible but fundamental is the logistical underpinning of everything for a global on-the-move industry, and the ability to pinpoint locations, stock supplies, product-demand bursts and fulfilment levels behind the brand theatre and marketing designed to drive sales.

Automation can be key here for efficiency, and Harding+’s investment in the Dataviva system delivers incredible accuracy, automatically detecting the most efficient route and direct delivery plans for each item depending on where the ship will be travelling.

Dataviva uses the supply chain infrastructure to ensure orders are placed at the right time to move through supply chain and meet customer demand. Speed, trust and reliability are at the core, but real-time value means that even when a ship is mid-voyage, the products on offer need not be static and can change to match weather, mood or destination.

Which brings things back to the sector dynamism, the guest-first mission and the data that drives decision-making.

Cruse retail is so much more than a price-led sector. It’s a proving ground for brand elevation and understanding, for trial and for guest delight. Nowhere else allows for the level of audience engagement and time to invest in a brand. Which is why the creative inputs on intelligent design, head-turning activations and firsts succeed at the heart of the model. ✈

*This feature first appeared in The Moodie Davitt eZine. Click here for access.

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