Brick and Mortar Fights Back: How physical retail is reselling itself amidst digitization
By: Molly Rowan Hamilton
Like any self-conscious millennial, I’m painfully aware of my addiction to my screen. I use it to do everything. I chat, I read, I work, I share, I show-off, I sleuth. But one thing I detest doing on the web is shopping. I hate it. The sizing, the returns, the product recommendation algorithms stalking my every click, the “sorry, we didn’t have the broccoli in stock so we sent you gigantic asparagus instead”, or my personal favorite, “we saw you bought this pair of jeans, opt into our subscription service to receive a pair of jeans every full moon until you die.” I can’t stand it. When it comes to shopping, I’m a traditionalist. Yet according to a Shopping FM report in 2017, 51 percent of Americans prefer e-commerce over brick and mortar. Millennials are leading this charge: a whopping 67 percent of millennials prefer shopping online.
Since moving to New York a couple of months ago, it’s exciting to see that the traditional brick and mortar experience is definitely fighting back against the digitalization of retail. Refusing to be relegated to the old and passé and, instead, transforming itself to engage with consumers left, right and center. This makes sense. Let’s remember that despite millennials being digital natives, we’re also the generation that pride ourselves on being more interested in experiences rather than things – spending money on an Instagrammable trip, or a CBD-infused demonstrative cooking class, rather than buying something tangible and enduring such as a watch or handbag. Innovations in brick and mortar environments directly showcase a response to this. The shift from a more transactional relationship to a more engaging and dynamic relationship with shoppers is perhaps one of the most definitive shifts from the last decade.
Recently, I tried out a handful of New York City’s most inventive retail locations to understand how the brands and companies leading this experience-centric transformation in verticals such as technology, fashion and beauty are doing it.
Create a microcosm of the IRL experience
The SONOS store in Soho is one brand that is mastering the ability to encapsulate miniature and meaningful in-store memories that make their shoppers feel right at home. I didn’t really understand how sound could truly surround you until I dragged two of my friends to visit the SONOS store that I’d heard rumours about. We danced in one of their pods, which are designed to be small replicas of bedrooms and living rooms, transporting you elsewhere as soon as the music plays. Even with a song I’d never be seen dead listening to (sorry, Taylor Swift) I was able to use the product to build credibility in lieu of haphazard customer reviews. Somewhere in the middle of the SONOS store, when I’d stopped dancing long enough to look for my handbag, I added a SONOS system to my wishlist.
Make new connections by democratizing the opportunity
Rising rental costs in the centre of the city have massively contributed to the decline in brick and mortar opportunities. Combined with the proliferation of start-up brands, who are either unable to afford or choosing to forego the physical space, the direct-to-consumer option is a proven and cost-saving option. For some brands this has created a new trajectory of advancement that begins with e-commerce and, as profitability grows, can lead to brick and mortar opportunities alongside their booming direct-to-consumer model. Brooklinen and Casper are two such examples.
Other retailers have put two and two together. Showfields, the “most interesting store in the world”, invites you to come and visit the brands of tomorrow by inviting some of the most exciting e-commerce brands to set-up gallery-like spaces in the city. Founder Tal Zvi Nathanel has referred to it as a “headache-less solution for retail that lowers the barriers from clicks to bricks”. In doing so, Showfields has increased the opportunities for the shopper and democratized the reality for these e-commerce brands themselves, helping them to meet potential consumers, maybe outside of their core demographic who may not have discovered the brand with just an Instagram account and website. Showfields is like a pop-up collective, a glitzy new millennial mall giving the consumer a chance to interact with emerging or agile brands. Something so critical for both participants as we see the shopping voyage change.
Facilitate an inclusive space to discover
Another brand that really understands the importance of discoverability is Story at Macy’s. Story is located in 36 different Macy’s stores across the country and refreshes regularly under a different concept or theme. In addition to showcasing the latest make-up, candles and chocolates, shoppers can attend more immersive events. As a result, the store layout, product inventory and merchandising is always updating. You may find yourself in downward dog during one of the store’s yoga classes when, through your legs, you spot a replacement for that old water bottle you’ve been lugging around for too long. This is a new way of refreshing store layouts that has purpose and structure from the onset. Note, this is distinctly different to that annoying habit of your local grocery store, who unexpectedly rearranges the aisles, with the intention of sending you on a scavenger hunt to expose you to new products (in reality the sudden change leads to admitted defeat and bee-line to the exit).
Similar to Story, is The Phluid Project, challenging the exclusivity of brick and mortar retail experiences of the past, creating an ‘experiential platform’ that opens doors to everyone by eliminating gendered fashion and challenging the boundaries we’ve come to expect from clothing. There’s a line in their mission statement that stands out; “we check our assumptions at the door” and it’s certainly what I noticed as I entered. The founder, Rob Smith, is a former Macy’s, Victoria’s Secret and Nike retail executive. In the context of what he’s doing, he describes himself as a maverick. And in terms of brick and mortar retail – especially considering Smith’s past experience – this is truly challenging the norm. Of course, we all can shop free of gender constraints online, but The Phluid Project welcomes me out from behind my screen in a way that makes me feel safe to browse while ultimately helping me to curate my specialized wardrobe amongst a crowd doing the same. The brand brings together like-minded individuals who can share and connect over the brand’s values. There are no restrictions, reinforcing the brand’s open ethos. My boyfriend steps out clutching a bright pink teeshirt, me with a some loose fitting jeans, both with an unspoken understanding that we’ll probably swap when we get home.
Embrace a lifestyle and create a community shoppers want to be a part of
Saturday’s NYC in Soho has created a community that’s more niche. They describe themselves as a “hang out for some of New York’s most influential artists, surfers and thinkers,” based on the oh so aspirational town of Montauk. The store is a hang-out for people like the founders: good looking, New Yorker surfers. Every now and again I’ll take my laptop to work there, amongst other shoppers browsing over handcrafted surfboards, books, beach gear and clothing.
Every element of Saturday’s reflects the idea of a getaway. The mood is relaxed and unpretentious. A slice of sea-side life in the heart of the city. From the music to the barista, everyone feels distinctly distanced from the more stressed out New Yorkers I look onto rushing past the storefront outside. I consider buying a surfboard, but instead settle for something slightly more affordable – a latte.
So how do brands develop unforgettable in-store experiences?
There’s no denying that the digital shelf is the most prominent retail platform today. However, now more than ever, brands have an opportunity to rethink how they cement themselves more tangibly in the lives of their consumers. The focus needs to be on making connections by creating a positive and unique brand experience that they’ll remember forever. It turns out that having the chance to spit in the sink at Showfields is incredibly good at pulling me over the line on Instagram’s prized and pretty Quip toothbrushes (rather than sifting through the perfect product shots online) and that pretending to be in a music video at the SONOS is super effective at squeezing pennies out of me (rather than trawling through strangers’ reviews and comments on Amazon). Brick and mortar isn’t dead. It’s a proven power player in the customer’s purchasing journey and by partnering with creative and strategic branding agencies, brands can find the right positioning and routes to market, based on individual brand truths, ethos and offerings – ensuring an unforgettable and seamless brand experience from online, to offline and back again.