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Four experience-led retailers introducing discovery to their stores

Physical stores might be under pressure but with the trend of ultra-modern shopping spaces like Showfields and Neighborhood Goods introducing online-only brands within an exciting, frequently changing environment, the prospects might be more positive than anticipated.

Essential Retail brings you four immersive store concepts from the US that will encourage retailers to think about introducing an element of discovery into their stores. What all these retailers have in common is that they recognise that they have to give something new to customers who have lost interest in those physical stores that operate to traditional models. One step inside any of these stores will remove any doubt that retail is not dead.

1. Showfields

Tal Zvi Nathanel, founder and CEO of co-retailing store Showfields, says: “Many things we do are to the [traditional] rules of retail. It’s still all about discovery. This is what Selfridges did but some things have been lost in translation. We’ve not invented anything new, we’ve just brought it back. The future will be discovery within retail.”

Dubbed as “the most interesting store in the world”, the first Showfields unit in New York City opened a year ago and there are plans to open more locations following its success. The retailer sees the average visit time amounting to 33 minutes as customers engage with the rich environment, which at times feels more like an art gallery than a traditional store.

“We’ve open spaces and corridors of inspiration as well as public spaces where the brands can build a community. There is also a theatre area where 50,000 people have visited in the last three weeks,” explains Nathanel, speaking at NRF 2020 in NYC.

Customers are encouraged to book the free House of Showfields “immersive theatre experience” online due to high demand. On arrival customers go to the third floor and find a host with an iPad waiting by a bookcase, behind which is a slide down to hidden area on the second floor where they are encouraged to touch, smell, eat and test various products on display.

“We need to give them something of new value. We start with that [objective] and create something that they will remember. It needs to involve all the senses,” says Nathanel.

It isn’t just gimmicky playground slides which makes Showfields so interesting, but its use of technology. The store features facial recognition cameras and if a shopper signs up to hear more about the store and opts in to having their photo taken, store associates will be alerted when they enter next time in order to personalise their experience.

Technology is also used to attract online-only brands to take physical space and to make this process painless for them. “Every brand needs a physical presence but it’s hard to do. It does not necessarily fit their business models, its expensive. How do you translate 2D to 3D? And the most challenging aspect is meeting the expectations of the new customers out there. All this deters brands going physical,” explains Nathanel.

Showfields gives brands the online tools and reports to help them with these challenges and so effective are they that it can take a mere three to five weeks for a brand to open a space within the outlet – without having even set foot in the store. “Technology enables our business. The physical store is an extension of a website. From a brand and consumer perspective it’s an enabler,” says Nathanel.

2. Neighborhood Goods

Neighborhood Goods describes itself as a “new type of department store, featuring an ever-changing landscape of the world's most thoughtful, progressive, and exciting brands”.

Neighborhood Goods in Chelsea Market, NYC
Neighborhood Goods in Chelsea Market, NYC

Founded by British-born, Matt Alexander, the D2C department store currently has three US locations and works with brands with an interesting product or story, such as Rothy’s and Dollar Shave Club. The rotating cohort of brands pay a fixed fee per month and/or a percentage of their sales to feature in store and receive real-time data analytics.

Its Dallas HQ has 60 active brands which can use the space to test physical retail and merchandising strategies, while its smaller format Chelsea Market location has 43 brands in a third of the space. Alexander refers to this store as a “boutique” focused more on customer acquisition and data capture. The store is designed with change in mind, with display units on wheels to easily move the space around to accommodate events in the evening.

Neighborhood Goods showcases an "ever-changing landscape" of brands
Neighborhood Goods showcases an "ever-changing landscape" of brands

Speaking at an event organised by Salesforce at the retailer’s NYC store, Alexander says: “We are in many respects the most traditional possible version of a retailer, we just happen to run on much different technology and metrics than a typical retailer.”

One of these technologies is in-store beacons, which can recognise customers who are using the app. Shoppers can call for assistance using the app or simply sit in the retailer’s restaurant and have items purchased on their mobile device bought direct to them by a store associate. Meanwhile, cameras dotted throughout the store note customer demographics and dwell time, valuable information which is then passed back to the brand.

“What we’re trying to do is have a space, so if you’re a brand optimising around marketing and customer acquisition, we can capture that. If you’re here for sales, we have a really amazing staff who can help you through that process,” adds Alexander.

“The important thing is the balance of the art and science – there’s a huge amount of technology, but you’re not encumbered by screens everywhere, and we’re not trying to get everyone to use the app, there’s nothing [in store] that actively advertises the app. And we’re not trying to badger people with emails. Core to our philosophy is returning to the most traditional form of this industry and treat people with a certain amount of dignity and that fosters loyalty and repeat visits.”

3. Area15

Another operator bringing fresh thinking to the retail environment is Area15 that is being developed outside Las Vegas with the aim of bringing a new experience to people. Also speaking at NRF 2020, Dan Pelson, COO of Area15, says: “Our belief is that retail is not dead but needs to be completely reimagined from the ground up. There needs to be storytelling and connection with the customer.”

The 200,000 sq ft unit under construction will be a destination of retail, culture, music, food & beverage, events, and experiences. “We’re creating a destination where people get off their couches and put their phones down. It’s mall-like in that it’s free to enter and there are tenant spaces as well as an events space,” he explains.

The shopping destination will partly open from February 2020, with a full launch expected in April. It will also feature an experience incubation lab adjacent to the building through a partnership with Intel. The space will allow retailers and brands to test new design concepts and technologies in a controlled environment, before being trialled within Area15.

Pelson describes the space as a place where retailers can “bring creativity, art, technology and obviously commerce into a place where ideas can be formed, trialled and exported into our building, without that retailer having to worry about what the infrastructure will look like – it’s absolutely essential to any retailer’s future.”

4. Camp

Our final example is toy retailer Camp. Created by former CMO of Buzzfeed, which is responsible for disrupting the media industry through its use of content and commerce, Ben Kaufman launched toy store Camp. This toy retailer launched with experience at the front of mind – it is probably as far away from Toys R Us as a toy store could possibly be.

The brand now has five stores and is designed to encourage discovery. As you walk into its 5th Avenue store, Camp looks like a regular toy and apparel retailer, but behind a bookcase is 8,000 square feet of play. Store associates encourage shoppers to discover the “secret” behind the bookcase which is a themed area regularly changing to keep both adults and kids interested. On launch a year ago, the store’s ‘Behind The Door’ theme was a traditional American camp, other themes have included food, travel and a toy lab.

The retailer also offers food and beverages and members can take their experience to another level by taking part in private events and birthday experiences, as well as free gift wrap and a points-based loyalty scheme. Camp even offers ‘date night’ activity hours where parents can drop off their children after closing to go and enjoy an evening to themselves while their children are supervised playing in store.

We visited a smaller format Camp store at the new Hudson Yard shopping centre and while this lacked a secret back room, the store is built around a wooden climbing frame with a slides and a ball pit and children are encouraged to play and take part in workshop activities.  

Stores like Camp are proving that while retail isn't dead, boring retail surely is.
Stores like Camp are proving that while retail isn't dead, boring retail surely is.

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