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San Francisco store tour curated by Essential Retail & Pinterest

San Francisco, while a stone’s throw away from the technology influence of Silicon Valley, isn’t known as a prime shopping destination. Yes, you have a smart-looking Westfield featuring the usual line-up of pristine stores or the more questionable Market Street connecting the city’s financial district to the Tenderloin and Mission. But overall, retailers and brands don’t necessarily see San Francisco as a flagship destination, often choosing LA or NYC – and even London – instead. This leads to less retail technology and clever design featuring in the city than you would think, considering its fame as the start-up capital of the world.

On a recent trip to San Francisco for Dreamforce 2019, Essential Retail worked with Pinterest to curate a selection of interesting and innovative stores, which all had a common theme – digitally-native brands, some of which were trying out physical retail for the very first time. 

“San Francisco is a digital-savvy market and because of this, consumers are especially hungry for alternative ways to connect more emotionally with brands – more than just the traditional digital experiences,” explains Amy Vener, retail vertical strategy lead at Pinterest.

We visited stores including Everlane, Rothy’s Warby Parker, Bonobos and more – mapping out their locations on the Google Map at the bottom of this feature in case you want to visit yourself. Most were set away from the tourist areas of the city, and set in the various “hipster” neighbourhoods including Valencia Street, Hayes Valley, Pacific Heights and Cow Hollow. 

Taking a chance 

So in a time when headlines are screaming about store closures in traditional retail, why are digitally-native brands taking a chance on physical retail?

“Digitally-native brands are doubling down on their store investments because customer acquisition costs online are off the charts,” explains Rob Garf, VP of industry strategy and insights at Salesforce Commerce Cloud. “So where these well-funded digitally-native brands can throw a ton of money at customer acquisition online, they’re finding it’s not effective.”

Garf points to a sock brand called Stance, which reveals its physical retail stores are the highest performing customer acquisition vehicle. “Online digital marketing is just so crowded, there is so much demand for keywords, and you need to be where your customers are, which is not just coming up first on a search term, but embedding in social, messaging and voice.”

Pinterest’s Vener agrees. She says these brands are looking for additional ways to connect with consumers emotionally. “They want spaces to tell a broader lifestyle story that also leads to valuable customer acquisition as well as offers diversification from the reliance on sometimes more expensive digital platforms. Direct to consumer (D2C) businesses are realising that they can’t rely on just advertising on one platform as their only engine.”

She adds: “As more D2C brands enter the digital space, they realise their digital advertising strategy needs to diversify and they’ll likely have to seek out physical retail avenues to stay top of mind and competitive.”

Sustainability

Another trend which came out of our store tour of San Francisco – and indeed the wider Dreamforce 2019 conference – was sustainability. Vener insists: “If done right, sustainability is good for social sentiment as well as cost control. A double win!”

Meanwhile, Garf says: “Younger consumers are looking for purpose-driven brands.” He describes how these D2C brands are best placed to create an emotional connection with their consumers. Many of the stores in our round-up below featured greenery as part of their in-store design, as well as informative panels and features demonstrating their green credentials, almost like a museum.

#ERstourtourSF

So without further ado, we present to you our curated store tour. At the bottom of this article you will see each store has been pinned on a Google Map so you can easily visit on your next trip to San Francisco.

Everlane

Walking into this store on an early Saturday morning, I was surprised at how busy the store was while the majority of San Franciscans were still drinking their first lattes of the weekend. Talking of coffee, to use the changing rooms you have to enter your name into a tablet (or tell an associate) to join a virtual queue. Further tablets near the fitting room entrance help you browse more of the collection while you wait.

That was probably the most obvious use of technology in the store, the rest of Everlane’s efforts have gone into paired-back, Scandinavian–style design, with exposed whitewashed beams and pine accents intersperse with informative panels explaining the brand’s ethical standpoint.  

Warby Parker

Not a new store concept, the company was set up nearly a decade ago in NYC to disrupt the eyewear industry, moving it from pharmaceutical to fashionable. Despite not being a new player on the block, this store was worth a visit considering it has yet to cross the pond over to the UK.

The Hayes Valley store is themed like a library, with dark wooden panels and glasses frames laid out among books, the store played up to this “geek-chic” theme, offering customers hand-drawn maps providing the best locations in the city to go and sit and read a book. Metallic brackets, leather seating areas and floor level lighting, as well as spherical lampshades, all add to the library look and feel.

Interior Define

Headquartered in Chicago, this digitally-native brand allows customers to custom build sofas and chairs starting from $1,000. It now has six of these ‘guide shops’ to help customers touch and feel fabrics and navigate their seating options with the help of in-store colleagues or designated iPad devices.

Walking in, it seems like a regular medium-sized store for the size of the area, but as you step further in there is an atrium at the back, with double-height ceilings and dramatic metal structures, clad with large fabric swatches hanging from the walls.

Allbirds

This comfort-led sustainable shoe brand calls San Francisco its home with two stores in the city. Allbirds was founded five years ago and after a stint selling online has now 14 stores around the US, London and China. Celebrity-endorsed, this brand uses its Hayes Valley store to tell the story of the shoe’s main materials – either wool or bark from the eucalyptus tree. Light and airy, with lots of wooden, exposed beams, panels and framing, the store also features many plants and a feature wall to solidify its eco credentials.

Rothy’s

Rothy’s is yet another sustainable brand, this time using plastic water bottles to make shoes. This narrow shoe shop on Fillmore St gave plenty of space to its products – more so than the customers who had to squeeze to fit into the store. The framed back-lit prints and illuminated ceiling panels gave the illusion that the store is much bigger than it is and it too featured more pine panelling and left a perfumed aroma in the air providing a luxe touch.

Bonobos

This upmarket men’s store is another brand which has been around for a little while, with two stores in the city and 80 across the States. Dark wooden floorboards, funky framed prints and potted plants provide a stylish space. These guide shops carry limited inventory and exist to offer a personal stylist and fitting service. The store uses iPads for collecting measurements with the idea that a customer can go online or into another store and not have to be measured again.

UNTUCKit

Untuckit is a unique brand, which has very recently entered the UK. The brand sells shirts which are designed two-inches shorter than normal from wrinkle-free material, allowing customers to wear them untucked, but remain smart.

Another store with a premium feel from the leather chairs, warm wood and a nod to its heritage with a large US flag. The store also features novel additions such as vintage suitcases and wine racks adapted to present its apparel products.

Other notable stores to visit

  • Parachute: Another beautifully presented digitally-native store on 445 Hayes St, warm and welcoming with so much texture from premium bedding and homeware on offer.
  • Café X: Fancy your coffee being served by a robotic barista? Better head to one of Café X’s three San Francisco branches.
  • b8ta: Headquartered in San Francisco, this “retail-as-a-service” company has 12 stores and a number of concessions which provides a space for users to get their hands on consumer electronics goods.
  • Target Open House: Set downstairs in Target’s 115 4th St store, the retailer welcomes customers into its smart home. In a similar vein to b8ta, the retailer allows customers to see technology products in-situ and offers them the chance to try them out and ask questions of the store staff.
  • Decathlon: The Decathlon on 735 Market St has a number of in-store innovations, including a shelf check inventory robot, nicknamed Tally, and ‘RFID Trollies’ which help store associates speed up check-out. Read more about the Decathlon store here.
  • Amazon Go: No need to go into too many details (although more insight can be found here), but San Fran boasts three of the retail giant’s digital convenience stores at 575 Market St, 98 Post St and 300 California St.
  • A blank canvas offering?: One of the big problems about big cities like San Francisco is that the leases are very expensive. Garf tells Essential Retail this is leading to a number of “blank canvas” stores popping up around the US offering customers an ever-changing store concept to promote interest and intrigue. Neighborhood Goods has three stores in the US, while Showfields in NYC is dubbed ‘the most interesting store in the world’ and Re:store off Union Square in San Francisco brings brands from ‘URL to IRL’. Garf calls these a “new generation of shopping malls” which give brands a space to test stores without making a full commitment physical. Indeed, back in the UK, TfL recently crowned Sook Retail the winner of its innovative retail competition. Sook’s technology fits out empty shops with an AR digital wallpaper, which allows multiple retailers to occupy a space during the same day.