Why the store of the future actually doesn’t want to sell you anything.
Warby Parker, Bonobos, and Kit and Ace have turned their stores into gathering places and social hubs. For them, stores are no longer strictly transactional.
As you push past the imposing, white double doors, and step into the lobby, the space opens up. High ceilings create a pleasing sense of depth. A network of track lights bathe the floor in crisp, bright light. Columns of bookshelves bursting with literature’s luminaries — Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Dumas (organized not by name or genre, but by color) — stretch high to the ceiling and flank you on either side. Towards the back, vintage issues of The Paris Review, and plush, mid-century armchairs invite you to take a load off and sink deeply into a good book.
It’s easy to get too comfortable in a place like this. But you’d be wise to remember that this wonderful place, Warby Parker’s grand SoHo flagship (designed by the esteemed Partners & Spade), is still, at its core, a store. By folding in elements of the home, signals of knowledge and culture, modern academia, and of course retail, Warby Parker gives us a window into the store of the future — one that cares just as much about selling you something as it does offering you a unique, downtempo experience.
It was Angela Ahrendts, former Burberry CEO, now head of retail at Apple, who once said, rather adroitly: “I don’t want to be sold to when I walk into a store. Don’t sell! No! Because that’s a turn-off. Build an amazing brand experience, and then it will just naturally happen.”
Borrowing her advice, there’s a reason why Warby Parker’s sales per square foot — $3,000 at last count — is on the level of Tiffany and Apple. What founders Neil Blumenthal, Dave Gilboa, and Jeff Raider understand, is that the store of the future — in a world where real-time delivery by drone might very well become a reality — must become a marketing channel. In many ways, this is a reflection of Warby Parker’s central model: a strong customer-centric approach, and sorting through data in order to provide highly personal experiences.
“The future of retail in today’s digital and connected age is tied to how companies and brands capture data and use it effectively in store,” says Nicole Victor, Partner, SVP Planning and Strategy of brand-building digital agency Rumble Fox, which lists Tiffany & Co. among its clients. She adds: “There is an opportunity in using data to arm salespeople with better consumer knowledge — so when someone comes into a store, their purchase, engagement and browsing history is known.”
Warby Parker isn’t alone among web-based brands rethinking the physical store. Many successful modern luxury upstarts, in fact, are rediscovering the advantages of physical stores. But they’re being smart about it: They’re revitalizing the store model by taking cues from digital behavior.
Chip Wilson’s Kit & Ace has opened a 60 locations in North America that double as community gathering places. (They’ve hit a rough patch recently for expanding to quickly, but their model is smart, and I’m sure they’ll get things back on track.) London’s Late Night Chameleon Café (LN-CC) is not a café, but rather an appointment-only boutique and private events space. Bonobos’ GuideShops are made for showrooming.
The efficiency of web-based business models means that modern luxury retails can offload much of their inventory, which frees up more time and energy to think more about how to better serve their customers and create a memorable lifestyle-oriented experience inside their stores.
And certainly, when it comes to presenting an outstanding lifestyle experience, there’s no confusion about what Warby Parker, LN-CC or Kit & Ace stand for. Each brand represents a distinctive lifestyle, and each uses their stores to articulate that unique worldview. There’s an appeal in the experiences these brands provide. They’re specifically designed to keep customers in their stores for longer, and they’re intended to transform their locations from transactional stores into cultural and social hubs.
For stagnant bricks-and-mortar retailers, this presents something of a quandary. They must now find a better way to capitalize on the opportunities that their different retail channels present in driving sales, increasing brand affinity, and strengthening customer loyalty. They must unite all their individual retail channels under a strong brand value proposition. And they must bring this value proposition to life as a strong customer-centric experience.
A consumer-first, experiential approach requires companies to reorganize their logistics, operations, fulfillment, customer service, and in-store talent management. No small feat, to be sure — but corporate silos, conflicting business interests, poor back-end systems, and misaligned sales incentives are not the future.
In that, retailers have no choice.
Lean Luxe subscriber Ana Andjelic is SVP of Global Strategy at Havas Lux Hub, a NYC-based luxury consultancy. This editorial is adapted from a previous version on Medium. The views reflected here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Lean Luxe.