Fashion has a tendency to suffer from collective amnesia. Trendy but questionable concepts tend to die a quiet death in order to free the industry from embarrassment of unfulfilled promises. One of these silent casualties is “experiential shopping.” The term came in vogue earlier in the last decade when the fashion industry decided that customers wanted more from stores than a convenient location, a cool interior, an assortment of desirable product, and great customer service. The specter of e-commerce was brandished before retail executives that spurred them into a do-or-die frenzy. Lounges, live events, interactive art, virtual reality changing rooms, digital mirrors were touted as remedies for failing brick-and-mortar retail. Needless to say, only retail conglomerates and corporate brands with deep pockets could afford to invest in such expensive toys.
Today, few people talk about experiential shopping. It turns out that the vast majority of fashion customers don’t really care for headache-inducing sensory overload, or for the novelty pizzazz. Experiential shopping has gone the way of the Google Glass.
My own realization of what experiential shopping really is happened in Rome about five years ago, at the height of that buzzword being thrown around all corners of the retail universe. I was spending the weekend there before heading to Paris Fashion Week. I love the city and I find its rich history and culture uplifting. I am not an avid shopper, but I am an avid browser, and no city visit for me goes without going to stores. And so I found myself standing in front of the Spanish Steps, where Rome’s luxury shopping district is concentrated. As I walked up and down the blocks full of luxury boutiques, feeling elated from simply strolling through the city’s winding streets, I thought that I wanted to buy something, to treat myself in order to finish the day on an even brighter note. And then it hit me – standing in a charming street, looking at inviting shop windows – this was all the experiential shopping one needed.
That feeling dissipated upon entering each store I walked into. The assortment hewed to lowest common denominator stuff one can find at any airport duty-free shop. Merchandising left much to be desired. The staff was utterly failing in knowing the product or the brand they worked for; their only qualification seemed to be that they spoke a foreign language. In the end I bought nothing.
At ANT/DOTE, Jake, our store director likes to reminds us that we are in the business of wants, not in the business of needs. No one needs designer fashion, which means that a shop must go above and beyond mere retailing. Somewhere along the line this simple truism got twisted into a disorienting, manufactured need for the “experiential.”
Physical stores will endure. While e-commerce has been on the rise, there are plenty of consumers for whom dropping several thousands of dollars with a couple of mouse clicks just to get a box in the mail simply does not deliver. The strength of physical retail is evident in the post-pandemic throngs of shoppers who line up in the streets of New York’s SoHo and London’s Old Bond Street every weekend and patiently wait to get into stores, as well as a recent drop in e-commerce sales. Marc Jacobs perhaps put it best, “I like to go to a shop. I like to see everything, I like to touch it; I like to try it on. I like to have a coffee. I like to get dressed up to go to a shop. It’s a ritual, it’s an experience.” I like all of those things, too, but what I like best is a conversation with a knowledgeable salesperson where we can share our passion for product and design. No app or other “experiential” trickery can replace that.
After the damage the pandemic has wrought on independent retail, especially in New York, there is a sense, shared by many fashion professionals I talk to, that there is nowhere to shop anymore. Department stores have blanded and commoditized themselves to the point of no distinction, and corporate mono-brand shops are in the business of mostly peddling bags and fragrances. In this rather dispiriting milieu there is a renewed opportunity for the rebirth of directional, multi-brand boutiques. Let the below be a back-to-basics manifesto for experiential shopping of the sort that people actually want:
Choose a great location – in a walking city like New York or London make sure you are not too far away from the action. Understand where your potential clientele congregates. You never know who will walk through that door. In a driving city, make sure you make a store that is strong enough, via the combination of the following criteria, to become a destination.
Create a noteworthy interior – directional stores like LN-CC and Blue Mountain School in London and L’Eclaireur in Paris are as much of a draw for their interiors as they are for their product. A white cube and a couple of racks no longer make for an adequate shopping experience. As a bonus, you will probably get coverage in interior design magazines.
Curate your assortment – contrary to the prevailing opinion, you cannot and should not cater to everyone. You will need a point of view. It’s the only way to secure a loyal and passionate clientele. Here, a music analogy is apt – think of department stores as music festivals, and directional boutiques as concerts. They tend to draw different crowds – one is there to dance and drink and the other to actually listen to the music.
Hire great staff – there is no substitute for selling like passion. Don’t hire people just for their client book. Take a chance on someone green but passionate and knowledgeable about the brands you carry. Chances are they will outsell the others down the line. Many a time I’ve walked out of a store without a purchase because its salespeople were not really interested in what they were selling.
The four factors above are the core of providing a great shopping experience. Leave the digital mirrors to the metaverse.