The concept of a store used to be simple: it was a place to buy things.
Some retailers are pegging their survival in the Amazon era to the idea that their physical spaces can be much more than that. They care less about the things they sell and more about the experience they provide in doing so—the customer service, the ambience, the activities.
“Consumers know that they can get a power drill…at any one of a hundred places. The products don’t matter,” Forrester retail analyst Brendan Witcher said in an earlier interview. “They need to focus on experience.”
This sort of thinking is on full display in a new experiment Nordstrom announced on Monday. The department store is opening a small shop in Los Angeles next month with no racks of clothes inside—or merchandise of any kind.
Instead, customers will consult with personal stylists to pick out items (brought in on-demand from other locations), try them on in dressing rooms, and have them hand-delivered to their cars. Manicures and a bar stocked with wine and beer will also be on hand.
“As the retail landscape continues to transform at an unprecedented pace, the one thing we know that remains constant is that customers continue to value great service, speed and convenience,” Nordstrom’s senior vice president of customer experience Shea Jensen said in a statement.
It’s not just staid department stores that are embracing the idea of stores as experiential destinations. Apple said Tuesday that it will now refer to its stores as “town squares,” the culmination of a recent campaign to turn the company’s sleek, meticulously arranged retail spaces into social venues for creative classes, performances, and more.
“We call them town squares because they’re gathering places for 500 million people who visit us every year,” Apple retail chief Angela Ahrendts said on stage at Apple’s biggest event of the year on Tuesday. “[They’re] places where everyone’s welcome, and where all of Apple comes together.”
Apple stores are the new town squares? That’s an extremely depressing idea. Do they know how depressing that sounds?
— Joshua Topolsky (@joshuatopolsky) September 12, 2017
Elsewhere, Patagonia has hosted yoga classes and environmental discussion groups at its stores; American Eagle has installed a non-alcoholic bar at a Manhattan location; and Under Armour’s 30,000-square-foot store in Chicago has incorporated charging stations, athletic activities for kids, and online ordering stations.
Some of these efforts might sound ridiculous on their face—a desperate gimmick to draw people into stores as they increasingly ditch them for the web. Does anyone really want to hang out in an Apple store?
But the number of e-commerce brands now opening their own physical stores—Amazon chief among them—suggests that there’s something inherently valuable about in-person customer interactions and curated browsable displays. These stores are simply maximizing the sort of services that the internet just can’t match.
Retail futurist Doug Stephens has predicted that the Best Buy of the future won’t sell anything at all. All sales will happen directly through brands or online. But with product demonstrations, classes, and other experiential offerings, the store would be such an attractive destination that brands would pay to appear there. Customers could even be charged admission.
This new mindset has started to take hold as struggling department store chains have shuttered hundreds of locations across the country. Those closures have, in turn, led to the death of the suburban and exurban shopping mall, once an American social institution.
Yet malls are still thriving in big cities, and that’s where many of these efforts are focused. The overall trend in this retail-as-a-service approach is towards smaller luxury boutiques aimed at urbanites with disposable income. They’re not particularly concerned with offering low prices. The amenities might seem complimentary, but chances are, they’re reflected in the store’s markups.
It remains to be seen how much interest there actually is in the concept of a store as a gathering place or luxury experience, but the trend suggests that stores are here to stay in one form or another.