Sarah is a freelance business journalist specialising in the retail, luxury and fashion industries. A regular contributor to the Financial Times and Business of Fashion, she spent eight and a half years as the senior retail correspondent for Bloomberg in London.
Shops are having to rethink their role in the urban mix.
There’s a queue 30 people deep on any given Thursday outside streetwear label Supreme in Soho. The line is made up of teenagers and twentysomethings, British and foreign, all desperate to buy the latest red-and-white-logo-covered £44 flat-brimmed cap or £168 hoodie that the brand has “dropped” that morning as part of a new collection. Shoppers and tourists stop to marvel at the queue behind metal police barricades. Local workers shake their heads in disbelief.
The New York brand has mastered the art of creating desire by adding new products to its stores every week, each of them a collaboration with other brands – ranging from the mainstream, like Levi’s, to the obscure, like Japanese label Sasquatchfabrix. All the products are time-limited: once sold, they’re finished, and a new batch comes in. The queues and the resale value on eBay are testament to the popularity of the model.
Standing in the queue is also about belonging, being part of the tribe of youngsters who are in the know. Supreme owner James Jebbia has admitted he wants teenagers to say to their parents, “Mum, maybe you shouldn’t come into this store with me.” The experience is not just about the camaraderie of the queue. Once you are inside the London store you might spot skate legend Dan Jagger, the store manager. In the Los Angeles outpost, you might bring your skateboard and drop into the store’s custom-built wooden skateboard bowl.
The danger to Supreme’s cult-like status is that its young followers could start to question the authenticity of its playfulness and street culture roots. A recent collaboration with luxury brand Louis Vuitton was a case in point. The Supreme logo was plastered on everything from a £2,750 bag to £650 pairs of sneakers: a backlash ensued from fans suggesting the brand had sold out by collaborating with a luxury brand, with prices to match. Still, that didn’t stop private equity firm The Carlyle Group snapping up a 50 per cent stake in Supreme last month, in a deal rumoured to value the brand at $1billion (c. £760,000,000). Nor does it appear to be reducing the queues for now.
“Yeah, it’s pretty cool here, I’ve come down in my break to buy Supreme,” said one 17-year old student I spoke to in the queue, standing with two friends, both distracted by their mobiles. “You can get it online but it’s way better to actually be here, to be part of it,” he says. His friends glance up briefly from their phones and nod in agreement.
Our desire to be part of a community is driving many retailers to rethink how they use their stores – as something more than simply spaces in which to sell clothing. The move to introduce an element of playfulness to real-world shopping has been hastened by the growth of online shopping at Amazon, ASOS, Boohoo and the like. The UK is one of the most developed online retail markets: we buy 24 per cent of our clothing online (in the US it’s about 19 per cent). Using stores to generate playful, interesting experiences is one way that retailers are seeking to lure shoppers back.
Not far from Supreme in Soho is Rapha, a British cycling brand that opened its first ever store here in 2012, although they they actually call it a “clubhouse”. The in-store coffee shop, which takes up to half the floor space, is filled with Lycra-clad men and women flicking through cycling magazines, drinking espressos, and looking at the cycling memorabilia and framed jerseys on the walls. The store regularly screens live cycling tours like the Giro and Tour de France, and holds evening talks with friends of the brand like former pro cyclist Paul Voss. It even has its own Rapha cycling club, which meets weekly to do laps around Regent’s Park and at the weekends to cycle to Kent.
While these might not be direct money-spinners, they drive loyalty and a sense of belonging. All 21 Rapha stores globally have a large space dedicated to a café, their own cycling club, regular events and screenings of live racing. The cultivated playfulness initiated by Rapha founder Simon Mottram looks to be working. Sales at Rapha climbed 30 per cent last year, to £63 million.
As baby boomers reach the end of their peak spending years and millennials grow into theirs, brands are making an effort to appeal to a younger generation of consumers more interested in experiences than products, who expect brands to behave ethically – both socially and environmentally. A Deloitte survey this year found that over 50 per cent of millennials in the US and Europe (those born after 1982) prefer to buy a luxury brand experience, like a concert ticket, a weekend away, or a fancy dinner, rather than a product. (In China, this figure was lower, at 34 per cent.)60 London Essays
Experiential retailing has been central to the success of Selfridges, the UK department store giant that heavily invests in its store fit-outs and is constantly churning out pioneering pop-ups to build store excitement. The roof garden has been home to a range of kooky and immersive retail experiences. While this kind of thing isn’t exactly new (the most famous ballroom dancers of the early 1900s, Florence Walton and Maurice Mouvet, performed at a charity ball on the rooftop in 1913), a revamp of the rooftop space in 2011 after 70 unused years has revived its use for play. There has been an installation of an electric-green boating lake and cocktail bar, a winter forest and chalet-themed restaurant, as well as a mini golf course.
It’s not just the roof that has gone all playful. Food anthropologists and other expert craftsmen helped millennials unwind and de-stress in the basement of the store with a range of herb bundling, potato peeling, rug weaving and Sicilian lemon preserving classes as part of a project called Our House earlier this year. Selfridges said it wanted to explore the subject of home – including, no doubt, how ethical consumers reconcile their principles with the millions of people displaced across the world, as well as the lack of affordable housing and the homelessness in our own city.
“We are not expecting potato peeling to become a hobby. But the idea is to draw attention to those habitual tasks you would not normally notice or appreciate, and find a renewed value in them. It’s about a simple enjoyment and awareness of daily life – and taking the time appreciate it,” said Linda Hewson, Creative Director at Selfridges.
She may be onto something. With a slowdown in consumer spending in the UK, and sluggish traffic at shopping malls across North America (where Sears Canada recently collapsed), Selfridges, which also owns Canada’s Holt Renfrew, posted sales of £1.6bn across the group last year, a 16 per cent gain.
Another playful shopping experience has come from IKEA, which has created food experiences to inspire millennials to visit its stores. A pop-up dining club in Shoreditch offered guests the chance to be a restaurant owner for an evening, hosting friends and family in a dining room of IKEA products, with a chef on hand for guidance (complete with a homeware store and kitchen showroom to enable them to buy spatulas and pans).
Last year, in another pop-up space in Shoreditch, consumers could book one-hour time slots for a “Breakfast in Bed café” where a free Swedish breakfast (salmon gravadlax on toasted rye bread, or waffles) was served up in one of nine IKEA beds. A sleep specialist was on hand for advice on how to get the perfect night’s sleep.
These playful pop-ups in the inner city mark a shift in thinking for IKEA, better known for its large out-of-town warehouses. The spaces work like showrooms, offering shoppers access to their products without the hassle of travelling out of town, and with some fun thrown in. Some argue this could be the future of shopping. This autumn’s launch of Nordstrom Local brought to West Hollywood a department store without inventory. Shoppers can get their nails done, drink at the juice bar, and have a stylist pick them an outfit to try on in a fitting room: then they can order online, leaving the store empty-handed. As footfall in shopping malls and out-of-town locations wanes, and consumers increasingly move online, retailers are exploring whether convenient showrooms with a playful edge are the solution.
In Brooklyn, teen retailer Urban Outfitters has launched a new five-storey concept store called Space Ninety8, filled with yoga classes, photo booths, music workshops, and events like the August launch party for Got a Girl Crush (a young women’s magazine) at which guests sipped on sparkling wine cocktails, ate chocolates and danced to DJ Blitz. The concept store offers a curated mix of the brand’s well-known t-shirts and flimsy dresses alongside jewellery and clothing from local artists and designers. This pivot to making fun the reason to visit the store, with the product almost an adjunct of a playful lifestyle, represents an attempt by the US firm to revive stalling sales amid declining traffic in shopping malls, as well as the rise of cheaper fast-fashion chains like Forever 21. There is no overt signage to indicate that the space is owned by Urban Outfitters; the industrial warehouse atmosphere suggests an independent boutique rather than retail heavyweight.
Some of the world’s more successful shopping areas incorporate a sense of play and community to create a distinctive destination atmosphere. Toronto’s Queen Street West, Stockholm’s Issue 9: Play 61
Södermalm, Canal Saint-Martin in Paris, and Berlin’s Kreuzberg all mix independent stores, home-grown labels, art galleries, restaurants, hotels and a locally inflected atmosphere deriving from architecture, public art, people and food. There remains an element of the undiscovered in these destinations: a playful sense of possibility.
The ability to cycle through Kreuzberg as you enjoy the graffiti, to take in Södermalm’s parks and free museums, or meander through the spring art festival Le Printemps des Rues in Canal Saint-Martin (where street performers, circus acts and magic shows perform free of charge) is part of what makes these spaces successful shopping destinations. A common theme in all of them is the presence of publicly valued space, whether that’s achieved by cycle lanes, access to parks, the preservation of architectural gems, or mixed-use spaces. It has become increasingly important for shopping areas not to be over-planned with back-to-back stores. The clever new experiential tactics from retailers are all very well: but, fundamentally, shopping in the 21st century needs cities that are lively, playful, open to experimentation, and fun.