“Culture meets commerce”: Sonos opens flagship store in London

 

With art on the walls and listening booths designed by local artists, the store is an alternative to the minimal retail spaces we’ve come to expect from consumer electronics brands

Home audio brand Sonos opens its first UK store in Covent Garden next week. The building – formerly the Magnum Pleasure Store, where sweet toothed shoppers paid £5.50 and up for custom Magnum ice creams – has been transformed into a shop and event space that makes Apple’s sleek stores look almost clinical.

On the ground floor are two house-shaped listening booths with glass walls and interiors designed by local artists. Camille Walala – whose work has been popping up all over London – has filled one with colourful geometric patterns and Neil Raitt has transformed the other with paintings of mountains and rolling waves.

These booths allow customers to experience ‘multi-room listening’. Each one is kitted out with a range of Sonos products and a demo triggered via an iPad replicates the experience of walking through a house and hearing Sonos speakers playing music in different rooms. It’s quite a feat to pull off in a space that measures just a few feet across – one that was achieved with the help of Sonos sound consultant and music producer Giles Martin.

Listening booths designed by Neil Raitt and Camille Walala

Customers can control speakers manually and listen to each one in isolation. They can also select their own music to play in the space. Each booth is fitted with seating and props – from shelves to ornaments – and allows customers to listen to Sonos products in a home-like environment. It’s a very different experience from hi-fi shopping in department stores (a process that usually involves huddling around a speaker in a crowded electronics section and turning up the volume until you can drown out the sound of other products from competing brands). Sonos says the store will host exhibitions showcasing local creatives and musicians throughout the year.

Downstairs is a small event space complete with comfy seating for customers to lounge on while they listen to talks or musical performances. The space is fitted with screens and a digital turntable so can host a range of events – the first is a night of talks celebrating Bowie’s legacy, hosted by Miranda Sawyer on November 15. The felt walls and plush grey carpet help absorb sound in the space but they also create a home-like atmosphere.

With Walala and Raitt’s colourful artwork and photographs of Bowie lining the walls, the store feels very different to the minimal environment of the Apple store: a place where even cash registers are considered unnecessary clutter. The Sonos store doesn’t feel busy or crammed full of products but it does have a more colourful and welcoming interior.

Sonos describes the store as a mix of culture and commerce – a place where people can discover new artists and musicians or simply sit and listen to their favourite tunes. These people will hopefully buy products but the aim is to create a space that people will want to come back to – even once they’ve bought a Sonos – to see events and exhibitions.

“The whole idea is that we wanted to create a location that is a crossroads between culture and commerce,” says Chad Lundeen, Direct to Consumer Global Retail Platform and Innovation Leader. “We want to sell speakers but we want you to fall in love with music and with Sonos.”

This is Sonos’s second store and is something of an experiment. The New York space is bigger – with seven listening booths instead of two – but also hosts events and exhibitions.

Both spaces have some local touches: listening rooms in each store were designed by local artists and exhibitions reflect local music or culture.

“Bringing in local culture is really important to us. So it’s not just about having music and art present but really feeding into the local culture and creative scene,” says Sonos Art Director Julia Jeanguenat. With the event space taking up an entire floor of the shop, Jeanguenat says there is as much focus on providing a cultural space as there is on showcasing products. 

“Culture is so much a part of the experience of music that to divorce it from [the retail experience] just wouldn’t feel right,” she says.

Sonos already has a strong presence in the UK – achieved through a mix of ad campaigns and a presence in major retailers such as John Lewis, Currys and Richer Sounds.

The brand has worked hard to create a great customer experience – from designing sleek packaging to provide a great unboxing moment to making a seamless set up process and making it possible to control speakers through Spotify – but it has previously had little control over the in-store experience in partner stores.

Lundeen says flagship stores in London and New York are designed to make people “fall in love” with Sonos. “We know that if you go into a Best Buy or a Media Mart that most people already know Sonos and they’re already going to buy Sonos. They just want to touch it and feel it. Here, I think its probably more about discovery,” he adds.

“I think retail is at a juncture right now and a lot of retailers are trying to figure out how to create a great experience … [brands] are trying to redefine how their customers engage and establish brand loyalty,” Lundeen continues. “A lot of the discounters and [department stores] in the world are failing because there’s no brand identity. If I want to get a pair of jeans I go directly to Lucky or the brand that I have connection to … because they create an environment that I want to be in…. We’re trying to do something above that and create an even broader experience, so you come in, and you feel it – you just get it [the brand] – and I think that makes a connection that carries on beyond the store.”

The stats from New York are positive: “We know from our data from New York that once someone comes in here there’s an 80 percent chance that they will purchase a Sonos so it’s a high [level of] engagement,” explains Lundeen.

The store combines elements from the brand’s New York store and from its Sonos Studios spaces. Sonos opened its first Studios space in Los Angeles in 2012 and another in London in 2015, which has since closed. Both allowed visitors to come in and listen to Sonos products as well as seeing exhibitions, talks, workshops or live performances. The brand has also opened temporary studios in Paris, New York, Austin and Amsterdam in the past few years.

Combining commerce and culture isn’t a novel concept: everyone from Uniqlo to Apple, Topshop and Selfridges have been hosting events, talks and workshops in their stores in the past few years, or introducing eating and drinking spaces. Even budget retailer Primark has introduced coffee shops in-store. But it’s less common to a see a shop with a dedicated event space – one that is kept separate from the retail environment.

“[The shop] is an event space that sells speakers and vice versa so everything has equal billing from that point of view,” says Keira Alexandra, partner at New York consultancy Work/Order, which worked with Sonos on the design of the London and New York stores. “It just feels better when you’re in [an event space] and you don’t have for sale signs in your face.”

Sonos’s products are designed to be invisible. Tad Toulis, VP of Design at Sonos, told CR earlier this year that each speaker is designed to “disappear into the background and only come forward when you’re interacting with it.”

This is a large part of Sonos’s success – its speakers can fit in with almost any interior design scheme – but invisible products don’t make for the most exciting retail display. Through working with artists and curating a year-round programme of exhibitions, Sonos has created a more welcoming and human space and an alternative to the kind of shopping experience we’ve come to expect from technology brands.

As Alexandra points out, this use of art and colour can draw people in who might be put off by a more minimal environment. Speaking about the decision to commission Camille Walala to design a listening room – an artist whose work Londoners and even tourists might recognise even if they don’t know the artist by name (she has created a number of large-scale artworks around the city, from a pedestrian crossing to an inflatable castle) – Alexandra says: “It’s that thing of making someone think ‘oh, I’ve seen that person’s work before. What’s happening here?’ If I were to pass a speaker store that looked highly technical I might not have that emotional connection and I might pass it by.”

Apple transformed retail with its design approach but the Sonos store offers a glimpse of another potential future for retail – one where stores are designed to look not like shops but meeting spaces or homes for customers to hang out in. The brand plans to open another in Berlin next year and has also launched mini stores within stores (Sonos shops within other retailers) in China.

The Sonos concept store opens to the public on November 16 at 21-23 Earlham Street, Seven Dials, London. On November 15 and 17 Sonos is hosting Song Stories: Bowie – a programme of events exploring Bowie’s work and legacy. Tickets are free – see sonos.com/bowie to register. On November 18 and 19, the store will host online radio station NTS for a 16 hour programme of music and talks celebrating Bowie.

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