In an age of mobile shopping, one click orders and next day delivery, the role of physical stores has looked increasingly uncertain. As the demise of several high street institutions has shown, there’s little reason for consumers to visit a store if it’s quicker and easier to shop online – especially when their purchase is a DVD or a cheap shoes.
In the luxury market, however, it’s a different story. As Richard Ryan, an associate at Universal Design Studio, which has designed over 150 Mulberry stores since transforming the brand’s London flagship in 2008, points out, “people still need to feel the quality of a product, certainly in the world of luxury”. Some shoppers paying a four or five figure sum for an item may be happy to do it online but others, understandably, still expect a more personal service, and the option of seeing goods up close in a suitably luxurious environment.
“There’s also the bravado surrounding statements like a flagship store,” he adds. “They are not always the most profitable, but they stand for a brand’s values and are key in driving customers to the much smaller, hardworking stores globally and online.” Indeed, few fashion houses would be willing to give up the prestige of a Bond Street or Manhattan address in favour of moving online, even if their flagships are no longer making the money they used to. The question for luxury brands, then, isn’t whether they should still have stores – but what can they do to make them an exciting place to visit, and ensure shoppers keep coming through the door?
One brand that has pioneered a creative approach to retail is Dover Street Market. Opened in 2004 by Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo, the London outlet (spread over six floors in the ICA’s former home on Dover Street) combines carefully curated collections of luxury fashion with changing installations and displays from emerging and established artists. Every six months, the store undergoes a complete reinvention with new products, installations and layouts. Its window displays have included homages to Barbie, the ICA and comic book characters Binky and Sheba, as well as large-scale sculptures from fashion designers, set designers and visual artists. For its tenth birthday last month, the store introduced a Nike Lab, Louis Vuitton’s first pop-up, and chipboard market stalls selling DSM souvenirs, with a glass window display by Central Saint Martins graduate, Phoebe English.
The concept for the store, Kawakubo has said, was “a place where creators from various fields gather together and encounter each other in an ongoing atmosphere of beautiful chaos”. This concept has been a resounding success – the brand has since opened outlets in Tokyo, Beijing and, most recently, New York. Each has a different look, reflective of the city it’s based in, but includes the same mix of art and fashion.
Dover Street Market’s success, of course, lies in providing customers not just with a place to shop, but to have fun and be inspired – an experience other luxury brands are increasingly looking to create. In May this year, Italian fashion house Prada unveiled a month-long ‘takeover’ at Harrods. A collaboration between the brand and New York design studio 2×4, the Pradasphere housed a café and collection of ready-to-wear items with an immersive exhibition showcasing the label’s history.
Part retrospective, part pop-up shop, it displayed rows of mannequins wearing iconic designs from Prada’s archives alongside footage of lavish catwalk shows, films made with Wes Anderson and architecture designed by Rem Koolhaas. Customers could shop, eat, drink and tour a museum-like display showcasing the evolution of the brand, its cultural output and the key influences and themes in designer Miuccia Prada’s work. Michael Rock, partner at 2×4, says the aim with Pradasphere was to present the brand’s output in an unusual way, rather than arranging by colour, trend or season. “We also wanted to create a kind of ‘natural history of Prada’ – a museum of curiosities, that would tell the story of the brand,” he explains.
With its combination of archived material and new products, it offered an experience that wasn’t just luxurious, but thought-provoking – and one customers would want to visit, share and tell their friends about. Rock, who has worked with Prada for almost 20 years, says this desire to create intelligent, meaningful experiences for customers is key to the designer’s work. “[Miuccia Prada] perceives her audience as intelligent women who share her interests in the world – successful, smart people who respond to intelligent content,” he says. “They understand how fashion works – the demands of the industry mean you’re going to be making things, hosting events and shows all the time – but if you can use the propulsion of the fashion cycle to create things of real interest, then it creates a much deeper bond with that audience,” he adds.
It was also an experience that depended on physical objects and interaction: something that it would be impossible to recreate online. Despite the impressive evolution of digital shopping, Rock believes there will always be a place for stores that can offer exciting, real experiences: “When you walked into Pradasphere, you felt it – from the spongey-ness of the carpets to the lighting, the food and the film, you were stimulated in all these different ways. You could never create a similar experience on an app or a website.”
This thinking perhaps explains why even today, new brands which could operate successful, online only ventures are still choosing to invest in physical stores. One example of this is The Apartment, created by New York interiors store The Line. After setting up a website selling limited edition fashion and furniture, stylists Vanessa Traina and Morgan Wendelborn decided to create a physical store which would enable consumers to see those products up close. Designed by Carl Sprague, a set designer who has collaborated with Wes Anderson, The Line’s boutique isn’t a typical ground floor store with elegant window displays, but a third floor SoHo loft, decorated like a quintessential New York apartment.
Wendelborn and Traina say the aim of the store is to contextualise The Line’s products – so that customers can see them in a cosy, intimate setting and imagine how they might look in their own home. The Apartment can also be easily redecorated to reflect new collections, and the pair have hosted supper clubs and dinner parties in the space. It’s a clever venture and one that Rock thinks we will see more of in the future. “The problem with websites is that there is no tangible experience,” he says. “The Apartment provides that, but at a much lower cost than a super high priced corner of Regent Street, and you can still create this really immersive, much more individualised experience.”
Providing an intimate, individual experience remains paramount in luxury shopping of course, and offers another element that the web simply can’t provide. Philip Handford, creative director at retail design agency Campaign, says that in the luxury market in particular, there is still a growing demand for good old-fashioned customer service, something websites can’t provide. “In the 19th century, upper-middle-class [shoppers] experienced a curated offering – we trusted the expertise and advice of sales assistant and the product choices of retailers,” Handford says. “Now, these principles have again become the cornerstone of physical stores. However, we are now able to weave in an additional, digital dimension.”
Ryan says this personal service is a key part of Mulberry’s shops, with new stores including a greater focus on bespoke offerings such as monogramming. Earlier this year, Campaign launched an experience at Selfridges in London, The Fragrance Lab, a joint project with The Future Laboratory which aimed to combine this curated experience with digital technology to help perfume shoppers find their perfect scent. Shoppers were greeted in an all-white space by staff wearing white lab coats and invited to answer a series of questions about themselves, before being guided via an audio tour through a series of sensory rooms. One, painted black, contained drawers of different scents, while another contained a curious selection of objects. It sounds a little gimmicky, but was fun, surprising, and for those happy to pay £65 to book their place (perfume was included in the price), an unusual alternative to sniffing tester cards or ordering a fragrance online, and a great match for Selfridges, known for its humorous, quirky and creative displays and events.
This kind of experience is something Handford feels that shops will continue to embrace in the future, as they become less a place to sell products and more a space to host special projects and events. “Retail environments will become evolving, changing spaces,” he says. “Fundamentally the shop floor will have more space for brands to express themselves, as stock rooms carry more of the staple product.” The latter will instead be available online and through digital platforms in store. High street malls and department stores in particular, he says, are keen to create bolder, more flexible environments that create a kind of “theatre” for consumers, with changing displays and regular events.
As Rock and Handford point out, internet shopping has transformed the way we shop. Handford says the role of physical stores has been in a state of flux, with retailers unsure of how to respond to the rapid evolution of online shopping, while Rock believes it has altered what consumers expect from physical stores. “People don’t come into stores to find something anymore – they know what they want, because they’ve already found it online, on their iPad or phone,” he says.
To survive, notes Rock, shopping experiences have to be more about “brand immersion – telling the story of the brand in a physical, visceral way. In-store shopping has to be an enriching experience, otherwise it’s far easier to just do it online, and the brands who’ll do well are the ones who understand that shift,” he adds. Rather than competing with websites, stores should offer something different – an experience that digital channels simply can’t match.