As a self-described “citysumer,” I make trips to one of many stores almost every day. But it took trips to two major cities – Barcelona and New York – for me to realize just how colorless my retail experiences have become.
In fact, I’d wager one of the biggest threats to the Famous American Brand is not fellow competition, but citysumers – sophisticated suburbanites who are more demanding, better connected and more likely to try new ideas than their shopping predecessors. First identified by Trendwatching.com in 2011, this swell of spontaneous consumers is the result of an urban boom, increased urban wealth and the resulting spread of urban values and culture.
The upshot: Some of the coolest retail brands derive from these kinds of environments, from Vancouver (Lululemon) to London (Lush cosmetic) to Manhattan (Warby Parker). Yet as many citysumers trudge from one stack-‘em-high-and-let-‘em-fly store to the next, we are forced to wonder: Where are the nation’s fresh brands? What will be the next Lululemon of loungewear?
The Lush of brasseries? Where’s the Warby Parker of homegoods?
They are out there, I’ve found, breaking out from small corners of big cities and elsewhere; leaving an impression that promises to change the course of commerce. Following is a mash-up of some of the most buzz-worthy concepts in retail as highlighted on a February business trip to Barcelona and during the National Retail Federation’s Big Show in New York in January.*
One of the world’s top brands in bathroom fixtures, this Spanish merchant’s flagship store is a literal jewel box. The glass-encased showroom, in Barcelona, displays Roca’s high-end sinks and tubs like rare gems. Indeed, the entire experience replicates that of a museum, from the interactive digital displays to the wall-adhered product descriptions. Large visual screens depict customers using Roca products, and specifications are accessible via interactive video.
Inventory at this London-based showroom is limited to just one car but the options are as wide as the imagination. Through four “powerwalls,” visitors customize their Audis – from the engine to the interior – using table-mounted touchscreens. Once done, they can interact with their vehicle on the powerwall. Audi provides an RFID stick through which customers can purchase the car at a dealer location or online.
This chain, in Barcelona, Madrid and Mexico, does not merely sell sustainably sourced baby foods and fashions; it packages environmentally committed lifestyles. A chalkboard at the entrance lists educational events that are held in an expansive play-and-party area in the back. Visitors are encouraged to touch and play with nearly every product, inspiring ecological awareness, while an in-store café offers a place to relax, bond and sample organic treats.
Glade Boutique pop-up
It was temporary, but the idea lives on. The Glade Boutique, which operated in New York during the 2014 holiday season, transformed a take-for-granted product into a state of emotion. Make those five emotions, each with its own scent and mood to match. In the peony- and cherry-scented Flirty room, visitors posed for fashion shoots in designer gowns, while the red honeysuckle-scented Energize room took visitors on a thrill ride in an augmented reality game.
We should not forget the best ideas might be rooted in the past. Such is the case with Barcelona’s Gra de Gracia, a shop that embodies the concept of “unbranding.” In its aisles of bins, vats and baskets of loose products, customers follow a three-step process: choose a container, fill it and weigh it to determine the price. The knowledgeable staff provides weekly meal plans, recipes and detailed information about product sourcing.
While Gra de Gracia embodies unbranding, the shop Story unwinds it, by completely changing itself every six or so weeks. Like a whiteboard, the New York merchant wipes itself clean, removes every bit of interior and reinvents the brand. It has served as a physical home for e-commerce sites like Birchbox, as well as a venue for pasta making and presentations. The goal: To serve as matchmaker between brands and consumers.
The yogurt-themed eatery in Barcelona, the first for Danone (Dannon), inspires visitors with culture – its own. Vintage Danone merchandise and memorabilia, including a three-wheeled delivery vehicle, mingle with touchscreen kiosks that share brand history. At the popular “yogurteria,” diners customize frozen yogurt treats with various toppings. Later, when customers see the Danone brand in stores, they associate it with good nutrition and value.
Lots of products move in and out of Oxfam, a second-hand nonprofit in the United Kingdom. Fortunately, someone realized these items came with stories. So Oxfam invited donors to send personal yarns about the items they donated. One little blue teapot, for instance, arrived at Oxfam in search of a better suited home, since it no longer matched its former kitchen, now red.
Fabrica Moritz Barcelona
This outlet for Spain’s oldest beer is more cultural gastronomic center than traditional brewpub. The expansive outlet houses a wide range of attractions that could captivate customers for a full day, including a tapas and wine bar, the M-Store featuring a variety of Moritz-branded merchandise, a bakery, a newsstand and a multipurpose space that can be rented out.
This is where the rubber meets the rhubarb. Moberi is an actual bike-powered smoothie bar. Customers of this Portland, Oregon, business get on a Schwinn exercise bike and crank it out until the berries in the fender blender are pulverized. The customers burn energy while saving energy, and are rewarded with the fruits of their labors.
All of these concepts have a common denominator: an element of surprise, which results in excitement. Citysumers crave it, but we are not alone. Shoppers across the world are succumbing to the predictability of our surroundings.
Merchants have the power to change that, and in places like Barcelona, London and even Portland, they have already started. We citysumers will take our dollars to the shops that appeal to us, and inject color into our experiences.
*Special thanks to Alison Embrey Medina, executive editor of the magazine design:retail for bringing some of these merchants to light at the National Retail Federation’s Big Show, and to Jill Z. McBride for her photos and insights during the Barcelona tour.