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Denim Retail: Keeping Safety First Without Sacrificing the Experience

The business of selling denim was on the receiving end of a massive curveball last year. An industry that heavily relies on people streaming through its doors to see what’s new, check out cutting-edge fabrics, and slip into its latest silhouettes was suddenly forced to flip off the lights in government-ordered solidarity against an historic pandemic. And when officials gave the thumbs up to re-open, denim retailers were left figuring out how to navigate a brave new world, often turning to new tech and customer-friendly services to salvage sales while delivering a safety-first experience.

If there’s one thing that merchants of all stripes came to grips with amid the undulating waves of coronavirus lockdowns and retail restarts, it’s that they “have to step up their game,” said Michael Brown, a partner in the consumer products and retail practice at consulting firm Kearney. Though he believes retailers such as Levi’s deserve credit for rushing out omnichannel services like curbside pickup and turning stores into makeshift fulfillment hubs to ship products out to at-home online shoppers, Brown says this pandemic-era lifeline will have to find exactly where it fits in the next era of commerce.

“We’re going to get to a point in time where the store base still has to be leveraged” beyond the transactional nature of purchases made online and fulfilled in a store, Brown said, noting the “billions of dollars sunk into these real estate investments” that retailers must recoup without killing their bottom lines. “They’ve got to be able to make [their stores] reasons for consumers to come out as opposed to just shop at home, especially in many of these cases where they’re getting a better experience in home.”

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Metropolitan centers are dense with flagships offering a little something extra to lure shoppers. Levi’s Times Square store, for example, plays host to a main-floor Tailor Shop where consumers can have one of the four specialists affix patches to jackets and embroider jeans with colorfully personalized graphics. A grinning, Edo-era Japanese mask looms above shoppers at the Naked & Famous SoHo store, where Japanese figurines and sheets of vintage Japanese comics decorate a display shelf that cleverly conceals its second nature as a door to the stockroom. And at Nudie Jeans SoHo location—the first Manhattan store looted amid last summer’s unrest, a staffer says—a sewing machine still features prominently in the windowfront, reminding passersby that they can patch up their jeans and not just purchase new ones.

Brown says stores offering these feature-rich flourishes must trickle out from the big cities into the surrounding suburbs, where many affluent urbanites fled at the height of 2020’s disruption. Retailers must “start to build out more and more experiential flagships where they’re starting to bring all that magic that they do in their inner-city stores and their main stores to their more remote locations,” he said. The “most successful retailers,” he added, “will have an appropriate mix of online and in store, with these experiential locations that create an affinity to the brand and enable the consumer to really just engage with the brand in these environments.”

Denim needs a ‘Hero’

Frame, the label that planted its roots in denim but has blossomed into a lifestyle brand offering sweaters, outerwear, footwear and accessories, has firmly leaned into experiential, despite Covid-19’s dislocating effects. The pandemic did little to squelch the L.A.- and London-based label’s ambitious store expansion plans, which saw an art-centric popup open on New York City’s Upper East Side in October, followed by the launch of a Long Island gallery-style outpost.

Jens Grede, co-founder and co-creative director of the denim-centric nameplate, says Frame is staying on top of customers’ needs while keeping the experience front and center. “The pandemic has drastically shifted the way consumers are shopping, and retailers need to work even harder to adapt to these ever-evolving changes in order to be successful and provide the customer the best shopping experience possible,” he said.

The popup galleries feature photographs of famous faces from Imaan Hammam to Karlie Kloss, all snapped by Frame co-founder and longtime artiste Erik Torstensson. “Retail brands need to be more creative than ever with their customer approach to ensure they’re safely meeting their needs and wants, while maintaining their own brand vision,” Grede said. And while the brand is “in a little bit of a holding pattern” at the moment, while the coronavirus dictates the American economy, “our bet,” he added, “is that the best experience wins.”

If there’s one big win it has seen in Covid-19’s aftermath, it’s the advent of a new technology that has expanded employees’ opportunities to sell. As the coronavirus outbreak shuttered stores and pushed shoppers onto e-commerce, Frame turned to a company called Hero, which enables store-based staff to leverage their wealth of knowledge and expertise to answer questions about issues like fit and fabrication for consumers browsing product pages online.

The brand originally planned to leverage Hero at stores that were seeing the most significant traffic challenges during the pandemic, but after realizing the new tech drove a “large portion” of sales, it quickly expanded to additional locations. Hero, it says, has been especially valuable as a vehicle through which Frame can educate new customers about other opportunities, like a consignment program that lets e-commerce shoppers receive a selection of garments to try on at home before deciding which ones to keep and purchase. Frame says Hero has been a critical avenue for acquiring new customers and nurturing these nascent relationships, giving store staff a crucial way to collect a consumer’s contact info and personalize a budding connection. And when associates use Hero to connect with online shoppers via text, chat or video, they can recommend the best products for their needs, which has the added benefit of minimizing returns.

Though Hero will celebrate its sixth birthday this year, the pandemic thrust its value proposition firmly into the spotlight, exposing the urgency of serving digital shoppers. After the virus sparked widespread store shutdowns in March last year, the average number of monthly virtual shopping sessions jumped across all retailers, it said, and leapt 300 percent among the denim-centric brands using its platform. Shopping on Hero drove nearly $200 million in 2020 sales, a figure that translates to as much as 15 percent of brands’ total revenue, it added.

Acclimating to new tech and new tasks is no small feat, but Grede said Frame’s retail teams “have been amazing at adapting to their new normal of virtual appointments, curbside pickup, phone orders, and just taking that extra step or two.”

“Retail will continue to remain a key element to our overall growth strategy as it allows for our customers to not only experience the quality of our clothing and accessories firsthand, but also truly experience the brand,” Grede added. “We have no doubt that shoppers will return to physical stores once the pandemic is over. Personally, I can’t wait and I think most people are wanting to go out, travel and shop. We will be right here when they do.”

This article appears in Rivet’s report “Blueprint: Today’s State of the Industry” sponsored by Coterie Digital and Project Digital. Click here to download the complete report.