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Storytelling Can Seduce Consumers Back to Brick-and-Mortar Stores

There’s still life in brick-and-mortar retail, but consumers crave an element of discovery.

That was the focus of a panel discussion Tuesday at Decoded Fashion NYC, titled “Seducing the Customer Back to Bricks and Mortar” and moderated by Jenna Blaha, the technology and lifestyle editor at Marie Claire.

As e-commerce takes a bigger bite out of total retail sales and department and specialty store operators shrink their physical footprint, it’s worth remembering that there’s no substitute for the experience of shopping in real life.

“There may be recommendation engines online but there’s no persuasion engine. The idea of going into a dressing room and having someone work with you, there’s a persuasive selling element to that and we haven’t replicated that with technology yet,” said David Munczinski, founder and chief executive officer of Brickwork, a software solution that aims to bridge the gap between online and offline retail. “The opportunity that retailers have, whether they’ve had stores for 100 years or whether they are just starting out online, is to leverage these physical assets that you can invest in to drive a more whole experience.”

That’s essentially the thought process behind the Apartment, the offline equivalent of the Line, a luxury e-commerce site that sells a tightly edited selection of fashion, home and beauty items. There are currently two Apartments—one in New York, the other in Los Angeles—and one more on the way in Chicago, and as the name implies, they’re anything but traditional selling spaces.

The Apartment by the Line
The Apartment by the Line

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“The idea really is to see all of these products and discover them where they live, so you see everything in its place,” explained Stephanie Murg, vice president of brand marketing at Assembled Brands, the company behind the concept. “You see clothing not really distributed around the space but in the walk-in closet area, so there are outfits and pieces and designers put together in ways that you as you as a person, living, would do rather than a store would do.”

That’s not all that’s different about the Apartment—the New York store is on the third floor of a building in Soho. As pointed out by Munczinski, who started his career in real estate for Ralph Lauren, it would have been “sacrilegious” only a few years ago to suggest starting a store on the third floor and have it be successful.

That’s not to say there isn’t still a massive amount of value in street-level retail from a brand-building perspective. Just look at Warby Parker: every time the prescription eyeglasses company opens one of its offline showrooms, its e-commerce sales go up in that area.

“That’s a well understood phenomenon, that adding brick-and-mortar drives e-commerce sales growth,” Munczinski said, adding, “You can have a successful second-floor store because the customer starts online.”

Truthfully, Murg said Assembled didn’t know day one if the Apartment would operate like a showroom or fulfill orders on-site.

“It turns out, perhaps not surprisingly, that the customer wants to buy and take the stuff home with them. They don’t want to worry about shipping it home to them,” she said. “If they’re buying a product in-store they want to take it home that day.”

Blaha described the Apartment’s concept as akin to “shopping within a story.”

“We’re interested in creating seamless experiences but we understand that the story looks a little bit different online versus offline,” Murg continued. “Offline is really an interaction with a store associate to learn as much as you want to learn about the products. We’re very much about the edit. We take great care in choosing every brand and every product from that brand so that it makes sense in the context that we’re creating.”

It clearly works. Assembled has grown 150 percent year-over-year in the past three years.

“It’s been a really nice to way show as opposed to tell,” Murg added. “We do tell stories but we’re fundamentally showing product in context, as opposed to guiding the customer. We’re more interested in taking an editorial approach to showing some suggestions.”

Retail Lab Group
Cushnie et Ochs, Public School, Tanya Taylor, Pamela Love and Prabal Gurung announced as next five designers to participate in Retail Lab.

The Retail Lab, a collaboration between Cadillac and the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), generates a similar sense of discovery. As part of a mentorship program announced in April, designers get the chance to open a temporary store on the ground floor of Cadillac’s global headquarters in Soho that allows them to tell their brand story and connect directly with consumers.

Timo Weiland, the first designer picked as part of the program, set up shop in July and his e-commerce sales tripled during his three-month residency.

“Obviously you can say, well, we launched a new program and put a lot of marketing and promotion behind it so there’s some benefit there, but I think for the first time somebody who’s maybe bought a dress from him at Bloomingdale’s can now go into this space and really learn a little bit more about what his brand identity is and I think that’s really exciting,” said Ashley-Brooke Sandall, senior manager of strategic partners at the CFDA. “When we had the designers apply we wanted to see some stability there, that they either had their own e-commerce platform or they had great distribution with wholesale accounts, but they had never really been able to tell their own brand story and interact with their customer directly.”

At the end of the day, consumers don’t want the same old, same old experience of traditional retail and the clock will eventually run down on those that don’t make an effort to try something different.

“Five years from now, almost every consumer will start their path to purchase from mobile, maybe from desktop,” Munczinski noted. “It’s very rare that they will actually start their experience just by walking down the street and walking into the store.”