“People keep saying retail is dead. But I don’t think it is,” said fashion blogger Aimee Song. “I think traditional retail is dead and what people are craving is just the experience.” With more than 4 million followers on Instagram alone, Song has plenty of insight as to what the millennial consumer is looking for, and it’s something “different and interesting,” she said. “They care about transparency.”
Indeed, “experience” continues to be the crucial buzzword among brands. More than 83 percent of retailers confirmed that customer experience is a companywide goal, according to a recent study by technology firm Convey and logistics company EFT. And with sales numbers stagnating in recent quarters, fashion players are striving to redefine brick-and-mortar shopping into something that entices young consumers.
Toms, for example, hosts events at its coffee bar-shoe salons that are tied to its giving philosophy, while Vans continues to open entertainment-filled cultural hubs. Revolve.com, meanwhile, is using brick-and-mortar to connect with style influencers, and New Balance is helping to support fitness communities.
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These types of interactions are all different, but at the base of each concept is the need to surround the brand with more than merchandise.
Steve Goldberg, president of retail consulting firm The Grayson Company, explained, “For those who recognize that experience is important to engendering loyalty, satisfaction and building a repeat customer, providing something that is more than just product is quite critical.”
Footwear News dives into what four brands are doing to connect with consumers.
New Balance: The Community Builder
The Boston-based athletic company is on a mission to become the world’s best running brand. To kick-start that undertaking, New Balance has opened three official Run Hub shops across the country to tap into the running community, while also building real-world retail experiences at each hub to help drive the New Balance brand forward. Think test-runs, technology and exclusive products all under one roof.
Chris Ladd, EVP of consumer experience, said of the concept, “We started in the U.S. and identified five or six influencer markets that we wanted to penetrate. The Run Hub is our strategic attempt to continue to innovate and invigorate the sport of running and the running community.”
After opening its first hub in Boulder, Colo., more than a year ago in partnership with Flatirons Running Co., New Balance made its way to the Chicago area to open another hub with retailer Naperville Running Co. And in January, New Balance teamed up with New York Road Runners for a multiyear alliance, which included the launch of the NYRR RunCenter in New York. It’s open to all members of the running community and features a New Balance Run Hub.
“[This new hub] represents 2,000 square feet of running shopping nirvana,” said Ladd. “If you look at our market share, nine out of 10 people walking into the door aren’t wearing New Balance. [The Run Hub] represents a tremendous opportunity to grow our brand even within the NYRR community and their membership alone.”
Inside the New York Run Hub, customers have access to the brand’s latest technology, including an eight-second digital foot scan, bib pickups for races, an assortment of inline, custom and exclusive footwear and apparel and an interactive touchscreen on the “Run for Life” wall featuring New Balance athlete Jenny Simpson. Other programming includes the New Balance Run Club, which will host running events and training runs throughout the city.
While the NYC Run Hub is too new to assess its impact, the athletic brand will track its success through revenue, foot traffic and sales conversion, as they would any typical retail door.
“The loudest measure is what the running community will look like as we inject the Run Hubs over time,” said Ladd. “To me, that community engagement and participation in running is the measure that will ultimately lead to more footwear and apparel sales.”
Ladd did note that one major advantage of the Run Hubs is that feedback comes much faster. “We can be much more predictive with the assortment,” he said. “The New York facility represents an opportunity to host events and debut and launch product. It was the first place in the world to receive the new 1080 that launched in December. As a brand, we are using the Run Hubs as a strategic asset, and we never had a space like that before.”
Vans: The Party Animal
In the first week of February, the third House of Vans opened, this time in Chicago.
“[The city] hasn’t been a traditional hotbed for our cultural identifiers,” said Vans global brand president Doug Palladini. “But for us to become an important brand in the Midwest, winning in Chicago is paramount.”
To celebrate the launch, Vans hosted a two-day event with special live performances from Future Islands, Digable Planets and Chicago-based breakout artist Noname. The company also held two artist-led workshops and invited the community to test out the newly built skate park. Vans’ team designed the space with Chicago in mind. One unique element is an ivy-covered wall that pays homage to Wrigley Field, home of the 2016 World Series champions, the Chicago Cubs.
The concept behind the House of Vans is to bring the brand to life by referencing its four cultural pillars: action sports, art, music and street culture. The concept first came to fruition in 2010 with the House of Vans in Brooklyn, N.Y., where over the years the brand has hosted thousands of fans for events. The second location, in London, debuted in 2014.
Ironically, the Calif.-based company isn’t focused on retailing at its House of Vans spaces. Aside from some product-specific storytelling,
there is no merchandise on offer. Instead, Vans targets consumer feelings. “Retailing muddies the message and changes the consumer mindset,” said Palladini. “We want their mind to be open and free and leave with a better feeling of Vans.”
To gauge the effectiveness of these cultural hubs, Vans is assessing consumer perceptions through a global online tracker.
Palladini explains that brand health is important to Vans and its retail accounts. “When you walk into a retail partner of ours, our job is to have our brand be front of mind,” he said. “We want to make sure that we’ve done our work. Things like the House of Vans help us to achieve that level of consideration.”
The brand has also utilized the concept as part of its global expansion, by opening overseas pop-ups. “Because it’s such a strong storytelling tool, our ability to use it all over the world has been incredibly powerful,” said Palladini. “If you take a place like Asia, which is fairly new territory for Vans, we’ve been able to pop up House of Vans all over China and South East Asia.”
The company continues to invest in House of Vans with events such as its popular open-mic nights and free skate sessions in Brooklyn, and in November, it hosted a private Metallica show in London for 850 people.
Explained Palladini, “We want to reward loyalists and inspire newcomers. We view those both as high callings. We know we have an obligation to grow our fans.”
Revolve: The Socializer
Though it is a newcomer to the world of brick- and-mortar, online retailer Revolve is making a big investment in real-world engagement.
The company launched Revolve Social Club on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles last spring as a way to connect with customers on a deeper level. And it has — whether it’s with Jessica Alba debuting a denim collaboration or Kim Kardashian West having a private shopping experience.
Revolve’s roughly 3,500-sq.-ft. space is accessible by invite-only to top social media followers, influencers, stylists, high-value customers and celebrities.
The club hosts two or three events per month in its two-floor building, and it also holds parties on the rooftop deck, which overlooks the Hollywood Hills. Recent events have included a collaboration launch party with Stone Cold Fox and footwear brand Raye, and a pop-up with For Love & Lemons.
After toying with the idea of opening a traditional retail space, Revolve decided to skip the pressures of selling product and worrying about monthly sales per square footage, according to chief brand officer Raissa Gerona.
“We wanted to merge that [social] concept into one space, where we not only host events, but create amazing social moments while also being
a place where our influencers can check out new collections,” said Gerona. “And we can service our high-value customers by customizing the space based on their shopping habits.”
Another advantage, she added, was that the e-tailer has more control over its environment. “Every time we had an event, we had to rent and turn it into something that felt like Revolve,” Gerona explained. “We wanted to have a home so that when we hosted something, it’s everything that our brand stands for.”
While the Social Club doesn’t have sales targets, the space is living up to its name by delivering a social impact. There are approximately 3,000 tags on Instagram for the hashtag #RevolveSocialClub.
Gerona added, “To date, we’ve probably garnered more than 500 million impressions on social media alone. And we haven’t even been open one year.”
That is no accident: Revolve had the millennial consumer top of mind when it built the Social Club to be “Instragrammable.” Key features include a tiled “hey” sign near the door for the instant shoefie.
Gerona credits the Social Club’s success to a feeling of exclusivity — and inclusivity at the same time. For instance, customers who shop the space have access to product before it hits Revolve’s website, and the merchandise is switched out every seven to eight days.
The Revolve Social Club is currently closed fora revamp and is scheduled to reopen in time for the Coachella Music & Arts Festival in April.
Toms: The Do-Gooder
Toms has never been quite like other shoe brands, and its stores are similarly unique.
One obvious difference is that its four flagships — in Venice Beach, Calif.; Austin, Texas; Chicago and New York — are cafes, where for every purchase of Toms Roasting Co. coffee, safe water is given to a person in need.
“Giving is part of our foundation, and our cafes allow consumers to be a part of this by incorporating it into their everyday routine of drinking coffee,” said Stephanie Cocumelli, VP of retail operations.
To fully experience Toms’ one-for-one mission, a consumer just needs to step inside its stores.
Since opening its first retail door in 2012, the brand has worked to create an experience for the consumer that goes beyond product and provides insight into the company’s giving.
“Through the Toms retail store experience and event activations, we want the customer to know that they are an active part of our movement to give back to those in need, tapping into the activist in all of us,” said Cocumelli.
To strengthen the brand’s customer engagement, each Toms retail store has a community leader who organizes monthly in-store activations. Some of those have included Style Your Soul events, where guests can create a customized pair of the brand’s shoes. And the Venice Beach location hosted a dinner to celebrate Toms’ collaboration with the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project.
“All of our events encourage our customer to engage with the brand on a more meaningful level, so they have an emotional connection to the giving aspect and the product,” said Cocumelli.
In addition, Toms uses virtual-reality devices in the stores to give shoppers a real glimpse of the team’s outreach in more than 100 countries. The Virtual Giving Trip technology was introduced in 2015 and lets customers come along on a trip to locations such as Peru or Colombia and place shoes and eyewear on children in need.
Throughout 2017, Toms plans to test additional tactics to drive traffic. Just last week, the brand hosted a giveway for its Toms x James Goldcrown Hearts collection in Venice Beach, as another step to push consumer experience.