Nordstrom, which has long played to retail’s social aspects with restaurants, bars, cafés and pop-up shops, is experimenting in Los Angeles with a new “showroom” concept called Nordstrom Local. It eschews the typical inventory to offer guests a 360-degree experience with in-store fittings, personal styling, curbside pickup, an on-site bar and a nail salon. In a clear signal of the brand’s commitment to taking its legendary service online, Nordstrom has also incorporated two e-retailers, BevyUp and MessageYes, to help deliver its trademark shopping and style advice straight to customers through their smartphones.
“It’s the best of both worlds,” says Gruber of Nordstrom’s standing invitation to shop products online and then try them on in the store, which also alleviates the age-old disappointment of turning up only to find the store doesn’t have your size.
“No one has time for that anymore,” says Leavitt. Today’s time-strapped shoppers, owing to technology, are more informed and discerning. Savvy retailers respond with multiple sales channels for added convenience, including options to buy online and pick up in the store.
“It has to be frictionless,” Leavitt notes of the modern shopping experience. And it should leave consumers feeling as if they got some added benefit, be it a social experience, great service or something else that makes them feel it was worth the trip.
“In the end,” Leavitt says, “although we believe really strongly that bricks-and-mortar and online are very important to each other, we also know that for there to continue to be that balance, bricks-and-mortar has to provide an experience that can’t be found online.”
Target is experimenting with even smaller urban stores
Bonobos, the nationwide men’s clothing retailer with a store at University Village, is one of the retailers driving the “showrooming” trend, which basically means you can try something on in the store, order it online and have it delivered to your home.
Now owned by Walmart, Bonobos happened upon the concept almost by accident when, as an online-only store, it invited customers to try on clothes inside its New York City office. “It was more of an internally focused showroom,” recalls Micky Onvural, copresident and chief marketing officer. “We realized we were kind of onto something when we saw the metrics,” she adds, recalling that surprisingly high numbers of customers who tried on the clothing wound up purchasing the items.
Six years later, that data-driven approach informs Bonobos’ explosive growth, which includes opening 48 stores (which it calls “guide shops”) around the country in locations driven by customer analytics.
“We’re removing the guesswork of a traditional retailer who doesn’t have a strong e-commerce presence,” Onvural says.
The showroom model also has cost efficiencies, requiring only a curated selection of inventory and less floor space, thus freeing staff to engage with customers.
“I call these very smart retailers,” says University Village VP and General Manager Susie Plummer. “They’ve started online, but they’re able to enter individual markets with loads of knowledge about their customers.”
There are a number of such stores in University Village. In addition to Bonobos, Plummer points to Amazon Books — the online retailer’s first brick-and-mortar location — which features curated selections of what Seattleites are reading, sometimes honed all the way down to ZIP codes of University Village shoppers; eyeglass phenomenon Warby Parker; and Oiselle, a local women’s athletic apparel company that started online, then strategically grew into a multipurpose store and runners’ clubhouse.
Despite many stories that have predicted the death of brick-and-mortar retail, Phillip Raub sees a lot of reason for optimism. He’s president and cofounder of Bay Area technology retailer B8ta, which leases retail space to emerging online brands. It opened its second store in University Village in 2016, displaying new tech products that customers can try and buy.
“What’s happening is a lot of legacy retailers are shuttering their doors because they’re not being able to adapt to the times, they’re not getting ahead of the technology curve,” Raub says.
Retail is indeed undergoing a fundamental shift, asserts Raub, who worked at Nest and Nintendo before opening B8ta’s first Palo Alto location in 2015.
“There are so many brands emerging that grew up online first,” he says. “Traditionally, if you were going to launch a product, you figured out how to get into a department store or a big-box retailer. Now, retailers can open a Shopify account and start selling online, but they also get to a point where they hit a ceiling.”
Raub points to successful brands such as Casper, an online-only mattress company that is now opening stores and partnering with Target. “They realize there are only so many Facebook ads you can do before you’re going to hit a saturation point about who your target audience is.” To have strong brand recognition and mass appeal, he believes online retailers eventually need to open retail stores.
“Discovering a product, experiencing it, that’s part of what a store does now,” adds James Adams, whose Seattle-based design agency, 5ive Creative, partners with brick-and-mortar retailers to help them leverage their physical spaces.
Among them is Elliott Bay Book Company, a case study in retail design. Rather than blink in the face of encroaching Amazon Books, the bookstore has seen a 40 percent increase in sales since moving to a Capitol Hill space.
Stores like Elliott Bay Book Company use their spaces to connect with customers via knowledgeable staff, in-store displays and events. At Elliott Bay, cozy seating, reading tables and a café offer guests an opportunity to linger for hours.
All of this presents a distinct opportunity to engage with customers in an experience that still can’t be replicated online, says Adams. “There’s a way to create a stronger bond with your customer if there’s a physical point where you get immersed in it.”
He likens the process to online dating. “It’s great to email back and forth, but at some point, you really want to meet the person and exchange on that human level, and stores have that opportunity.”
And like that first date, it has to be good and make you want to come back. A well-loved mascot just isn’t enough.