17 Sep 2020

This week: Whether you’re a fledgling business looking to grow, or a game-changer hoping to inspire a movement – how can a retail experience deliver your message to the people?



For as many retail closures that make the news these days, brands are still opening new doors. “What’s in a flagship?” wondered Daphne Howland in Retail Dive, in an article that examines how the value of a physical space lies in the connections it creates.

• “Put destination retailing on the back burner, go to where the people are instead of expecting the people to come to you,” said Corey Dehus, founder of design agency Path Retail. Riding the WFH wave, Lululemon is set to open 70 streamlined local pop-ups in time for the holiday season, offering their trademark stretchy pants and highlighting newer products like menswear.

• “We’ve all lived in a time of social isolation – brands can understand that we’re social creatures. If that’s a flagship, if that’s a local store, each one of them is going to be more important than ever before,” said Stenn Parton, CRO at DJM Capital Partners. To wit: Foot Locker opened its first West Coast “Power Store” in Compton. While its name is somewhat unfortunate, its ambitions are noble (it maintains a community garden and hosts neighbourhood clean-ups) – and hyper-local. Staffed by talent living within a five-mile radius, it features work by local artists and limited-edition product from homegrown brands.

• In another step towards world domination, Apple unveiled its latest shrine: a spherical store on the waters of Singapore’s glitzy Marina Bay. The tech company says its 512th outpost is their “most ambitious retail project,” and grandiose it is – in all its heavily symbolic, Pantheon-inspired glory. It’s nearly unimaginable that in 2001, when Steve Jobs designed the first Apple Store with architect Ron Johnson, he was staking his company’s future on brick-and-mortar retail. Yet what the sleek interiors conveyed was secondary to the help and support offered at the Genius Bar. “Even today, you walk by [a] store and see that people feel like they belong there,” said Johnson.

Apples and Lululemons of the retail world aside, the lesson for brands of all sizes is the same. Build it next door, and they will come. But it’s the experience that compels them to stay.


We’ve made it this far, but it’s time to acknowledge the coronavirus in the room. Digital is more necessary than ever before to build a brand, but without a physical experience to anchor it, does it have the same effect?

Not really. (And yes, we’ll cite that SEMrush data again).

• September is among the most important moments in fashion’s calendar – and the question of physical is a fraught one. “Fashion Month Is Happening! Really. Probably? Maybe,” ran a headline in The New York Times. The online experimentation this summer set some precedents for diminished engagement. Without its usual crop of influencers in attendance, Copenhagen’s August fashion week “fizzled,” said Vogue Business. London-based designer Eudon Choi is hosting three live shows today – no “rule of six” for fashion! With less impact from digital experiments past, he’s among a few designers who are betting on in-person for a much-needed boost to engagement and wholesale orders.

• While the tactile, material nature of fashion means a physical experience is crucial – virtual reality is a less obvious one. For a business so rooted in digital, VR trailblazers OTHERWORLD see physical sites as crucial to the longevity of their brand, enabling them to tell a story through the environment – “through the outfits of the staff, the design, and the location.” If we can just strap on goggles, why do we still seek out socialising? “There are all these tiny little elements of body language that allow us to communicate… until we have the capacity to reflect this, VR will not beat meeting in the real world,” said founder Ed Wardle.

• IRL over URL is a familiar theme that continues to dominate the conversation. In this week’s masterclass on using stores to build brand awareness, Malcolm Dia, founder of Manual Photo, said: “Physical retail adds a whole other layer to the brand. People can see what you’re really about. We love digital, obviously, you have to – but I always expect physical retail to trump retail online.”

The feed can only go so far. The fight for people’s limited attention spans will be won by creating a memorable moment. Making an appearance, no matter how short-lived, is how it’s done.

There’s power in the ephemeral – the FOMO is real.

Words by Amy Tai, creative consultant and native New Yorker now based in London.