For many travellers, a visit to the US is a trip to retail heaven. The almost empty luggage on the way over is filled with their haul on the return from the land of shop-til-you-drop. But after my own quick retail tour to the US in August, I didn’t come back with a suitcase filled with merch – I came back with a mind filled with ideas.
I visited Los Angeles, Seattle and New York City in a six-day, deep dive into all things innovative in retail in one of the most advanced markets in the world.
The population density of the US makes it a magnet for inquisitive minds like mine seeking out next-generation retail – and it’s often the flagship and company HQ cities that push the envelope.
When conducting retail visits, I take on customer perspectives by applying different lenses to experiences. I create shopper missions and assume them. I try any and every interactive experience. Where possible, I buy something to understand the entire experience and, most importantly, try to really engage people in-store.
It means my visits aren’t viewed purely from my take on the world, but from that of the intended audience, the characteristics of the space and the interactions designed to optimise experiences.
To provide a glimpse into some standout experiences, I’ve highlighted top picks from each city. I’ve done my best not to cover the epic retailers all know and love like Eataly at Westfield World Trade Centre, rather a diverse range of interesting stores.
While it’s hard to compare different retailers, my criteria were anchored around five key retail customer experience principles critical in any category.
Stores that made the cut delivered exceptionally on some or all of the following:
• Empathetic: At IdeaWorks, we believe relentless empathy is the starting point for designing truly customer-first creative solutions.
• Different: Differentiation is an imperative for any business to establish and sustain long-term separation from competition.
• Authentic: Having an ‘ownable’ purpose and story to tell lives at the heart of any experience. Then deliver the story with authenticity.
• Dynamic: We simply cannot stand still. With constant change, experiences must be consciously evolving and display dynamism to remain relevant.
• Human: People are the lifeblood of any brand and, for retail experiences, they are the literal face of it. People can be the difference between it falling over, or working better than you could have imagined.
• During my trip, it was highly apparent that bricks-and-mortar retail needs to be done absolutely right. The “interesting or nothing” philosophy applies in every category. Whether you’re selling products, services and/or experiences – it needs to be done in an especially interesting way.
Crumbs and Whispers Melrose
7924 Melrose Avenue, LA
This store’s purpose is finding homes for cats at risk of euthanasia from shelters or homelessness. The proposition is built on the idea that if you spend time with a cat, there’s a much better chance you’ll adopt one.
For $US25 you get 70 minutes to play with all the cats in the space, where you can order food and drinks from a nearby partner cafe
with free delivery.
There are up to 34 cats in-store at any one time, all available for adoption and regular ‘Kitten Parties’ to mix things up.
With two stores running in LA and Washington DC since 2015–2016, this simple and purpose-driven experiential retail model has been embraced by locals and is now thriving.
Nike x Melrose
8552 Melrose Avenue, LA
Unlike any Nike store I’ve seen worldwide, this one’s purpose is to serve the Melrose local community. There are several service layers
integrated into the store’s proposition including Swoosh Text, where you can SMS the store team to ask anything. Local integration into the Nike NTC app means customers within 25 miles can reserve pick up, or even book 30 minute express personalised styling sessions.
The service counter, sneaker stock access system and store design are all about never leaving the shop floor and celebrating the product.
Selected product is also local, frequently updated (often weekly) and customers are incentivised to continue to return. The lock box
vending machine at the entry offers members free gifts like socks and sweatbands – and access to renews every fortnight.
@ The Standard Hotel
550 S Flower St, Downtown LA
Artist Lucy Sparrow teamed up with The Standard Hotel for this exhibition-turned-store. Combining art, theatre and retail, Lucy opened a four-week pop-up, with everything in store made of felt – from registers to ATMs, freezers and Coke fridges to slices of pizza and Juicy Fruit gum.
Lucy and her team of five designed, hand-stitched and painted all 31,000 pieces – and closed early after selling every piece of stock
within three weeks. Fifty people at a time entered at 25-minute intervals after up to a four-hour wait in a queue and on the spot registration. By the time they purchased, their details were seamlessly integrated with emailed receipts.
The person in front of me spent $US1,400. The store was paired with an art gallery “stock room”, with pieces valued at over $US20,000.
It was the ultimate collision of entertainment, culture and retail. It sold approximately 10,000 items a week at a premium price and
margin – including my beloved $US65 Coca-Cola bottle.
This store is without question the truest expression of magic when it comes to technology – the idea that tech just disappears and isn’t a focus – it simply enables a magical experience I was in Seattle on opening day of Amazon’s second Go store on 26 August (Amazon plans to open 3,000 stores within the next three years in the US alone).
Staff were tasked with greeting and educating new customers, helping them at check in, filling shelves – all the while remaining highly focused on customers.
I was (well) acknowledged or assisted by four team members.
Amazon Go is the single-click purchase of physical retail shopping. Data that escapes other retailers is at its core. With a data-driven business like Amazon, there’s no telling what types of optimisation will occur as they continue to learn and place the customer at
the heart of every innovation. The data spans every facet of customers’ engagement – every movement, selection, glance, touch, purchase, weather attribute, customer profile, location.
After standing at the entry/exit and watching customers for quite some time, I witnessed people’s faces literally enjoy the magic. One mesmerised grandson asking his grandmother on the way out, “Did we just buy that?” Her glowing response was, “Yep! Pretty cool huh?!”
It’s almost rude to compare Woolworths’ work with Scan&Go to the Amazon Go experience – it is outrageously seamless, simple, natural, highly addictive and exceptionally customer-centric. I loved it!
New York City
The Real Real
80 Wooster St, Soho, New York
This is an impressive authenticated luxury consignment retail experience that opened in LA in July 2018 (its second store after NYC). I visited both stores and was impressed with the simplicity and nature of the business.
The RealReal has flipped the old bricks-to-clicks formula on its head, only opening stores after eight years as a pureplay retailer.
The premise is on reducing (very expensive) waste – promoting the sale and purchase of pre-loved luxury goods. The consignment model means that seller’s margin split starts at 55 per cent for ready-to-wear brands and goes up to 85 per cent, depending on how
premium, rare or volume-based the transaction is.
The RealReal assumes all operations costs including rent, fitout, staffing, but not the cost of the luxury goods (a
similar model to innovative tech retailer, b8ta).
837 Washington Street, New York
We all know this store doesn’t actually sell anything – it’s all about experience. The store narrative is a “collision of culture and technology”.
I experienced an exceptional NASA and Samsung collaboration, which took
me to the moon. I spent five minutes virtually “walking” around on the moon.
I checked out Earth, followed my little rover buddy around, stuck my flag in
the ground (one that I’d designed), then rushed back to the ship to avoid getting
killed by a meteor shower.
The set-up process was full on. With so much detail, security and tech gizmos, I
actually felt like I was being prepared for take-off. Two superbly prepared team
members took me through the experience and the entire experience
was scripted, referring to me as “the pilot” on several occasions.
For the first two minutes, I was focused on ensuring I didn’t jump off
the mat and break anything (including myself). For the remainder, I was truly
transported, rushing back to the ship in time with only a couple of cracks on
my helmet and visor. The team member slowly tapped on my shoulder, advising
me “You’re okay now and I’m about to bring you back to Earth.” It was a special
human touch, I didn’t imagine I’d need –but it was entirely essential.
80 Wooster St, Soho New York
(and Venice Beach, LA)
As an Australian, this store is an incredibly wild concept. A business
and retail experience designed around procuring weed?! With 19 stores and counting, MedMen
is “writing the book on the modern cannabis industry” by taking the
legalisation of cannabis and creating a very impressive, Apple-esque retail
experience that defies convention around the category.
After flashing your driver’s license upon entry (to ensure you can’t access
more than the daily limit from any dispensary in the country), you are
welcomed into what I can only describe as a playground.
MedMen is a beautiful retail space, showcasing a fascinating range of highly
crafted and curated products, from chocolates, lollies and soap to rocky
road treat bars and bath bombs – you name it, it’s there. It’s all supported with
beautifully designed UI digital touch points to provide technical product
information and support product decision making.
This store takes the stereotypical negative associations with “stoners”
and positively delights – flipping an entire industry on its head, all the while
making customers feel good about their procurement process, where the alternative is far from it.
As MedMen claims: “We do not run pot shops, we manage class leading
retail stores that happen to sell marijuana and marijuana products.”
A special shout out to my ‘Steptember’ step tracker: 96,000+ retail steps in six days.
Danny Lattouf is Regional Head of Retail at IdeaWorks powered by VMLY&R.