The making of a great STORY
Entrepreneur Rachel Shechtman on why retail companies should be more like tech startups.
The founder of STORY is celebrating five years in business — a milestone in New York City by most standards. Still, given the unique business model — part gallery and part retail store, with the point of view of a magazine that completely changes every six to eight weeks — it is a testimony to Shechtman’s tenacious spirit and her keen connection to the psyche of today’s shopper.
Shechtman opened STORY at a time when no one was opening retail stores. She set up shop on 10th Avenue in Chelsea, a few blocks southwest of the famous Chelsea Market and a stone’s throw from the High Line. The area is enjoying a revival now, but the location was considered off the beaten path in 2012.
Naysayers wondered how a store that closed its doors every eight weeks to overhaul its content and design would manage to stay in business. Would shoppers who were spending ever-increasing amounts of time online return to STORY again and again? Would they take part in community-based special events?
Shoppers not only found STORY and kept coming back, they remain captivated — awaiting the next STORY, the next Pitch Night and the next opportunity to be a part of a community event that brings together like-minded folks for a special event.
Shechtman is marking the five-year anniversary with a reprise of the Love STORY, this time celebrating her love for retail and her passion for doing things that have never been done before. It includes past partners like Birchbox and Shinola, and new partners like Sakara Life and Allbirds.
“The letter from the editor is written like a dating profile,” Shechtman says, “and it talks about how STORY — out of my love — became a platform for other people to share their passions.”
NRF’s Susan Reda spoke with Shechtman about the earliest days and what makes STORY so captivating.
February marks five years since STORY first opened. Can you share the back story?
We actually opened December 1, 2011. It was a soft launch and we didn’t have our trademark yet, so I didn’t call it STORY. I called it a startup store beta because my whole idea was grounded in the concept that, if we’re the same people who live online and offline, why aren’t we reinventing new business models in a physical world business based on behaviors that were coming out of the digital world?
Tech companies launch product in beta. Why can’t stores open in beta? So December 1 was our beta launch.
What do you remember about day one? Do you recall the first item you sold?
The first item we sold was a Pivot Power from Quirky. Our first transaction came at four o’clock in the afternoon, and it was purchased by Graham Hill, who’s the founder of TreeHugger.com.
But what I remember even more clearly was a bet I made a few weeks earlier with one of my best friends, Ben Kaufman, who founded Quirky. It was October 28 and I had no running water, no electricity, no cement on the floor and I was telling him that I couldn’t wait for Christmas. He told me there was no way I’d be open for Christmas. … He said, “I bet you $20,000 you won’t be.” The good news is we were.
You have a knack for embracing the unexpected — whether it’s unusual products or curious partners. It that a skill that comes naturally for you?
I don’t know what gene is labeled for discovery, but it’s hardwired in me. I’m a fourth-generation merchant, and I remember going to my first trade show when I was 12. I don’t want to oversimplify it, but I think it’s just something that’s always been part of what I do and what I like.
When it comes to the partnerships we’ve had through the years, we like to say they’re unlikely bedfellows. There were times when I was nervous that people were going to come in and call us a sellout, or think we’d gone too commercial. The partnerships with Procter & Gamble and Pepsi come to mind. Here I am a concept shop in Chelsea, with a P&G logo and Gillette and Old Spice brands on the shelves. But in five years, that hasn’t happened once.
When I think about why some of these [alliances] have resonated, I think it’s because we’re not focused on selling Gillette razors or pushing Pepsi soda. We’re focused on telling a story and they are part of our story — in a context where they add authority and authenticity.
If I’m telling a STORY about men’s grooming and I have a hot towel shave station in the store for men, do you want STORY — a random boutique — touching your face with a razor, or would you like someone that’s been blessed by Gillette? It’s a partnership that may be unexpected, yet makes sense on so many levels.
There is an energy about you when it comes to discovering new products and celebrating the entrepreneurs who create these unique things. Is there one that stands out?
One of my favorites was a young woman, Janah Schwartz, who I met while I was in Portland [Ore.] for a speaking engagement. I was walking the Portland Saturday Market and I came upon Janah’s amazing sculptural soaps — Leeloo Soaps. I was obsessed with them and I remember telling her, “I have a store in New York, I need to sell these.” She wasn’t interested in doing any wholesale orders for Christmas, but I wouldn’t back down. I kept telling her that I was obsessed with her handmade soaps and had to have them. Eventually I convinced her and featured her products in the store during Home for the Holiday.
Whoopi Goldberg came into the store and she bought the soaps for Christmas gifts — but not only did she buy the soaps, she put them on “The View.” I couldn’t wait to call [Schwartz]. I said, “I bet you’re going to be happy that you sold me your soaps.”
Then, to take it a step further, I reached out to her about our collection with Nickelodeon. It involved creating some exclusive merchandise for a collaboration we were doing at the time with Neiman Marcus. I went back to her and asked her to create exclusive Nickelodeon soap, like slime and “Hey Arnold!” and SpongeBob, and then we sold it on NeimanMarcus.com.
Think about it — the girl was selling soap on the street, ended up being featured on “The View” and sold on [Neiman Marcus’s website] without having to travel or impact her local business.
I see my role as part translator and part facilitator. Small businesses speak Japanese, big businesses speak Spanish and there’s few people who are fluent in both. I enjoy sitting at the intersection and saying, “OK, what are the needs of the big company, what are the needs of the small company and how can we produce an outcome that benefits both and has an impact for a consumer?”
The fact that you love the role of facilitator seems like a huge part of why you love Pitch Night.
That’s my favorite, favorite thing. We’ve had people attend Pitch Night that have flown in from Toronto and from Denver. Never in a million years would I think that someone would fly in. Initially when someone said they were from Denver, I’d ask what they were doing in town. When they said they came for Pitch Night, I felt guilty — as though I should reimburse them for their flight.
But the truth is there was one woman, Abby Walker from Vivian Lou, who was from Minneapolis and took the risk to come to New York City for a three-minute presentation and now she’s on HSN once a month.
There are young people who have had the chance to pitch their product to Mindy Grossman of HSN and Jim Gold from Neiman Marcus. That’s insane. But what I love about it is that I get to put the right people together — and then get out of the way. It doesn’t need to only be about STORY or me.
I consider STORY a unique blend of content, commerce and community. Is there one that you weigh more than the others?
I think any given STORY has different percentages of each. Some might be more commerce-driven like Holiday and others might be more content-driven like the Feel Good STORY with Cigna that focused on health and wellness. But I will say that the one that’s both the most fulfilling and the most surprising is community.
I often think, if Facebook and LinkedIn are a part of our daily lives in the digital world, what’s the 3.0 version of community in a physical world? If we crave community, connections and sharing things in a digital world, then wouldn’t the same be true in a physical world?
It’s evident with product. We get new content every five milliseconds on our phones, so no wonder people are bored walking in and seeing the same merchandise four months later. We’ve been getting new content on our devices for how long? I think there’s such an opportunity with community, yet it was the biggest surprise.
What do the next five years look like?
Partnership. I am not sure in what form, however I know I am ready to take our learnings and scale them. We have seen others successfully execute insights from STORY at scale and that has only fueled my interest in scale myself.
NRF has been writing about STORY since 2012. Take a look back at our coverage to see how this brand has evolved: