It’s all about the Experience, man.


Who says retail is dead? A recent hour-long walk around Soho in lower Manhattan leads me to believe that many of the top retailers and brands are doing plenty of business, though their shops look a bit… different. I witnessed a variety of cleverly designed spaces that reward in-person customers with exciting (& shareable) experiences. Some are selling far fewer items, and others aren’t selling anything at all! Instead, they are using floor space to build Instagramable scenes, tell their brand story, or augment reality with digital tools (so many touch screens!). These massive shifts in approach to selling appear to be resulting in more smiles and certainly more sharing.

I used to cower at the prospect of walking around downtown Manhattan between Black Friday and Christmas Eve. ’Tis peak shopping season, and the streets fill with tourists gawking with mouths agape. This year, I found myself working in the area, forcing me to brace myself for the sidewalk scrum. It hasn’t been terrifying. It’s been amazing.

While the standard over-the-top holiday window displays are still present, it is what’s happening inside the shops that is remarkable. Now that we primarily browse, research, and shop online, physical retailers are finding ways to leverage their high-rent square footage to build their brands and establish goodwill.

The trend is called experiential retail, and it is very much a thing right now. Plenty of people are writing about this (a select list of articles can be found below), so I’m simply going to take you on a virtual stroll.

Let’s learn what’s happening!

Best Made Co:
“A company that finds meaning through making,” Best Made Co has a limited selection of fine-quality outdoorsy gear. They have a year-round shop in NYC, but also operate a seasonal pop-up that transports all who cross the store’s threshold right into a large-format canvas tent. Seriously, the entire store is in a tent! This one takes the cake for most enveloping experience as only about 5 shoppers can be in the cozy space at any given moment.

Yankee Candle:
Aside from the cringeworthy hashtag #candlepowernyc, this pop-up store in the heart of Soho was remarkably on point. Visitors could play with and take beautifully-framed photos in five or six scenes, each designed to bring a scent to life. The merchandising located at the back of the shop was as beautiful as any of the instagram scenes, elevating the simple products to objets d’art. (I returned the next day to make a purchase — the marketing worked!) Slow clap for taking the essence of Refinery 29’s pioneering concept of 29ROOMS and turning it into a retail pop-up (without the $40 entry fee).

Elegant approach to exposing fundamental brand value messages
Retail area in the back of the store

Unlike some of the other stores, Nike’s celebration of sport is present year-round. Upon entry, guests are surrounded by the world of the brand’s flagship sneaker, the Air Force One. There are user customization stations and the history of the shoe is proudly shared. Visitors who make their way up to the top floor are rewarded with a half-court basketball trial space and a variety of Air Jordan classic kicks.

Museum-quality presentation
Brand story
Thematic retail “gallery”
Jordan lords above the top floor
Court for live product trial

Harry is a direct-to-consumer online brand has established a physical retail location. They explain:

Harry’s Corner Shop was designed to be a neighborhood shop — a modern store built with respect for the community atmosphere of the traditional barbershop. It’s an intimate spot where regulars and newcomers can hang out, get a haircut and shave from experienced barbers, discover new and interesting products that may add to their grooming routine or their daily lives, and build long lasting relationships with others in the neighborhood.

Though I wasn’t in need of a shave or a haircut, I appreciated their painted advertisement on the side of the building.

Quite literally a “corner store”

Cadillac has done something generous for the downtown creative community. They’ve built out a super cool space to hang (& check out the cars if you wish). It’s essentially a free-to-use working space in lower Manhattan, where access typically comes at a premium. The decor is beautiful, the vibe is friendly, and there isn’t a salesperson in sight. Visitors are warmly greeted and allowed to explore the expansive space on their own terms. From Cadillac:

“Dedicated to what’s new and next in the arts, culture, fashion and culinary world, you’ll discover everything from a gallery featuring the latest in cutting-edge Contemporary Art, to a retail pop-up showcasing up and coming designers, to a café hosted by local roaster JOE Coffee. You’ll also find the latest Cadillac vehicles and technology.”

Notice how the brand comes last. That’s the key.

An impressive exterior
The view as visitors step inside
Exhibit space that changes every 3 months

Museum of Natural History:
This one is only an advertisement, but you’ll notice that the offer is for “An Immersive Experience”. Downtown cool is spreading to the masses.

What’s next?
The increasing number of experiential retail shops makes them no less interesting or impactful. In fact, with more brands buying into the concept, the more variety consumers have to experience. A more reasonable concern is how to deploy across a variety of markets at an affordable cost. While the experiential retail concept is best suited to cities and high-density events (looking at you, music festivals), the images and stories from these physical locations travel far beyond their square footage. I welcome the powerful blend of story/showcase/space. The stage is set for some damn exciting storytelling.

This trend makes so much sense that I can’t imagine it being relegated to just a fad. Experiential shops can provide the tangibility we crave to balance our digital lives. It feels as though location-based retail is filled with OPPORTUNITY!

Select year-round experiential retail spaces:

Point of view of a Magazine. Changes like a Gallery. Sells things like a Store.

As seen above, exhibit space changes every 3 months


Press: NYC Go & High Snobiety

Press: Endgadget & GQ

Not a store, in that you can’t purchase any Samsung products.
Press: The Verge

Press: The Next Web

Select experiential retail articles:

Retail is dead, long live the retail experience (Mashable)

The state of experiential retail in five charts (Digiday)

Retail as marketing: Redefining the retail experience (Forbes)

Are hotels the new frontier in experiential retail? (Retail Dive)

There’s also a whole book about this stuff and it’s a fun read:
The Power of Moments (Chip & Dan Heath)

Thanks for exploring with me!