Probably like many men in long-term relationships, I spent Christmas Eve hopelessly meandering through U.S. retailers, trying to find a solidly adequate gift for my fiance. Maxed out on giving jewelry or vacations that I secretly wanted to go on, my travels brought me to the storefronts of Soho in New York City, brimming with the real-life presences of beloved digital brands such as Allbirds, Warby Parker, and Untuckit.
Amid the usual holiday glitz and glamour, there were really only two interesting ideas: Amazon 4-star, and a holiday pop-up by the Strategist, the commerce arm of New York magazine. Both stores are unique in that they are merchandised entirely based on product reviews written on the internet. Each beckoned to me by promising to solve the paradox of choice that cripples my feeble attempts at consumerism.
As a hopeless shopper, the idea of a store telling me what to buy is my personal American dream. I can (somewhat) easily run 10+ miles, yet five minutes after walking into a mall, my feet are always in searing pain. If forced to choose between the fifth level of Dante’s Inferno and the bedding aisle at Kohl’s, send me into the fire.
I was struck by how much Amazon’s store looks like retail’s past and the Strategist’s pop-up looks like retail’s future.
But after visiting both shops, I was struck by how much Amazon’s store looks like retail’s past while the Strategist’s pop-up looks like retail’s future. (Full disclosure, I am an exec at Narrativ, a technology partner of the Strategist though we had no involvement in the brick and mortar store.) Amazon 4-star works fine as, essentially, a refined T.J.Maxx, offering a cornucopia of products united by their popularity among Amazon shoppers. But despite drawing from the wisdom of the crowd, the store fails to capture the serendipity and treasure hunt mystique that has made Marshall’s and T.J.Maxx a triumphant enigma amid the retail apocalypse. Most damningly, the store doesn’t really inspire you to buy anything you aren’t explicitly looking for, essentially taking Amazon’s Achilles heel and bringing it to the physical form. I left Amazon 4-star with only a copy of Codenames, a board game I’ve explicitly known I wanted to purchase for months.
At first glance, the I Found It at the Strategist shop makes even less sense. The store is unabashedly minimalist, stocking probably one-third of the items most retailers would display in a similar space. The selection of products feels random, with the main unifying factor being that everything felt a bit too hip for my blood.
But as I took a lap around the store and read the product displays, I felt this weird curiosity come over me. I felt cultured, almost as if I were in a museum dedicated to commerce. For the first time in my life, I actually enjoyed discovering items and finally understood how shopping became the great American pastime. Ultimately, I left the Strategist pop-up with something called Bro Mask, a product I’d never heard of until I read the article next to it that convinced me I’ve been neglecting my poor face for all of its sad 26 years on Earth.
But as I wondered how someone just got me to spend $30 on black goo, larger questions lingered in my mind. Why is a magazine company doing this? And is it just crazy enough to work?