Shopify COO, Harley Finkelstein
My favorite retail moment of late didn’t come at a celebrity-studded opening for a flagship store or a hyped-up flash sale. In fact, my favorite moment would have been easy to miss entirely.
It came in L.A., when my wife and I stumbled upon Bodega, a streetwear boutique with an entry disguised to look like a humble neighborhood mini-mart. Once inside, you have to pass through a walk-in refrigerator to get to the actual store. Really. Hunting for this retail gem was an adventure unto itself, one that brought back some of the magic that’s been stripped of many retail experiences these days.
While the internet has done a great job of democratizing the buying process in the last few years — allowing anyone to buy anything from anywhere in the world — the convenience it affords can come at the expense of, well, fun. As anyone who’s spent hours sorting through Amazon reviews knows, shopping can be a real chore.
Once upon a time, however, shopping was an event — a treasure hunt, a physical exploration of the unique and unexpected, and an experience unto itself. The good news is, we’re seeing a return to those retail roots in 2019, powered in large part by the ascendance of the direct-to-consumer revolution. Retailers are increasingly bypassing the middleman, going straight to shoppers with products and experiences that are bolder than any big box store could muster.
Here’s how progressive retailers are setting the bar for shopping in 2019:
1. Shopping goes speakeasy
What made my experience at Bodega so special is that it felt like being part of a secret club, and that’s no mistake. When you can look up — and buy — anything online, the onus is on retailers to give brick-and-mortar locations an air of exclusivity. Done right, these stores become destinations unto themselves — interesting, engaging and beautiful enough to be worth the time and effort to make the trek.
In many cases, you might not even recognize them as stores. For instance, The Apartment in Los Angeles could very well be someone’s very stylish flat, and Casa Perfect, another L.A. outpost, functions almost like an art installation that’s by appointment only. Meanwhile, Waco, Texas, is experiencing a spike in tourism thanks to fans of home renovation show Fixer Upper, who are flocking to town specifically to shop at the home-and-garden market built by the show’s stars Chip and Joanna Gaines. Far from retail “dying,” people at events like ComplexCon are actually paying a premium ($90 for a two-day pass!) for the privilege to shop for carefully curated goods in an engaging setting.
Having interesting, and above all, Instagrammable settings also has the added effect of boosting credibility online. Seeing real people document and interact with products via social media instills a sense of trust and authenticity that transcends the screen. In this way, online consumers who can’t make the pilgrimage are inspired to explore and buy, as well.
2. Buying becomes an afterthought
And speaking of trust, e-commerce is not immune to the fallout surrounding the data and privacy scandals enveloping online platforms. With skepticism toward technology companies at an all time high, it’s on retailers to earn consumer trust the old-fashioned way — by adding value to their experience, not just pushing products.
We’re seeing this in the morphing of trusted blogs and ‘zines into retailers. Cosmetic company Glossier started as an online publication called Into the Gloss, where Vogue styling assistant Emily Weiss offered must-read insights into beauty and skincare. With a fanatical fan base, Weiss made the logical leap to selling her own cosmetics, but to this day Glossier focuses as much on educating and entertaining with compelling makeup tutorials as on closing sales. Ditto for Hodinkee. The watch blog has evolved into a high-end watch retailer, but still publishes its own digital magazine focused on fashion, design, cars and, oh yeah, watches.
The point here: Building long-term loyalty, the kind that lives on long after an initial purchase, comes from showing personality and empathy. That means demonstrating a focus on something other than simply moving customers to checkout.
3. Tchotchkes are out; authentic is in
A generation ago, if I wanted a token from my favourite artist, I was limited to a kitschy concert t-shirt or a cheap poster. These days, consumers looking for a touchpoint to their favourite celebrities have much better options. Brands from Ladder (nutrition products from the powerhouse team of Lindsey Vonn, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Cindy Crawford, and Lebron James) to Kylie Cosmetics and Jessica Alba’s Honest Company give buyers a chance to engage and interact with their icons in a far more meaningful way. We’re not talking about buying a cheap t-shirt with NFL star Marshawn Lynch’s name on it, but about wearing authentic “Beast Mode” apparel he helped design.
This has been powered, in no small part, by the direct-to-consumer revolution. Freed from the constraints of retail middlemen, celebrities are now making direct connections with fans through their own authentic marketing — and selling useful, thoughtful products people actually want. This stands in stark contrast to the days when Michael Jordan relied on Nike to design and deploy his namesake Air Jordans. Granted, the partnership was a hit. But it’s telling that in the absence of e-commerce and social media, even the planet’s best-known athlete had to leverage an intermediary (that profited handily from the arrangement) to reach his own fans.
4. Online merchandising reaches its potential
“Personalization” in retail and marketing has been a buzzword for years. But in the past results have been underwhelming: recommendation engines that serve you up the same products you just bought; sticky ads that follow you around the interwebs because you happened to look at a pair of kicks.
However, I’m happy to say that in 2019, tech is finally catching up with the potential of personalized marketing, allowing for true value-adds that reflect individual habits.
One of my favourite examples is Merchant of Tennis, which tracks my purchases and pings me with deals just as my tennis shoes are starting to wear out. Similarly, Boosted Boards keeps tabs on my rides via its app, alerting me when my wheels and battery packs need to be swapped out. Meanwhile Master and Dynamic never tries to sell me a second pair of headphones after I’ve just bought one, but they do let me know about key accessories like ear pads or extra cords.
In 2019, expect to see examples like these proliferate. Thanks to the Internet of Things and advances in data collection, retailers know more about us than ever. And when we’re given the choice to opt-in and see real benefits, the result can be real convenience, not creepiness.
5. The industrial becomes beautiful
When was the last time you got excited about an air purifier? My answer: never, until I came across Awair’s line of sleek, minimalist products that don’t look obtrusive in the middle of the room. Just as Apple turned the humble phone into a technological and design marvel, other industrial products once only prized for their utility are now getting a makeover for a digital, design-forward age — and turning the buying experience from a mundane task to an enticing experience.
From Nest thermostats to Dyson hair dryers to Google Wifi’s high-design alternative to the black, boxy router, companies giving a style reboot to household appliances are responding to a shift in consumer expectations where function alone is not enough. The tech we put in our homes needs to be beautiful, too.
In 2019, we’ve come full circle. Bland and forgettable online shopping is out. An air of exclusivity and adventure — and the chance to pick up, play with and try out the real thing — is in. Above all, shoppers want an experience, not merely a product. And smart brands are riding the direct-to-consumer wave to deliver exactly that, bypassing traditional retailers to connect directly with the hearts and minds of loyal followers.