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What’s the point of shops in the age of Amazon?

Can Instagram save offline shopping?

Kassia St Clair investigates how retail design is adapting to an internet age

Kassia St Clair investigates how retail design is adapting to an internet age

Kassia St Clair | August/September 2018

The first hint of what was to come was the new colour scheme. At the start of 2018, Rhea’s Café in San Francisco was painted in dull sandy yellow and sage. But by mid-March it was more eye-catching: bubblegum pink and lilac. Soon, long queues of laughing women began to form. Waiting in line they would pose for selfies before going inside, sitting down to plates of buttermilk-fried chicken and perusing the pots, tubes and vials of make-up tastefully arranged in stem glasses and under glass cloches. People paused while applying blusher to admire themselves in scalloped mirrors emblazoned with a slogan: “YOU LOOK GOOD”.

The company responsible was Glossier, a beauty brand aimed at millennial women. Although it is principally an online retailer based in New York, Glossier has built its reputation on elaborate pop-up stores. Last year it unveiled a space in Manhattan decked out in red velvet curtains to coincide with the launch of a new perfume (main image). Visitors were invited to enter a tiny room inside and push a big red button, which opened an aperture in the wall. Then a hand in a red rubber glove would emerge and spray perfume on the visitor’s wrist. One woman filmed her visit and posted it on YouTube. “This is the future,” she said, “and I don’t know what I think of it.” Glossier’s stores, inspired by immersive theatre and performance art, are typical of a new approach to shop design which is changing what shops look like and what they’re for.

Shop design has been getting more imaginative for years. When Aesop, an Australian cosmetics company, began expanding from its base in Melbourne in the early 2000s, it wanted to operate like a chain without looking like one. For each new shop they opened – there are now well over 100 – the company commissioned an original design, which would draw on the culture of the location. Their shop in the Century City district of Los Angeles is covered with blue tiles the exact colour of a David Hockney swimming pool. The walls of their shop downtown are corrugated with the cardboard cores from discarded rolls of fabric, a nod to the garment factories that once dominated the area. Aesop hopes that the sophistication of these designs flatters customers into thinking that the company appreciates their neighbourhood, signals that Aesop products are for people who are aesthetically discerning, and encourages newcomers into the appealing shops, where, perhaps, they will buy an expensive bottle of shampoo.

Now store design is entering a new phase. “In the late Nineties, there was a fear that clicks were going to replace bricks, and everybody was freaking out about it,” says Lara Marrero, the head of retail strategy at Gensler, an international architecture firm. Though online purchasing did cannibalise sales from shops, brands found it difficult to lure customers by digital means alone. “No matter how many emails you send with the recipient’s name on, you can’t personalise a brand online,” Marrero says. “It’s like the difference between writing a letter to somebody and then meeting them in person.” An increasing number of companies are opening shops, not so much to sell things – there’s the internet for that – but to advertise their ethos and to entertain.

Supreme, a cult brand that makes streetwear, recently opened a new shop in Brooklyn. The brick façade has patchy rendering and the remnants of old graffiti. Inside the walls are covered in layers of old paint. Hoodies and T-shirts are in short supply and shunted off to the side. Instead the space is dominated by a wooden skateboarding bowl that resembles an upturned igloo. The atmosphere is ultra-cool and casual. But it is also exclusive: the skate bowl can be used by invitation only and security guards allow a trickle of people inside at any one time. Getting in, says Neil Logan, the New York architect who designed the shop, “has to be a whole planned event”. It seems to have worked. Supreme’s fans queue up to visit, snap a selfie, post it on social media and bask in the reflected glow of the brand – which is valued at $1bn.

Roll with it
Fans of Supreme enjoy the skate-boarding bowl at the company’s new shop in Brooklyn

Social media have given companies new ways to track how effective their branches are, beyond simply footfall or year-on-year sales. They can see how much attention a store generates on social media and then follow that trail to online sales. “The average influencer”, Marrero says, “can get 26 people to buy something, even if they themselves buy nothing.” But achieving this means giving people an experience worth telling their friends about. Recently Marrero went to the new Glossier shop in Los Angeles, where they have decorated a room to look like the bottom of the Grand Canyon, which has become the selfie room. “There was a queue 30 minutes long of kids waiting to take a photo so they can say been there, done that.” It’s buzz like this that Glossier reckons has driven a 99% increase in its year-on-year sales to April 2018.

Stores are adapting not just to how people interact online, but also to the hunger of their own Instagram feeds. Every branch of Anthropologie, a clothing and interiors retailer, contains a workshop, where teams of artists and designers knock up new furniture and lavish decorative touches every few weeks, ranging from metal mesh fragments evoking gusts of wind to a 12-foot blue whale fashioned from scraps of discarded denim. It takes up what would once have been valuable floor space for products, but allows each store to change its look quickly. The workshops give the company new ways to draw people in. Every branch hosts craft-based events, with members of the store’s art department demonstrating how to make paper flowers or embellish clothes. Tickets sell out within a day or two, the company says, often to young people who may not even be able to afford the products on display. But once they’ve set foot inside, they have met the brand in person. They may well keep in touch.