The Menswear Market is Going All In on Experiential Retail

Much like their women's fashion and beauty counterparts, menswear brands are experimenting with ways to update the in-store experience for the digital age.
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Photo: Courtesy of Alton Lane

Photo: Courtesy of Alton Lane

When men enter one of the 13 Alton Lane showrooms sprinkled across the country from Dallas to Boston, they are faced with options extending well beyond the look of the bespoke suit they are there to buy. Would they, for example, prefer to sip on a bourbon or a hot tea before stripping down to their skivvies and stepping into the 3D body scanner that will take their measurements? Would they like to select a Migos track to play while discussing lapel width or is it more of an Ariana Grande type of day? Do they want to just put the whole suit business on hold for now, tuck into a side room and play some cards with their bros while someone else gets their inseam checked by lights and sensors?

"It's not just the clothes that are tailored for you," explains Alton Lane co-founder and CEO Colin Hunter. "It's actually the experience that's tailored for you."

Hunter, a former Bain consultant, and his business partner, Peyton Jenkins, like to think of their showroom concept as "the anti-retail store," a shorthand way of saying that Alton Lane ain't your grandpa's suit shop or your best friend's wedding party's Today's Man or any number of the other available establishments that ultimately serve the same function of getting you to buy a jacket and pants — presumably without a fully stocked bar or pool table.

"We really wanted to have an experience that was comfortable, that was enjoyable, that didn't feel like shopping," Hunter says. But, as more menswear retailers experiment with innovative in-store activations, opportunities for personalization and exclusive brick-and-mortar-only product drops, shopping for men's clothing anywhere often doesn't feel like the experience Hunter and Jenkins set out to disrupt.

Photo: Courtesy of Alton Lane

Photo: Courtesy of Alton Lane

Experiential shopping — defined by the market research firm NPD Group as a retail environment "in which stuff happens in addition to selling, and shoppers do things besides buying" – is certainly not a new phenomenon used to lure in customers. Harry Gordon Selfridge, the American-born retail pioneer who founded the English department store Selfridges in 1909, is credited with introducing ideas that set the stage for experiential retail as we know it. Among other things, he brought in live musicians to entertain shoppers and drove foot traffic by publicly displaying a television in his store in the 1920s.

Decades later, in 1998, the Harvard Business Review would publish a story called "Welcome to the Experience Economy," announcing that "the next competitive battleground lies in staging experiences." The article wasn't entirely prescient with regard to how experiential shopping could feasibly work in the retail landscape of the then-future; among other things, it advocated for Nike and Disney to charge admission fees for entry into their stores. But, it does serve to illustrate that menswear companies are fighting, to an extent, to make an old idea seem brand new.

Interestingly, the tactics men's fashion retailers are using are often rooted in lo-fi, nostalgic throwbacks to the past or in glimpses of a high-tech future. Fitting rooms at the Tommy Hilfiger London flagship, for example, are equipped with touchscreen smart mirrors that shoppers can tap to have styles or sizes delivered to them by sales associates. On the other side of town, the department store Brown's East also makes use of smart mirrors. There, registered shoppers can use the mirrors to peruse clothing options based on their previous purchases; if the desired item isn't available in-store, the mirror can be used to communicate with a stockroom and the shopper can choose to have the piece delivered to Brown's within an hour.  

In contrast, at select Kith locations from Miami to Tokyo, hypebeasts who feel depleted after fighting crowds for the newest sneaker release can test the limits of their pancreas and indulge in on-site, retro-flavored cereal and ice cream bars called Kith Treats. Nordstrom's first-ever men's store in New York is equipped with both a liquor license and a life-size screen that can display a digitized version of a suit to a shopper's exact specifications before they order it. Guys living in the city can currently choose to get a haircut at the new J.Crew men's boutique in DUMBO, at The Blind Barber tucked inside Barneys Downtown, uptown at John Allan's located within Saks Fifth Avenue, or at the Persons of Interest outpost inside the Todd Snyder Madison Square Park flagship. (They can also choose from any number of the city's actual barbershops, many of which also serve their clients drinks from a bar.)

Based on these descriptions, it may seem that men's fashion companies are convinced that their customers are hungry drunks with skin fades who long to look at clothes and their own reflections simultaneously. Whether this is indeed the case, there is some legitimate data to support these companies' dedication to experiential concepts targeted squarely at guys.

Sales figures have heartily debunked the myth that men don't like shopping for clothes — growth in revenue in the menswear market continues to outpace that of women's apparel — and a consumer behavior study released this spring found that men are less likely than women to shop online, preferring instead the sensory pleasures of interacting with a product before purchasing it over the instant gratification of clicking a "purchase" button. Aside from the abundant and oft-repeated survey data demonstrating that millennials as a whole value experiences more than material goods, this year, the National Retail Federation also found that 60 percent of millennial men specifically expressed strong interest in retail experiences and events.

Inside the J.Crew Dumbo store. Photo: J.Crew

Inside the J.Crew Dumbo store. Photo: J.Crew

It seems, then, that the current challenge in such a crowded space is to create experiences for men that are actually unique. At their aforementioned barber-equipped location in DUMBO, the team at J.Crew wanted to provide a grooming service, but were aware of the need to separate themselves from other barber-retail hybrid concepts. "Sam Buffa, the founder of Fellow Barber, lives in the area and has other businesses nearby, so he's really a neighborhood friend to us," says Vanessa Holden, chief marketing officer at J.Crew. "It just made sense. Together with him and the Fellow Barber team, the intent was to create a lively neighborhood magnet."

In addition to the barber chairs, Holden says her team began to work with the Fellow Barber early on in the process to bring in exclusive collections from authentic local brands like ONLY NY and American Heirloom. She also promises live events with neighborhood fixtures to draw in nearby Brooklynites. "Unexpected elements are table stakes in any J.Crew location," she adds.

Other retailers up the unexpected experiential ante, investing in elements that are also unseen. Dawn Goldworm is the creative director and in-house nose at 12.29, the New York-based company she founded with her sister Samantha that specializes in olfactive branding. 12.29 has created bespoke scents to enhance the shopping experience at retailers like Nike, Harrod's and Valentino.

"People have such a strong emotional reaction to scent," Goldworm explains, noting that she conducts extensive research on olfactive preferences to isolate the most appealing scent notes for her clients' target customers, designed to be presented alongside other experiential shopping elements. "Smell takes it to a more powerful level," she says. "You can get even more emotionally engaged, which is really the byproduct of a scented environment: that emotional experience."

Some brands, however, don't even need a dedicated retail environment of their own to engage their customers experientially. Blippar, an augmented reality company that has partnered with Topman, Henry Holland and Mr. Porter in the past, has technology that is capable of recognizing specific products wherever they are, allowing users to unlock related campaigns or games or additional information from their smartphones. "The brand can build one experience that's replicable in different markets in different countries," says Luke Zaki, Blippar's global client director. Because the AR technology can be product-based and not only location-based, brands can reproduce an experiential shopping concept in any retail setting. "It's one experience that can keep giving," Zaki says.

One experience, it should be said, doesn't work for every experiential menswear retailer, though. While Alton Lane has found success with their showroom-clubroom model, Indochino, a lower-priced, mass-market custom suit label, abandoned their own version of a boozy-lounge concept after drunk groomsmen reportedly made sales associates' lives a living hell. A liquor-free concept that swapped out cocktails for Zaha Hadid coffee table books can now be experienced by civilized male shoppers at over 15 locations across the U.S. and Canada.

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