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Hey, Quick Question: Has 'Store' Become a Dirty Word in Retail?

Pop-ups, experiences and showrooms are on the rise. Stores? Not so much.
A Mejuri showroom in Toronto. Photo: Courtesy of Mejuri

A Mejuri showroom in Toronto. Photo: Courtesy of Mejuri

Welcome to our column, "Hey, Quick Question," where we investigate seemingly random happenings in the fashion and beauty industries. Enjoy!

Physical retail isn't dead, only evolving. While some retailers have filed bankruptcy proceedings and closed stores en masse (you know the ones), others have swiftly opened up brick-and-mortar spaces in their wake — and, interestingly, "store" seems to be the last word they want to use to describe them. Instead, it's a "pop-up," or an "experience," or a "showroom," or a "guideshop," or a "space," or a "concept," or a "long-term pop-up" (but isn't that just a st—... nevermind). Our question: Is the "store," as we know it, dead?

"Store" is defined as "a retail establishment selling items to the public," and while that certainly describes a number of the aforementioned non-stores that have popped up lately, the companies behind them are using language to distance themselves from the traditional term. It's similar to the way malls are now "shopping centers" and "villages" and sales associates are now "stylists." As retail changes, so are the words we use to define it.

Online-native, direct-to-consumer brands and retailers are leading the charge with this new terminology. M.M.LaFleur and Bonobos operate showrooms and guideshops, respectively, where customers can be fitted for a new wardrobe with help from a stylist and have their picks shipped to their homes. Rapidly growing DTC jewelry brand Mejuri's showrooms in Toronto, New York and (soon) Los Angeles allow customers to try on pieces without glass barriers, and the L.A. location will even have a piercing studio. Game-changing online retailer Revolve operates a "social club" in L.A. that occasionally opens to the public for pop-ups and recently opened what it calls a "long-term pop-up" at Las Vegas's Palms Casino Resort, which was designed not as a traditional store but as a "brand experience" without a slated closing date. (Moschino also recently used the phrase "long-term pop-up" to describe its new location on Madison Avenue in New York.) Depop calls its New York and Los Angeles locations Depop Space and uses them more for events and photo shoots than as a place to sell things (though it does that as well, per the aforementioned definition).

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Then, of course, there's the proliferation of temporary retail. It's been years since online-native, DTC brands like Glossier, Everlane, Outdoor Voices and more started using pop-ups as a way to create touchpoints in different markets, giving their customers an opportunity to see and try products IRL, but they've only grown more ubiquitous with time. Per the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), via Forbes, the market for brand activations in the U.S. was worth nearly $600 million in 2016 and is expected to top $740 million by 2020. Permanence now seems a fleeting idea when it comes to retail, and one associated with that apparently outdated word: store.

Or maybe "outdated" is a little harsh. "I don't think the word itself is outdated or negative, but it certainly doesn't have the same buzz as an 'experience' or 'concept,'" says WGSN's Senior Retail Editor Sidney Morgan-Petro.

Gabriela Baiter founded Whereabout Studio in L.A. a couple of years ago to help brands — online-native ones, mainly — create non-traditional, usually temporary retail concepts and events, and says she works with clients on choosing language that reflects that break from tradition and entices customers. 

"If you're just a 'store' and people think that you're only available for them to shop and get what they need and leave, and if you position yourself as a 'store' and you're already online, then what's the point when they have the cash register in their pocket at all times? Why would they go there?" she explains. "So it's even more important to really start with the retail story, and how that affects the value that you're promising the customer."

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The decline of the "store" may just be a symptom of brands having new goals for what they want to get out of physical retail, particularly those brands who have already found success online. Today, those goals tend to be less about transacting and more about marketing, building stronger relationships with customers and offering services. The sales, if all goes according to plan, will follow, as having a physical retail presence tends to drive an uptick in online sales.

"The age-old sales metric was sales per square foot for so many years, but now when we think about omnichannel retail, knowing that these brands that are adding retail to their mix have to be able to track the life cycle of the customer across all these different channels... It's no longer just about sales per square foot in that store. It's about experience per square foot in that store," says Baiter.

Mejuri is one example of a brand that has different priorities for its physical presence. "We design our spaces to give our community engaging experiences," says founder Noura Sakkijha. "It's about exploring how to wear fine jewelry in a casual way. We create these spaces to build genuine relationships rather than transactional."

A pop-up for Appear Here client Goop. Photo: Courtesy of Appear Here

A pop-up for Appear Here client Goop. Photo: Courtesy of Appear Here

It's no longer just digitally native brands either. Luxury brands and retailers have begun rolling out their own pop-ups and "experiences," many of which don't even have items for sale.

"The increasing expectation of experiential retail has reframed how we refer to the 'store,' offers Morgan-Petro. "These spaces are deemed as 'showrooms,' 'experiences' or 'concepts,' which offer more flexibility and point towards the trend that physical spaces are now viewed as part of your marketing budget."

Indeed, online brands often view brick-and-mortar as marketing, and just like a billboard isn't permanent, a physical space needn't be either. And as brands grow increasingly frustrated with social media marketing, a pop-up (particularly one that attendees naturally want to document on social media) can be a viable alternative.

"Bricks and mortar is not simply a retail strategy, rather, an extension of brand’s marketing and advertising spend," says Ross Bailey, Founder and CEO of Appear Here. "As the costs of online marketing increase, it is increasingly more cost-effective to open a physical store, creating meaningful engagement and building real-world relationships rather than, as one of our brands described it, 'screaming into an online void.'"

Appear Here is a rapidly growing platform that connects brands with short-term rental spaces, sort of like an Airbnb for retail, and has worked with everyone from Nike to Goop to Kanye West. In fact, there's been a proliferation of such platforms recently. "There's a lot of new emerging tech platforms that are making it really easy for, on the brand side, to be able to find the space, and that's because they are doing all the leg work to negotiate with the landlord or to pre-lease out the spaces themselves," explains Baiter. This gives brands even more flexibility, whether they want to do the typical one-month pop-up or something a bit longer.

So does this all mean that the store, as in a practical, permanent place to go in, buy something, and leave, is on its way out? Not necessarily, but the bar is being raised. "I still think convenience is important for the customer. There's a reason that 90% of sales are still happening in stores, regardless if we've seen this major shift among online retailers," says Baiter. "So I think it's just more what that becomes: what else is offered inside that space to connect with customers and how it's displayed and shown." And, in some cases, named.

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