The Changing Retail Landscape

January 22 2015


These days, it’s tough to be a small retailer. As I’ve been out and about in neighborhoods that range from Park Slope, Brooklyn to Soho, NYC, I’m noticing so many empty storefronts where local retailers used to be. At the same time, many off-price, national retailers are successfully setting up shop. Nordstrom Rack, T.J. Maxx and Neiman Marcus Last Call have all opened on the Brooklyn Mall, and they are packed with customers. People are shopping away online, despite the risks of their information being hacked as it was at Target. So consumers are consuming, but infrequently with the independent shops.


It’s a trend, for sure. Small retailers with a strong brand and distinctive wares can still make it, but the economies of scale for larger retailers are hard to beat. There still exists a strong interest in the handmade, artisanal and unique – hence the success of Etsy, and Blake Lively’s new website venture Preserve, which showcases a curated group of USA-based artisans whose offerings span a variety of disciplines. Local food shops prosper as the trend towards food provenance and the public’s interest in protecting the environment continues to expand.


I’m sad to see a kind of depressed quality on what used to be shopping streets like 7th Avenue in Brooklyn. What’s the solution? It lies with price, originality, and vision, as well as paying attention to the holes in the marketplace so that you can provide products that consumers cannot find elsewhere on the local level. And as always with retail, it’s about being personal and forming relationships, one of the cornerstones of brand strategy and brand building.

The Primark EXPERIENCE!

October 09 2014


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by Kyrie Chamberlin, Mercurylab staff

I went a little bit before closing time, which was my first mistake. When you walk in, it’s like a mad house. There are people everywhere, there are clothes all over the floor and there never seems to be enough staff. Everyone looks slightly lost and is constantly bumping into one another.

I went originally to get a gift, but I stayed to buy some affordable fashion for myself. Primark has so much on offer that it’s almost dizzying. Everything is cheap, and cheaply manufactured, but you get what you pay for. That's part of the Primark Experience. You don't go to McDonalds expecting a steak dinner; you go for a super cheap, sometimes questionable burger. Primark isn’t trying to seduce you with nicely crafted, high-end goods—that's not what their brand is about. Their brand attributes: disposable, trendy and fast. Likely not ethically produced, either. This brand has nothing to do with quality. They want you to buy a lot, and you want to as well. That’s part of the sense of urgent anxiety that starts to churn when I’m in their stores.

I ended up buying a couple of dresses, a jacket, and my gift items. The jacket is actually very chic, and you would never know it was from Primark. That’s the good news. Anyway, my second mistake was not trying anything on. I ended up having to return one of the dresses (pink with a crisp white collar) because the collar was not even close to being centered. Don't be too shocked!

The checkout lines are unsurprisingly very long, but they move relatively quickly. This is key because once you are ready to pay, they need to get you out of the store as fast as possible before you reconsider. The clothes are not worth a long wait in line, which they know.

Of course, the returns line is separate from the cashiers. It’s almost like a secret place (hard to find, so hard to return – classic customer manipulation). It’s tucked away on a different floor in a corner on a different, airless floor. The line is deceptively short, but since everyone is returning many items, a complication always ensues. Customers were hot, angry and impatient. Again, this is not surprising, as a store hawking cheap, disposable products is frequently unconcerned with providing a good customer experience – Primark is a fast food shopping experience.

I have to say, I would go back. Primark is so inexpensive, and so well stocked, it’s almost addictive. Although, I never want to return another item, so next time I will have to gather up my courage to attack the dreaded fitting rooms. Help!

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Down Home in New York: Fishs Eddy, and the Retail Experience

January 23 2014

Many may view kitchenware shopping as a boring chore, but Fishs Eddy makes the experience totally fun and enjoyable. Honestly, it’s less like shopping, and more like the easiest treasure hunt you’ve ever done. Fishs Eddy is fully stocked with one-of-a-kind vintage and vintage-inspired pieces. They have literally everything you need, and plenty of things you never knew you needed so much. The merchandising and display reinforce the sense of personal fun, yet its true power is in being tied to our memories of a solid America that many of us have only experienced through books, movies, and the things we buy and the homes we create. So the brand is about a personal, universal, and romantic view of America, much like an uber brand like Ralph Lauren, or even a mall brand like Anthropologie.


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Fishs Eddy is a consistent and well-managed brand that has been around since 1986, one that has weathered many trends in home décor and entertaining. Shoppers respond to their casual vibe and country flea market "general store" environment, where hand-painted signage and wooden crates spill over with sturdy china bowls and plates. Even with their rustic aesthetic, the designs still feel relevant and on trend — a perfect example is their recent collaboration with minimalist, stylized wildlife illustrator Charley Harper. The pieces he designed with Fishs Eddy are crisp and modern, yet their retro, mid-century feel fits in perfectly with the brand’s thrifty, eclectic atmosphere and products. I can just as easily imagine a 50’s southern housewife shopping here, as well as a hip, young New Yorker. The shoppers around me were saying that it’s simply impossible to leave without purchasing at least one tiny cup.


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The takeaway: Know your brand, and manage it well. Know your market, and hit your market with consistent brand touch points. Have a think on that, and then we can meet for some apple pie and coffee, served on Fishs Eddy’s dishware. Later!

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Gentrification on the Fulton Mall, Continued

December 11 2013

As change has come to the Fulton Mall in Brooklyn, I had been thinking that the retail environment on the Mall was going to be a mirror shopping experience to 86th Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. It turns out that while there are many of the same retailers, the stores that are opening on the Mall are positioned as “Outlet Stores” rather than being presented as primary retail shops. For starters, there is the American Eagle Outlet and the Gap Factory Store. Sephora, who had been touted as a high-end retail chain that would anchor the Mall, bring in higher-end traffic, and act as a magnet for Brooklyn moms who want to try on their lipstick but have no time to go to Manhattan to shop, ended up opening in a historic building with double frontage on Court Street that is a few minute walk from the Mall. They are disassociated from the Mall experience.

It’s interesting to see that although there is a tremendous amount of real estate development adjoining the mall, the well-heeled people who will be buying and renting coops and renting glossy office space will still not be well-served by this new shopping experience. There is a disconnect. The stores are here, but not even the full middle-class version, so there is the sense of trying to straddle two worlds, and being committed to neither. The Mall is currently serving the same public as before – the city office workers and small business people that still throng the streets, either avoiding or engaging with the guys hawking cell phone covers and six gold teeth for $139.

It may that it is too soon to tell where the Mall is going, but it is clear that a commitment needs to be made to higher-level chains, good food, cafes, and a few little boutiques and shops like those that anchor 5th Avenue in Park Slope. It’s a brand moment at the Mall. I’m interested to see how it plays out.

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Macy's and Martha: Managing an Awkward Brand Moment

May 29 2013

By now, most of you members of the shopping public are aware of the contentious court battle between Macy's and J.C. Penney over Martha Stewart's Home Collection. Now, Martha has a long history of selling different products and product categories with retailers other than Macy's. She produces a line of carpets for FLOR, a number of furniture collections with Bernhardt, sold a lower-end line of paint and linens with K-Mart, and sells home office products through Staple's. It was only the J.C. Penney deal that would have infringed on Macy's, in which J.C. Penney was hoping to sell kitchen, bedroom and bath goods that would compete directly with Macy's. Martha's Home Collection is the anchor of "The Cellar" at Macy's, where the retailer offers up all of its tabletop, cookware and home goods from a variety of vendors. Martha's products are an essential draw that brings customers into this department nationwide. 

So, what was Martha thinking? Did she think that Macy's needed her so badly that they would simply accept her actions? I don't know, but I would imagine that J.C. Penney's was offering a better cut of the profits, important as Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia's earnings are down. None the less, Martha has a history of making some strange choices. Who knows the psychology behind her self-destructive moves, (remember the insider trading conviction, and the ankle bracelet, which are hard to forget)? She has had such an enormous influence over late twentieth sensibilities, home aesthetics, and how we live that one would think that she could rest secure in her enduring legacy, but that doesn't seem to be part of her emotional make-up and drive. She also seems unable to understand that her actions create reactions. Did she actually think that Macy's would roll over?

                            

                                               Macy's Martha Stuart Collection direct mail

Ultimately, Macy's has won the Martha battle, and has handled the crisis in an interesting way. The whole court battle played out in the media, and was never a crisis that was acknowledged or communicated directly between Macy's and their customers. It was simply not addressed, and played out in the background. Now that the issue is resolved, Macy's has handled the win in a graceful way. Hence, the direct mail piece that arrived last week. It doesn't say, "Martha's still here," or "Martha's back." It merely reminds you to come and shop Martha's Home Collection at Macy's; with Martha herself featured front and center on the piece. Very classy brand management, I must say.

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Anthropologie: A Faux Heritage Brand Hits the High Street

February 12 2013

 

          Anthropologie Regent Street's living plant wall, Image via www.businessoffashion.com


Major lifestyle and clothing retail chain Anthropologie, with over 147 stores in the U.S., and six in Canada, operates only two stores outside of North America—both in London. That’s a far cry from parent company Urban Outfitters, which racks up an impressive twenty-five UK locations, plus sixteen others throughout Western Europe. Catering to the universal teenaged fast-fashion set, Urban Outfitters has been able to easily make a name for itself within the European market. Anthropologie’s two London locations are fairly new, and are definitely an experiment for the brand.  So why the “pessimistic economic predictions” on the opening of the London locations from Vogue.co.uk?

A love of heritage brands is ingrained in British sensibility—from the royal family to Liberty of London, which has maintained its position as England's premier department storesince 1875. Liberty is still selected each year by the readers of Time Out London as the top shopping destination in the UK. So as a faux-heritage brand, one wonders in what way Anthropologie will be able to find a place in a country with actual heritage. In the U.S, vintage is a longstanding trend, as shoppers and merchants either connect to our real shared past or fabricated an idealized sense of what it means to be an American. Hence the success of Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, two brands that have constructed billion dollar businesses around the beauty and romance of what America never has been, but aspires to be. 

So why bring a faux-heritage mall brand like Anthopologie to Britain? First off, their girlish, embellished, romantic clothes and lifestyle items do fit in well with how British woman dress, and live. A friend there recently told me that his mom and her friends are starting to flock to Anthropologie. These women "get" the brand. They want pretty, and decorative.  On a certain level, it's also an investment brand, as this part of Americana does not come cheap. Antrhopologie is coming up against British high street brands with a more contemporary sensibility, so there may be a place for them in the market.

 

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H & M and COS, A Low and (some) Version of High Fashion

January 03 2013

The last few times I've been in London, where fast fashion is a way of life, I stumbled into what appeared to be a chainlet named Company of Style, aka COS. Initially, I didn't know that the simple, pared down designs and palette at COS was the work of a new brand design studio at H & M.

It turns out that COS is H & M's foray into a higher price point, although most items are still priced under $100.00 and thus very accessible for what seems to be well-made, streamlined design. Their tagline is Timeless, Modern, Tactile and Functional, and I have to admit that I'm seduced by this brand. I really feel that they got it right — it's very strong, controlled brand management, and is a concept that will do well no matter where it travels. The store design, by William Russell of Pentagram, London (love them! I loved working with Michael Beirut from Pentagram in the past), and his angular, restrained store design and layout brings the architectural quality of the clothing to life. Other retailers should heed how well H & M is managing and rolling out this brand. The store has already opened in 51 stores in the UK, France, the Netherlands, Italy and Sweden, of course. They have also just opened their first shop in Asia.

Of course, I'm awaiting their entry into the US market, where their brand of chic simplicity at an affordable price point will play very well in urban and exurban centers. C'mon over, COS!

 

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Macy's and the Capsule Collections

April 18 2012

Macys' is making some upscale and perhaps curious choices in their selection of limited collection designers for their Impulse shops. First up was Karl Lagerfeld, then CFDA winner doo.ri, and now Alberta Ferretti. I would say that in these designers are connected in that they are all upscale, kind of dressy, refined, and polished. I was very curious about the Lagerfeld collection and hightailed it over to Macy's very soon after its release into stores only to find that hundreds of pieces remained on the racks at the Herald Square store. Hmmm. So I queried the sales staff at length, who said that the collection did not sell well at all. They said that neither the design nor fabrication worked. When I went back some weeks later the collection was in serious markdown.

Why no ka-ching ka-ching? And why these designers? What is the decision behind the choice to associate the egalitarian Macy's brand with designers who are upscale (that we understand) and slightly unknown by main street USA (doo.ri and Ferretti)? Limited edition capsule collections are meant to reinforce a store's prestige, help the retailer gain traction with new audiences (consumers who might not normally connect with Macy's, for example), and to create a sense of urgency in the buying experience, so that it drives any curious and/or interested traffic to the brick and mortar stores and to the website. 

Then there is Macy's association with the new Fashion Star show. Ack! The fashion on the show is awful, but it's a great PR move, and is definitely driving sales. According to Women’s Wear Daily, the three retailers associated with the store are really pleased with sales as the items from the show are selling out. So here we are again in the realm of high/low, which any readers of my blog know is one of my major interests. What's working better for Macy's? Lagerfeld (advertised and promoted traditionally) or Miss No-Name Designer (with millions of viewers and panelists like Jessica Simpson and Nicole Ritchie)? I would LOVE to see those sales numbers!

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The (Guilty) Pleasures of Gentrification

January 25 2012

This morning when I was walking to work I saw, to my surprise, that H & M is opening a store on the Fulton Mall here in Brooklyn, right down the block from my studio. Hmmm, I thought, this is getting interesting. The Fulton Mall is turning into another version of East 86th Street, that outdoor uptown shopping “mall” on the Upper East Side. In a real harbinger of what’s to come, Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack also opened about a month ago, which is also the best and upscale fast food option anchoring the shopping area on 86th Street.

For many years now the Fulton Mall has been perceived as an inner city shopping non-destination. Even the presence of Macy’s, situated in the landmarked Abraham & Strauss building, had no effect on the mix of low-end retailers, fried fish joints and MacDonald-like food options that line the street. Meanwhile, Atlantic Avenue in Cobble Hill has gentrified fairly extensively in the past five years, and is a mere three block walk from the Mall. Now the neighborhood seems to be experiencing a seismic shift. The New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYC EDC), Fulton Street Mall Improvement Association (FMIA) and the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership (DBP) have recently completed the $15 million Fulton Streetscape Project as well, so that the street looks cleaner, more contemporary, and altogether more pleasant. It turns out that the Mall attracts 100,000 shoppers per day, meaning that people are dropping quite a bit of coin. Future tenants include Sephora and Aeropostale just opened, completing the sense of having shopped the same brands, in the same order, but on another street.

I have to admit that I’m not unhappy with the impending homogenization of my working neighborhood. It seemed inevitable, with the Mall situated between Fort Greene (which has shown a higher increase in residential property value than any other neighborhood in Brooklyn), Cobble Hill, and Brooklyn Heights, long considered to be Brooklyn’s Gold Coast. Some may see it as the continued march of big brands wiping out the nighborhood individuality, but I have to admit that I do love those Shake Shack burgers.

 

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