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Store, café or art gallery? The rise and rise of the concept store

By Marjorie van Elven


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Retail |IN DEPTH

These aren’t easy times for brick and mortar fashion retailers. As e-commerce grows and consumer behavior changes, the US has seen over 7,000 store closings in 2017. Investment bank Credit Suisse even predicts 25 percent of American shopping malls to close by 2022. The UK is no different, with an average of 16 high street stores closing every day last year. In this scenario, many brick and mortar retailers are finding that a couple mannequins, clothing racks and nice lighting no longer suffice to lure shoppers into coming inside, let alone to turn them into loyal customers.

In a quest to look more attractive, a growing number of fashion retailers are drawing inspiration from art galleries, museums and magazines to plan their stores’ architecture, décor and product display. “By presenting goods for sale in a ‘highbrow’ setting, they increase the perceived value of products, which also creates more of an experience for the consumer”, said Petah Marian, Senior Editor of Insight at the trend forecasting company WGSN, in an e-mail to FashionUnited.

The imperative of staying fresh

However, in the fast-paced times we live in, even the most eye-popping of shops still needs to revamp itself from time to time to keep consumers interested. While museums and art galleries may be a source of inspiration, the pace in which pieces are replaced shouldn’t resemble a museum at all. A recent study revealed that online stores which constantly launch new products tend to sell more than those which are perceived by consumers as stylish, but take longer to change their collections. If even e-commerce companies must speed up to not be swept away by competition, what can be said of brick and mortar retailers? Another report by The Future Laboratory advised stores to become “hubs of activity, with ‘rewards’ such as exclusive products, immersive experiences or lifestyle services". Why? No less than 75 percent of Generation Z consumers prefer stores that provide a “memorable and encouraging offer”.

This dynamism imperative might explain why the biggest cities of the world are seeing a growing number of so-called “concept stores”. Although the term is sometimes used loosely to describe retail spaces that look different than usual, it usually refers to shops which, in addition to looking “artsy”, also offer an ever-changing curated selection of products from several categories.

It’s a smart move: ever-changing, so that consumers always feel there’s something new to discover in store. Curated, because they often find it difficult to filter all the options they come across in a world saturated by information and products. Shoppers who are overwhelmed by choice tend to look for trustworthy sources to inspire their purchases, according to trend forecaster Pernille Kok-Jensen, director at Dutch research agency Mare. Think of the concept store as the retail equivalent of the social media influencer. Speaking of social media, that explains why so much attention is given to product display and décor: retailers aim to look “instagrammable”. After all, today’s consumers are avid social media users and Instagram is on a quest to become an e-commerce platform.

Wider product offerings: “lifestyle” emerges as clothing sales drop

But perhaps the most interesting thing to be noted about this type of shop is that fashion is placed alongside other product categories which used to be sold separately, such as books, homeware and food. Some even go as far as offering workshops, concerts and other cultural activities -- just like a real museum or art gallery would. “Spending on clothing in developed markets is not growing at the same rate of other categories. In some markets, it is even in decline. That means retailers need to branch out in order to maintain profitable growth”, explained Marian. Fashion is now part of a more holistic view of style.

Concept stores’ rise in popularity can, therefore, be related to the rise of “lifestyle”. As fashion brands expand into new product categories to have customers “fully immersed into their world” (as Gucci put it when releasing its homeware line), so do stores. After all, why restrict oneself to just one product category, when one can cater to more needs and be present at all moments of customers’ lives? “The books we read, the clothes we wear to the skincare we use are all indicative of the lifestyle we are aspiring to create”, explains Marian.

No wonder established apparel giants, such as the H&M Group, are jumping in the concept store bandwagon as well. In addition to expanding H&M’s product offering to include homeware, the fast fashion giant has recently launched a new brand, Arket. Defined by H&M itself as a “modern day market”, the store features menswear, womenswear, childrenswear, homeware, beauty products and a café. Its website even includes a recipe section. At Arket, products are displayed in a minimalistic style reminiscent of Scandinavian museums -- remember H&M’s motherland is Sweden.

Looking to open a concept store as well? Or just interested in making your fashion store look more dynamic and attractive? FashionUnited lists five success stories below.

10 Corso Como (Milan, Seoul, Shanghai, New York)

Founded in 1991, this iconic shop is named after its first address in Milan. Fashion, books and design items are sold in a space that also includes a garden, an art gallery and an Italian café. Former fashion journalist Carla Sozzani is the mastermind behind the store. Her idea was to create “a living magazine, a space into one which one could walk and live an experience”, according to Kris Ruhs, who designed the interiors of all 10 Corso Como’s shops around the world.

Galeria Melissa (São Paulo, London, New York)

Brazilian plastic shoes manufacturer Melissa is a rebranding case study worthy of note. Founded in 1979, the brand went through a stagnation in the 1990’s, when it became synonymous with kids’ jelly sandals. To survive in the following decade, Melissa reinvented itself as a cutting-edge design brand, launching capsule collections in collaboration with architects and fashion designers. The goal to turn its plastic shoes into objects of desire became even more evident when Melissa opened its first flagship store in São Paulo, in 2006. Named “Galeria Melissa” (“Melissa Gallery”), the shop displays the sandals alongside art installations. A similar “gallery” was launched in New York in 2012, and a third one in London in 2014.

Story (New York)

“We have the point of view of a magazine, change like a gallery and sell things like a store”. This is how New York retailer Story, founded in 2011, describes itself. Every few months, Story shuts its doors and goes through a complete renovation for a week, so everything looks different when it reopens.

The interiors and product offering always follow a theme, which can vary from “love” to “disrupt” or “have fun”. There are no limits to what Story can sell: it can offer lingerie and candles a given month, and high tech gadgets the next. You never know what you will find.

Founded by Rachel Shechtman and acquired by Macy’s in May, this concept store often partners up with other brands, which can either sponsor a theme or pay for its products to be featured. Special events are organized so that companies can pitch themselves to appear in the store.

Dover Street Market (London, Ginza, New York, Singapore, Beijing, Los Angeles)

Created by Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo and her husband Adrian Joffe, this concept store first opened in London in 2014. Since then, it has expanded to five other cities in Asia and North America. In addition to Comme des Garçons pieces, the store sells apparel and accessories from many other labels, including Balenciaga, Raf Simons, and Vêtements. With interiors that change every six months, Dover Street Market also features art installations and pop-up stores.

Hutspot (the Netherlands)

Founded by longtime friends Nick van Aalst, Reinier Bernaert and Pieter Jongens, this concept store took Amsterdam by storm in 2012. It offers clothing, accessories, artwork, furniture and plants, and also features a barbershop, flexible workstations and a café.

Throughout its six years of existence, Hutspot has helped to promote a number of starting brands and designers. “[eyewear brand] Ace & Tate is a great example of a brand that first started at our first location in Amsterdam, and now is super successful”, recollects Daniël Heijl, online specialist at Hutspot. Ace & Tate currently operates nine stores in Holland, three in Belgium, twelve in Germany and one in Denmark. Hutspot itself has grown quite a lot too, with six locations across the Netherlands and the launch of its own lifestyle collection earlier this year.

Photos: Danielle Wightman-Stone, 10 Corso Como Newsroom, Courtesy of Story, Melissa Newsroom and Facebook, Courtesy of Hutspot

Dover Street Market