In the traditional sense, retail stores maintain an almost simplistic purpose: a physical space where shoppers can enter, locate what they need, pay for it, and go on their merry way.
With the advent of e-commerce, this delicate cycle became a lot more complex. Shoppers can now skip the legwork and still obtain their goods in a matter of days, hours, or even minutes.
The traditional store needs to offer consumers something that goes beyond goods—an experience.
In a recent trip to New York City, Retail Dive visited two stores that have created unique shopping experiences by using interactive technology, creative merchandising, and exclusive events.
Birchbox and Story—the former emerging from an online-only concept, the latter inspired by the monthly concept of a magazine—seem to have found success with this new type of physical store.
Birchbox: Taking the online offline
Founded in 2010 with around $1 million in initial funding, Birchbox’s model was focused on changing the way consumers shop for beauty products online.
“We knew that customers wanted a different solution to the way they were purchasing products online,” Birchbox CEO Katia Beauchamp said during a panel at the NRF’s Big Show 2015.
Looking to combine e-commerce with the trial process that goes into many beauty product buys, the company offers a monthly subscription where customers receive a curated box of five different beauty samples for $10. If the customer takes a liking to any sample, they can find the full-sized version on Birchbox’s website.
The company found success with this online model, growing from less than 1,000 subscribers to 800,000 in three and a half years. So it come as a surprise that—in what Beauchamp calls “one of the most important milestones for the company”—Birchbox decided to open its first physical store in New York City’s trendy SoHo district in 2014.
The company faces the challenge of incorporating what started as an online-only concept into a physical store, which comes with added costs like high overhead and even greater supply chain implementation.
“The vision was to take the Birchbox experience and re-create it offline,” said Beauchamp in an email to Retail Dive. “Our goal was to create a space that was uniquely Birchbox.”
To bridge the gap, Birchbox relies heavily on technology to help translate its unique business model to a store format that still resonates with its online clientele.
With a “try, learn, and buy” recipe, Birchbox’s store contains a mash of editorial content, social media interaction, and an omnichannel buying process. After establishing an online profile, Birchbox makes it easy for customers to rate, review, and buy a sample they might like on its website, and find it in-store as well.
“The store has a strong focus on personalization,” said Beauchamp. “The retail experience, similar to the monthly sample allocation process, takes into consideration each individual customers’ beauty profile to curate a selection of products that are targeted to users’ profiles, present new brands they might not have tried yet, and continue to surprise and delight.”
Although Beauchamp says that a “vast majority” of in-store shoppers are not subscribers, they can still get a taste of the online experience with the opportunity to buy themed boxes, shop the most popular products on birchbox.com, learn from editorial “how-to” displays, and create their own box of samples in the “build your own box” section of the store.
The Birchbox store also has salon space for select services like manicures and blow outs, all featuring products found on the website—transforming the location from a stop to a destination, exponentially increasing interaction time and, almost by default, conversion rates.
The company has seen rapid growth—the company expanded into Europe in 2012 and into Canada last year. All eyes will be on Birchbox as it continues to grow, perhaps with its Birchbox Man brand launched in 2012, which offers the traditional Birchbox service to male clientele and features grooming products and lifestyle gadgets.
A recent Birchbox Man pop-up store in New York was “a great test,” according to Beauchamp. And while the men’s section in the physical store is small, it seemed popular—in Retail Dive's visit to the location, a group of men were testing lotions and sniffing hair gels while the rest of the store remained relatively empty.
“We are always looking at what the future holds for the business and what the next move will be,” said Beauchamp.
Story: The store with a magazine point of view
Story, a small Manhattan boutique, completely changes its store—from design to theme to merchandise—every four to eight weeks.
“Just as a magazine tells stories with words and pictures, we do so with merchandise and events,” Story's editorial director Mean Baldwin told Retail Dive. “So the thought process is similar to how an editor lays out pieces in a magazine. We choose the merchandise and layer it into the context that we've created for the issue—from 'Good' or 'Love' to 'Color'—and then find ways to tell the brand's story through a mix of in-store content and relevant adjacencies.”
Through partnerships with sponsors like Target, Benjamin Moore, American Express, and General Electric, the company creates a space with merchandise and events that completely match the theme. Sponsorships can range between $75,000 to $300,000, according to the New York Times.
Its most recent project, Well Being, is sponsored by Yahoo and sells a range of health-oriented products, including trendy swimsuits, hats, yoga mats, beauty products, and bikes. The store will also host a range of events centered around the theme—the store’s past wellness-themed stories offered yoga and Pilates classes.
Story retains most of its merchandise on a consignment basis, and the New York Times reports that the company has partnered with Home Depot to test different products' popularity with shoppers with the help of Story’s heat-mapped space.
“As a physical retail experience, our goal with technology is always to do something that you couldn't just do at home on an iPad,” said Baldwin. Other technology in the store includes a custom interactive vertical display from Perch, a Perch interactive tabletop, and tablets integrated into displays.
Not straying from its inspiration, Story greets shoppers with a letter from the editor, which “establishes the creative identity for the space and also explains what can be expected from the experience,” according to Baldwin.
“This identity is carried out through the space via signage elements, from our version of headlines—section signage—to individual stories on each of the brands,” continues Baldwin, “We also like to think of our main entry wall as you would the cover of a magazine, i.e., it always has our title but changes issue to issue.”