Retail’s Task in Reimagining The Global Consumer

I recently wrote a blog on the opening of two large retail spaces in the U.S., Hudson Yards and American Dream Meadowlands. Both should put to rest the argument that retail is ‘dead.’ Retail is, however, quickly moving away from its strictly transactional nature to reimagined experiential moments for the consumer―fulfilling a desire, instead of simply a need or want.

If one looks closely enough, you’ll see experiential retail has always been present, dating back a century or more to the roots of department stores. When I think of the truly great retail emporiums of the world, most of them still exist, and are thriving. More importantly, each continues to play a decisive a role in defining and shaping―both visually and experientially―what it is to ‘be’ say a Londoner, Parisian, Berliner, or Tokyoite, respectively.

I’ve had the pleasure to visit each of them and personally experience their majesty in turning a transactional retail exchange into an enduring pleasurable memory. Each is a destination, and not simply a store, for travelers worldwide. Most importantly, while one can easily bring up their respective websites, browse, click, and purchase, these grand dames are best experienced the old-fashioned way―through the polished front doors and down the wide aisles. These brands endure with meaning and purpose:

Harrods, London

One can make a case that Harrod’s is the most famous retail store in the world and is by far the largest. Nearly two hundred years old, with over twenty-seven restaurants and spanning 330 different departments, the store is a massive five acres, complete with its own zip code.

Galeries Lafayette Haussmann, Paris

Over 125 years old, the flagship Parisian store is topped by a ten-story steel dome replete with stained glass that colors the floors below, where weekly fashions shows are held for customers, free of charge. It’s reach is broad, with branch stores scattered as far away as China and Indonesia.

KaDaWe, Berlin

The largest department store on the European Continent has endured difficult times. The 120-year-old store survived Nazi Germany and the war itself, despite an American plane crashing directly into it, exploding in flames when it was shot down in battle! Then, over half its customers and employees were kept away for thirty years when the Berlin Wall was constructed. Today the store is busier than ever, with over 50,000 consumers from around the world visiting daily.

Isetan, Tokyo

The flagship 130-year-old store located in the Shinjuku district of central Tokyo is as much a tourist destination as a retail destination. It is known as a trend-setter in both fashion and food, often carrying new lines and items well before other innovative stores. Being a cultural incubator has served it well, with branch stores scattered throughout Southeast Asia.

The Future…Here and There

Yet, retail is in a dour state overall, with waves of store closings announced regularly, particularly in America. Perhaps in this age of cost-cutting mania we have strayed too far from the initial ‘wonderment’ of what shopping can be to an ever-persistent drive to achieve ‘value’ at the cost of experience, i.e., a “big box” mentality.

While store closings persist, over the past few years retailers large and small are fighting back and reversing the tide of negative sentiment by casting a fresh lens on shopping. By investing in new ideas retailers are beginning to turn the tide and offering “new” things, not just “newer” ways of doing things.

Nordstrom’s has just opened their seven-floor Manhattan flagship store at Central Park Tower. At 320,000 sq. ft. the company is making a firm commitment to Midtown New York retail. With seven restaurants and a full range of merchandise concepts and shops under one roof, the store is a compelling entry of convenience and choice, even for fashion-forward Manhattanites.

Today’s emporiums and malls located outside world cities can learn a thing or two from these notable retailers, albeit on a much smaller scale. A case in point here in Chapel Hill, North Carolina is University Place, a mall I now frequent almost daily for a wide range of activities―I use its gym and shower in the early morning, might stop in for lunch at a specialty gourmet shop, go for drinks or dinner at one of its new restaurants or bars, or see a movie at their reserve-only seating luxury movie theater. I even get my haircut or the occasional massage right within its walls.

Five years ago, I hardly went into the place. Then, it wasn’t a destination, rather a place full of traditional retail mall-centric stores. Nowadays, it’s quickly evolving into a venue where I can express myself beyond simply buying things I can easily purchase from home. Now I see it as a place that helps make me a better person, i.e., gym, massage, haircut, or just feel better, i.e. food, drinks, or a movie.

The mall is in its next phase of redevelopment that will take a few years to complete. This will bring new buildings that will house residences, offices, and a hotel. More green spaces are planned, including expanding a twice-weekly farmers’ market into a more permanent fixture, as well as green spaces for kids to play and dogs to run; yesterday’s mall, tomorrow’s workplace and home.

This local transformation demonstrates retail doesn’t have to be a crown jewel in a world capital to make a difference. It’s a combination of a lot of little things coming together that matter―this is something both the Harrod’s and University Places of the world are figuring out. Not all will embrace this change; many will falter and wither away, such is the nature of change. In the process, retail is being reevaluated, reinterpreted, and redefined, but definitely not disappearing.

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