2004 Nov Issue
Cover Story
Five win 'Best of the Best' awards from among 500 top retailers in Asia-Pacific
Other Stories
imm cologne 2005 to present latest home trends
Should FARA establish a permanent secretariat
Retail Tsunami: Is this the next wave
Hong Kong presents region's first Asian licensing awards


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Retail Tsunami: Is this the next wave in retailing?

It made the front page of the New York Times: Not the fashion section, not the business section but the front page of the international news page. It was scary!

With a Berlin dateline, the story started with the new 700 sqf store opened by Adrian Joffe and Rei Kawakubo, the famous avant-garde Japanese fashion designer of a Comme Des Garcons “guerrilla store”, in the Mitte area of the German capital. With little attempt to convert what was previously a bookstore and no attempt at decorating or displaying, except for the numerous posters announcing the designer's store plastered over the windows of the shabby, scabby store front, they moved in and were in business.

The “scary” part was and is the “guerrilla” concept: A store that suddenly opens with no special store design; no special fixtures; no displays; no graphics or real signage. It appears, does what it is supposed to do and, no matter how successful it is, it closes at a specific time. Closed. Finished. Gone.

The owners of this shop and the Comme Des Garcons operation were originally impressed by a local Vietnamese “authentic-looking” noodle bar in Mitte that drew a large mix of diners.

According to the New York Times report, “none of these places seem to devote a great deal of attention to decor or displays. Unconsciously or not, the owners were recognising a fundamental shift in young consumers' attitudes — that content and product now counts for more than image”.

Have we been so convinced by our own talk and lulled by our own PR that we believe it is the “brand image” that really matters and that is what sells the product? Do the shoppers out there really respond to our efforts: The unique design and look of the store; the visual presentation of the merchandise; the lighting; the fixtures/fittings; and the furniture?

Or, as the article continues with a quote from Nancy Koehn, a professor at Harvard Business School, that this is the direction of the future —“towards more direct marketing”?

Koehn said: “Young people are taking their cues from their friends, and less and less from established channels like fashion magazines and mass advertising. This is the wave of the future. One of the most cost-effective ways to reach a consumer is through their friends.”

Great! But let us assume that this is “the wave of the future”. Do we not have to, some way, somehow, first connect with the “friend” who is going to tell the friend who will tell the friend and so on? How do we make that initial impact that will start the wave that will turn into a retail tsunami?

I have, no doubt, that a window, completely covered over with Comme Des Garcons posters, will arouse the curiosity of some shoppers on the street and draw them into a less-than-decorated space. However, will that work where there is no brand recognition?

It really is not that neat or that simple! I have never seen a television commercial on Hot Topic, a retailer of music-influenced apparel, accessories and gifts for teens. I have never seen — in the magazines I peruse, at least — an ad on Hot Topic. Still, the store is pulling in teenagers across the country. This is surely a “word of mouth” phenomenon, and yet — at the beginning — what made Hot Topic such a hot topic for teenagers?

The store had to originally make a visible and viable statement in the mall that attracted and appealed to that first wave of teenagers. This was what brought them in and when they were convinced by the merchandise, the setting and the branding of Hot Topic, they spread the word and the wave to affect the tsunami that Hot Topic has become in this market.

Last fall, Target, the nationally advertised and beautifully branded department store, performed a “retail skirmish” when it set up a “quickie” boutique for the Isaac Mizrahi collection in Rockefeller Center in New York City, USA.

The “in-and-out” store was minimal in design but it was still “designed”: The Target bull's-eye logo in signature red and white on the white floors; accents of the red on the whitewashed walls; and ceiling lights that echoed the bull's-eye logo. No signage or graphics was necessary. The brand logo is probably recognised instantly by anybody from the three years old to infinity. Target has done a brilliant job in creating and promoting that logo and thus the Target brand.

Target called this a “pop-up” shop: Everything was “temporary”; nothing nailed, screwed or built in. It was open for six weeks — and then it was gone. How many people shoved their way into this shop because they knew who Target was and what that logo stood for?

Seth Matlins, of Creative Artists Agency in Los Angeles, USA, said we are into “eventising shopping”. We are seeing shopping as more than an “experience” and more as an “event”; something of the moment — it is here and then it is gone.

All of the above seems to be true in responses from the teen-20s-into-30s market.

Adrian Joffe of Comme Des Garcons said: “The young people, the people in the fit of fashion, they're turning in a different direction.” Because they are, as a group, so inundated by media, mega-shows, mega-stars, and so much hype and glitter, they are seeking something more “authentic” — and “big brands mean less and less to them”.

Personally, I remember that in the late 1960s and early 1970s department stores were dipping their toes into the “waters” of the boutique-within-the-boutique or shop-within-the-store concepts. It was all experimental — and daring. It was all trial and error. It was all about keeping up with the looks that kept changing quickly.

At that time, I was a part owner and designer of a display house that had up till then produced decorative props and backgrounds for window and interior displays.

This was the time when “display” was going out and “visual merchandising” was on its way in. When this “trend” started, our firm began importing systems and modular fitting units from Europe because they were way ahead of us in recognising the need for “quick-to-put-together-and-quick-to-take-apart-and-reuse-in-a-different-configuration” store furniture.

With these basic systems, we designed “instant” or “pop-up” shops that usually the display person put together — with an Allen wrench — where and when a “shop” was needed to suit the purpose of the merchandise. And, they worked!

These “quickie” shops added a sense of excitement as well as a change of scene in the store. Here today — gone tomorrow or reassembled in a new configuration in another location the next day fleshed out with different merchandise or a new look. These shops were all about change.

What does the tsunami really mean to retailers and to the designers, architects, fixture/fitting manufacturers and all who are tied up in creating and reinforcing a retailer's brand image?

It may well mean that we must approach the design as one that will not have what we previously believed — a five- to 10-year “life expectancy”. The shoppers are in a spin and in an electronic frenzy and to keep up with the expectancy of these shoppers, retailers will be expected to reinvent themselves and their brands more frequently.

Change has always been the real buzz-word in fashion and retail, and that sense of change will have to be more evident in the looks of the retail stores.

We have started with floor fixtures and cases on wheels or casters so that they can be moved more readily. More and more wall fixtures are being designed as modular elements just waiting to be reorganised — re-arranged into new looks and patterns.

It will mean less investment in “solid” or “permanent” elements and more in the quick-change display elements whether they are seasonal or promotional. The ever-changing images on the television monitors and the plasma screens alone would not do it. It means changing the locations of these units as well.

Like Target's pop-up store, it is not a matter of changing who you are and what you are selling so much as adding a surprise element and a time element, that is, offering an almost “now — or it will be too late” challenge to the shoppers. We cannot think “forever”, we must think “now!”.

Trendwatching.Com, an Internet service that does just what its name portends, has this to say about this pop-up retail concept: “Pop-up retailing fits right in with the Entertainment Economy, the Experience Economy, the Surprise Economy, and so on. It's about surprising consumers with temporary ‘performances', guaranteeing exclusivity because of the limited time span. When truly mobile, pop-up retailing also offers unparalleled opportunities for targeting and customisation.”

Remember, the shoppers are not our enemy and this is not guerrilla warfare where we want to sneak up on them and attack them. We want them to know — like with Target's pop-up — that we are making a quick visit at this location and we want them to take advantage of what we have to offer.

We may stay or go, or come back, but we will still be serving them the best of what we are known for.

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