Log another win for brick-and-mortar in the retail history books: Despite years of retail apocalypse criers, the industry continues to show that it’s not dying at all — it’s just evolving.
The decline and exodus of so many large, traditional retail chains has simply paved the way for a new crop of players with more of a niche focus and audience. More and more, digital-first brands are becoming brick-and-mortar-second brands with an intentional presence in the physical retail world — even if that presence is much smaller than the footprint left by the retailers that fizzled before them.
Take Wildfang, the Portland, Oregon-based feminist fashion brand defined by menswear-inspired suiting and irreverent female empowerment slogans — but best known for its “Wild Feminist” t-shirt.
The company opened its first store in Portland five years ago and is now about to open its second in New York City this May at 252 Lafayette. The brand says it intends to keep expanding in the fall, with L.A. next on the list.
Unlike the retail giants that came before it, “expanding” for Wildfang and its contemporaries doesn’t mean opening a store in every city across the U.S. The new wave of retail is about quality, not quantity — in line with consumers’ desires for something that feels authentic and exclusive, rather than cheap and mass-produced for profit.
Wildfang CEO & Co-founder Emma McIlroy says that’s why the company is approaching physical retail as a hub for its community. Customers are craving real, authentic experiences, she said, and digital simply can’t deliver that — nor does traditional retail go far enough.
“A physical storefront offers us a true home,” McIlroy said. “It offers us the opportunity to meet our community face to face and create an emotional connection with them. Digital can never replace that.”
McIlroy noted that customers acquired offline tend to have the highest lifetime value because the early rich and immersive brand experience, afforded by brick-and-mortar, cements consumer trust and confidence right off the bat. But, she said, physical versus digital is not an either/or decision — and that’s where the theory of retail evolution comes into play. Physical retail is better than digital for some things and vice versa but, ultimately, both channels are needed, said McIlroy.
Digital channels enable immense reach and scale easily, she said, but building an emotional connection on web or mobile is incredibly difficult. Trust, intimacy, and authenticity: These are qualities that brands must show, not tell. In other words, it’s not enough to articulate these values on the “About Us” page of a website. Brands must also live them out, and it takes brick-and-mortar to do so.
Another key for Wildfang has been a deliberate focus on authenticity, which McIlroy said comes from “backing up your actions.” The company makes a point of giving back thousands of dollars a year to community and charity partners, she said, and spotlights women of color, queer women, and other underrepresented groups in marketing, on the Wildfang website and at events.
“We back up our values in everything we do,” McIlroy said. “That’s authenticity. The retailers [that] are winning are community-centric, they have small footprints, they create interactive experiences, and they embrace the online world and offer an omnichannel experience.”