Retail

Is ‘Walking In A Live Instagram Account’ The Future Of Physical Retail?

Remember those first giddy days of eCommerce? If so, one can probably remember the fantastical predictions that, before too long, brick-and-mortar retail would go the way of the horse-and-buggy. Those were the days.

Physical retail may be going through some tough times. Malls are all but dead, and one chain after another closes its doors. However, with Amazon and other formerly pure-play players opening up their own stores (that is, locations that have street addresses), it’s clear that physical retail still has some life, assuming it can change with the times.

In a new PYMNTS interview, Co-founder Katie Hunt of SHOWFIELDS — best described as a physical space in New York City for retail experiences — spoke about how at least part of in-person commerce will look, and even feel, in the 2020s. The story she told was about the importance of the consumer experience, and the benefits of direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands reaching out to consumers via physical retail offerings.

“It should almost feel like you are walking in a live Instagram account,” she said when describing the ideal SHOWFIELDS experience. “You really want to experience a moment of time with the brand and their story. It should feel [like] you are just in their moment.”

Curations And Experiences

A bit about SHOWFIELDS, just in case the barely year-old company is new to the reader: Instead of merely being a nicely laid out warehouse of consumer goods, Hunt’s vision was to create a store that made the discovery of products less of a chore — and more of a fun adventure for shoppers. In the pre-Amazon days when all commerce was brick-and-mortar, shopping was part retrieval mission-focused on the goods one was there to purchase, and part scavenger hunt for the customer to find some new and beloved thing.

The SHOWFIELDS experience was designed to offer customers a new way to both find what they want and discover what they didn’t know they needed. The department store is something of a modern bazaar, where DTC brands pay SHOWFIELDS a $6,000 to $12,000 a month subscription fee for placement within the four-story department store. In return for that fee, SHOWFIELDS manages the entire retail process of each small storefront within the larger store, and provides data for merchants about what products are drawing interest. All revenue from sales earned within SHOWFIELDS is the merchant’s to keep.

“We do a different curation every six months,” Hunt said. “We switch over every September and March. We close the store for four days, and then open with a brand new curation.”

The brands chosen for SHOWFIELDS tend to be brands of which the store’s employees are fans, and which are then invited in, she explained.

How to tell that story — how to build that consumer experience — is largely a matter of data collected by those DTC brands, and their expertise in reaching consumers. That all serves as the foundation for the experience SHOWFIELDS creates. What the company offers, when it comes down to it, she said, is a “flexible white box” that can be built out with different experiences, instead of using the same general template every time.

That’s especially important for younger consumers, who have not only grown up in the world of digital commerce, but in a world where customization and personalization are mainstays of consumer life. That flexible white box is — not to get too artsy — almost like a blank canvas upon which new and vital experiences can be built.

“The issue is how do you create a meaningful experience for the consumer,” Hunt told PYMNTS, “and not just experiences for experience sake?”

Role Of Payments

Payments also play a significant role in this. Indeed, SHOWFIELDS created its own mobile point-of-sale (POS) system, using expertise from another co-founder with experience in the mobile payments space, she noted. The POS devices are about the size of a card reader, and can be used anywhere in the space.

“We are assembling an ecosystem [through payments],” Hunt said. That is significant because it gives SHOWFIELDS more control over, and access to, consumer data — information that can inform future store curations and experiences. As 2020 approaches, it is difficult to imagine any healthy retail offering with a robust, sometimes even made-to-order, payments system serving as part of the foundation.

Hunt, a former employee of eyeglass retailer Warby Parker (she was around when the company started setting up physical stores), is bullish on brick-and-mortar retail. For one, it gives merchants and brands the chance to talk to consumers, and not just rely on data, heat maps and other technologies. Second, consumers are simply not ready to give up on physical retail. In fact, she said, SHOWFIELDS is considering options for expansion outside New York City, but she was not able to give more details about that.

“You can’t be in a world anymore that’s not based on customer experience,” she said, “Someone else will do it if you don’t.”

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