It’s no surprise that the message of ‘Convenience’ or ‘one-stop-shopping’ is not particularly compelling to shoppers when it comes to department stores. With the advent of online shopping and its infinite expanse of product options, department stores seemed to lose their raison d’etre. And what they have always provided in convenience, they have long since lost in experience--department stores have a reputation of stuffiness, old-school goods and services in old-school buildings that can’t compete with the expansiveness of the internet’s stockrooms, nor the thrill of small boutiques. It’s no wonder that experts and consumers alike were predicting the imminent downfall of department store shopping.
Enter STORY, an immersive, Instagram-friendly department-style store focused on bringing the fun back into department store shopping. Founded by entrepreneur Rachel Shechtman, STORY was birthed in an effort to bring the needs of the modern consumer into one 6-story structure. As the STORY website explains, Shechtman “wanted to create a different type of store,” one where “you could take a yoga class and discover the best water bottle from a small business in Brooklyn.” A department store for the modern age, indeed. STORY, too, would operate on an editorial theme that changed every few months--one month was “Love STORY,” one month “Remember When,” each with unique products, events, store design, and interactive features. The store became a must-visit for New York City tourists and locals alike, and with its frequent redesigns, there was always a reason to stop back in.
Seven years and over 40 redesigns later, STORY has been acquired by Macy’s in an effort to revive the department store’s brand. Macy’s has struggled to transition into the age of digital shopping, with frequent store closings and layoffs over the last few years. STORY could be the key to bringing the fun back into Macy’s stores--and, in turn, the customers. Macy’s has brought STORY as a shop-in-shop to 36 of their storefronts across the country, from Los Vegas to Los Angeles. The average STORY shop is about 1,500 square feet and features products and displays aligned with the theme of the flagship STORY in Herald Square.
The Herald Square STORY, in turn, is the true headquarters of novel experiential retail. The biggest of the locations by far at 7,500 square feet, the Herald Square STORY features special events, Instagram-friendly corridors, and, of course, curated products that serve both theme and customer demand. The current STORY theme is “Color STORY,” a vibrant collaboration with Crayola, Levi’s, and MAC Cosmetics that features products sorted by color across the expansive floor. The color theme means exciting displays, including a rainbow tunnel and a giant interactive Lite-Brite installation frequently used as a backdrop for selfies. The floor design means that just walking through the store is an experience--and one that highlights specialty products.
The collaboration allows for special interactive shopping opportunities, including a “Make Your Own” makeup palette from MAC Cosmetics and the Crayola Create It Yourself network, which promises to be “a platform that inspires viewers to create with Crayola products in new ways,” including designing a personalized patch for your Levi’s jean jacket. Along with STORY’s product features, chosen with a special focus on local small businesses and businesses owned by women and people of color, the store has struck the perfect balance between leveraging big name brands to bring customers in and promoting small businesses to keep products fresh and unique.
It’s clear that STORY is ahead of the game when it comes to a unique and exciting retail experience. Special events, interactive displays, and local and personalized products are all drawing in customers interested in a shopping experience that you can’t get online. With Macy’s taking the lead on bringing it to department stores across the country, it’s clear that a department store revolution is on the horizon.
There are many examples of digitally native brands taking the leap into experimenting with physical retail - and doing it successfully. Leading the charge in the transition from online to physical retail is b8ta, a retail-as-a-service startup that brings small online-only brands to physical stores. Founded in 2015 by three tech entrepreneurs, b8ta bridges the gap between online and physical retail for nascent tech brands, bringing a wide variety of innovative, otherwise online-only products to their 79 locations across the country.
Physical retail presence doesn’t mean much, though, without an exciting retail experience, and b8ta certainly provides. A b8ta store is a tech-lover’s playground, a sea of tables with gadgets and gear unboxed and ready to test. Drawing tablets equipped with styluses lie next to VR headsets, smart wallets sit next to Quip toothbrushes. And each product station comes equipped with a digital display listing product information provided by the product’s makers. The display operates as a product guide, explaining how the product works and encouraging consumers to test the product effectively. The stores, too, have knowledgeable salespeople or “b8ta testers,” as they are officially known, to help customers better understand the tech and provide guidance.
And their innovative system seems to be working. Since 2015, they’ve grown from a single store in Palo Alto to 79 unique storefronts in major cities across the U.S. They’ve also begun a partnership with Lowe’s, bringing their setup to over 70 stores, and in 2018, Macy’s bought a minority stake in the company and began using their model in the company’s experiential retail concept called The Market. Paired with Macy’s STORY, b8ta has become a part of the department store’s mission to bring their retail model into the tech age.
b8ta provides a much-needed service to small brands in a fun, modern package. It’s clear that b8ta is a harbinger of the modern retail model--fusing online and in-store retail, with an engaging, tech-heavy twist. Malls, take note.