It may be counterintuitive and even surprising when retailers decide to skew small, but in an era of unlimited accessibility, many big-box brands are looking towards the archetypical “shop” for the next directional shift of retail. In other words, favoring a curated, specialty shop experience as an alternative to the over abundance of choice and lack of personal community a typical retail store offers today.
This new movement also addresses the emerging customer backlash of having to deal with too much stuff and too many stores that is not only fatiguing, but also in some cases, devalues choice. From the “Shops at Target,” to the shopping village model that JC Penney’s Ron Johnson has begun to implement as the store’s headline-making new direction, big brands are starting to think small, specialty, and curated.
Here’s a brief review of three independent New York shops that are catalysts in the shift towards intentional limitation. Each is an epicenter, creating an emotional connection with customers, often extending out of the shop to the beach, the general store, the boudoir and of course, online. Customers are loyal, built on the trust of a shared worldview that each shop offers and to the narrative; the storyline to the shop. Each store is worth looking at as a bellwether of a new emerging retail theme of small being big, less leading more, and experience trumping all.
Possibly the most formidable of the three (having just been tapped by Gap for the massively anticipated GQ for Gap Best New Menswear Designers in America Collection, launched in September), is Saturdays Surf NYC. Tucked away in Soho, you might miss their storefront —if not for the immaculately-dressed surf crowd, taking cigarette breaks in front of the sliver of a store (or in the spacious backyard living room deck in the summer). Saturdays gained crucial, initial respect from the NYC surf community for fostering surf culture in New York through their shop that kept authentic surfing essentials on hand (sex wax, rash guards, used boards), a limited line of menswear, and consistently updating their websites daily with surfing conditions for Rockaway, Lincoln, and Montauk—and Tokyo—beaches. Because of this, surfers gave partial credit to the brand for reviving surfing culture in New York by providing a physical hub in their Crosby Street brick-and-mortar store. Owners Josh Rosen, Morgan Collett and Colin Tunstall opened Saturdays three years ago based on their experience in wholesale fashion and their passion for surfing. Josh, a former professional snowboarder, says that Saturdays was created for men like them; stylish boarders (skate, snow, surf) who appreciate the lifestyle and the look.
The owners were inspired to open Saturdays by editing what they most loved in their closets to stock their shops, recreating a 50s and 60s surf aesthetic. According to Josh, Americans typically define value by price and accessibility. The Saturdays philosophy is to curate a menswear collection that values passion, authenticity and craftsmanship. Their philosophy is to focus on what is artisan high quality and honest, both in merchandise and customer service—with no hype. Their original designs are in 120 doors (including Barney’s, Bloomingdale’s and Fred Segal) in major international cities, and according to Josh, “business has been insane.” The combination of the real, online, and boarder-based emotional connections pays off. Online moments capturing the personal thoughts and experiences of high cool-factor icons reinforce the Saturdays surf attitude and worldview. They have launched a magazine, they sell books, and their blog is filled with imagery that reinforces the lifestyle, the passion and the fashion. Revenues have increased substantially over the last two years, especially since word broke of the collaboration with Gap. According to Saturdays PR Director, Sarvie Nasseri,\” Due to our collaboration with Gap, recent store openings in New York\’s West Village and two stores in Tokyo, and the re-launch of our e-commerce site, we foresee further growth for the coming year.\” Saturdays is filled with customers that seek out this hybrid of classic American active wear and Soho style as the brand that the three owners have developed, carefully integrating all platforms (online, in-store and events) that reinforce their personal sense and sensibility.
A 10-minute subway ride from Saturdays over the Williamsburg Bridge will bring you to Brook Farm General Store. This shop keeps true to its name, as at first glance it appears to be a traditional general store, but only sells the very best of the owner couple’s personal tastes in a carefully selected group of 20 to 30 merchandise categories. This highly-curated collection, housed in a small, pristine space, includes an eclectic mix ranging from stainless steel straws, retro brass bicycle bells, Canadian woolen blankets, artisanal soap, beautifully designed and highly-functional utensils, et al. The shop is a beacon of turn-of-the-century Brooklyn domesticity. Owners Christopher and Philippa Winterbourne started Brook Farm four years ago because they lived in the neighborhood and found a real gap in available goods that they had any interest in buying. As a result, they opened a shop filled with a highly-personal collection, buying only what they loved. They also started their own line, Tourne, including woolen blankets, dishware, and handmade soaps, which is currently their principle focus. Philippa explains “We both have done everything together. Our philosophy is based on integrity, our own personal integrity as well as that of the items we sell. It’s also about the integrity of where it is made, who makes it, who buys it, and how it’s displayed.
There is no target customer, homewares are appealing to people of all ages and backgrounds; what they share is our aesthetic.” She adds, “There is a real directional movement today for people wanting to be surrounded by things that are authentic, honest and pure. It’s cyclical, and no doubt gold-plated straws will come back, but we love what’s real.” Everything at Brook Farm is calculated to be intriguing and spare in design, and their blog reflects their personal aesthetic with another highly-curated photo portfolio (shot by Chris) of beautifully designed objects, spaces and places from around the world to inspire customers. By taking an age-old tradition of the general store, and filling it with hand-picked, well-designed wares for modern day Brooklynites, Brook Farm attracts customers that depend on it as a roadmap of what constitutes day-to-day essentials and necessary indulgences.
Emerging as a contender to Victoria’s Secret, Claire Chambers, founder and CEO of Journelle offers an intimate experience for customers in a lingerie shop that is about beautifully made innerwear. From the French “journellement” which means daily, Journelle reclaims the buying experience of lingerie for women, bringing the focus away from what could be considered occasion-centric product design towards everyday luxury found in everything from a silk romper to a smartly nuanced nightgown. Journelle offers a personal, intimate and edited selection of lingerie that women typically choose for themselves, going so far as to give mainstream exposure to boutique brands such as The Lake & Stars (who later collaborated with Urban Outfitters for a intimates collection), Araks, and the first collection of Ari Dein. Even the in-store experience gets a makeover with dressing rooms like mini-spa spaces with fluffy terry robes to make it easy to try on lingerie.
Complimentary designer chocolates and water are small indulgences that make Journelle light years away from the impersonal, cookie-cutter customer experience of any VS. To that extent, personal profiles of the sales staff connect online customers with Journelle in-house role models. Journelle also offers a men’s guide, customer rewards program, events and programs, romantic videos, fashion inspirations, and Q and A’s with designers—everything in their aspirational arsenal to connect emotionally with women. Not only is Journelle reclaiming women’s lingerie buying experience for women, but they are beginning to bridge the gap between low and high lingerie markets, offering a more personalized alternative to the VS store environment and typically bleak lingerie departments in large department stores.