City Landscapes, Retail Reflections

SoHo’s creative energy drives a new retail model
Posted May 26, 2016

Even as a lifelong New Yorker, this city continues to amaze me every single day; there’s a new discovery at every turn. A Sunday stroll through the alleyways of Chinatown, along the cobblestones of SoHo or the corridors of midtown, will reveal the many twists and interwoven intricacies of New York’s multifaceted tapestry. The heartbeat of our culture pulsates through the smalls of Pell Street to the grandiose nature of Fifth Avenue.

On a chilly Sunday in early May, I toured SoHo with Kevin Kennon, a new friend and accomplished architect. It became clear that his vision goes beyond the obvious, as he directed the tour to five retailers who are changing the path of traditional (old school, if you will) retail. Clearly, there is a financial and economic component to retail, but the social aspect has become just as vital – social awareness will drive a new retail paradigm, which in turn, will drive economic rewards.

SoHo’s storied past assumed its place as a manufacturing lynchpin in the industrial Northeast as the 19th Century gave way to the 20th. Cast iron architecture was the technology of the day, allowing large expanses for factories and warehouses. As time progressed and manufacturing slowed, artists were drawn to the sweeping spaces. Art galleries soon followed, and a new exhibition style of design came into vogue. The wide, columned spaces allowed art to be created upstairs, and shown downstairs on the street level. By the 1960s, almost every door in SoHo opened to an art studio or gallery. And then the inevitable – the onslaught of retailers came along. The artists moved to more “affordable” areas, but the spirit and energy of creativity and innovation remained. And while many retail venues today are cookie-cutter stamps that possess a roll-them-out mentality, the five we visited are forerunners of a new retail model.

While the debate rages over the survival of brick-and-mortar, it must be clearly stated that the physical retail channel isn’t going away, but the traditional model of “get them into the store and sell” is changing. As the focus shifts away from in-store sales, the new allure of the physical store is brand immersion. And as retailers industry-wide scramble to introduce technology into their stores, they are clearly miss-stepping if the technology becomes the message, rather than a vehicle to promote brand loyalty.

The first stop along our SoHo trek was the Apple store on Prince Street. Apple, of course, was initially a game changer. They took the intimidating edge off of technology as they evolved into the powerhouse the company is today. They made technology accessible while simultaneously creating a new retail model. Floating around their iconic glass staircase is an open, library-like environment, with clean lines that align with their overall design aesthetic. And much like the early art galleries that defined this section of Manhattan, the space is set up exhibition-style, further elevating the product as pieces of art. This is experiential retailing at its best; total brand immersion doubling as 3-D advertising.

Our next stop was Warby Parker on Greene Street. This progressive purveyor of eyewear created a new way of shopping. With the founders' love of books, and knowing that most will associate the wearing of glasses with intelligence, the aspirational retailer created an environment that references the book-shelved halls of a library, complete with table lamps, shelves and library ladders. The space and the people representing the brand are there to service the customer, making them feel taken care of as they’re guided through the difficult process of selecting the right frames. The retailer further connects with its customer by documenting the company history and contributing to local charities.

Continuing to Prince Street, we stopped at Camper. Crossing the threshold is akin to literally walking into the brand – it’s a total immersion. A sidewall features the company logo positioned on a series of evenly spaced, floor to ceiling angled vertical uprights. When approaching from the left, the vertical uprights align to reveal the logo; when approaching from the right, the uprights frame the Camper merchandise. This is a powerful demonstration of the physical store as a vital touchstone of the brand.

From there, it was a short walk to Nixon, also on Greene Street. This small store demonstrated the power of personalization. Welcomed into the space by an oversized, empty glass showcase, with the product prominently displayed on top, customers are encouraged to design their own watch. The emphasis here is to inform the customer and encourage them to celebrate their own personal brand and identity with a watch that complements their lifestyle. The custom bar lets the customer be who they are – clearly a new model for today’s retailers.

The perfect ending for the tour was Blackbody, a lighting design resource on Greene Street. This store is a brilliant example of exhibition-style store design and a throwback to the art galleries that once dominated the area. In this typical SoHo footprint, all of the product was elevated into the realm of art through strategic placement and positioning. And while the product offerings were artistically rendered light sources, traditional art, such as paintings on canvas and pottery (one of the earliest art forms), is woven into the space.

The walking tour of SoHo with Kevin was inspirational. As a longtime practitioner and chronicler of retail design, it was exhilarating for me to see how the creative spirit of New York’s SoHo area is at the forefront, shaping the ever-evolving landscape of retail design.

Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience.  He served as corporate director of visual merchandising for Stern’s Department Store, a division of Federated Department Stores, from 1986 to 1995. After Stern’s, he assumed the position of director of visual merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, an architectural design firm in New York City. Feigenbaum was also an adjunct professor of Store Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and formerly served as the chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College (New York) from 2000 to 2015. In addition to being the Editorial Advisor/New York Editor of VMSD magazine, Eric is also a founding member of PAVE (A Partnership for Planning and Visual Education). Currently, he is also president and director of creative services for his own retail design company, Embrace Design.