Humanity: Our Foremost Priority

Retail is no longer paint by numbers, but rather color by caring
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Posted February 14, 2019

The 2018 holiday season in New York was as exciting as any I can remember in years. Now as we navigate through the quiet of the post-holiday selling season, we face the depths of the cold winter and the possibility of paralyzing snowstorms. As time goes by and retail continues from season to season on its evolutionary path, we’re often inundated with a blizzard of buzzwords. And much like the squalls of winter, we’ve endured them all, from “omnichannel” and “authentic,” to “curated,” “community,” “personalization,” “big data,” “experiential,” and “collaboration,” et al.

As I traversed through New York’s cornucopia of retail venues in December, it was clear that there are many new players in the arena; they’re new concepts with new approaches. It is no longer retail “as usual.” We all know that the industry is changing exponentially, it’s changing faster and more radically than the weather. The other point that is abundantly clear is, that while some stores are closing, there are a plethora of new store openings filling the void. In fact, for every store that closes today, 2.7 are reportedly opening in their place. So no, Chicken Little, the sky isn't falling, the clouds are simply parting, and there’s a new weather pattern forming.

And while buzzwords still pound the pavement as retailers scramble to determine the direction of the wind, there’s one word that sticks to the surface. We all know by now that today’s retail model isn't simply about distributing merchandise, it’s about creating brand equity and so much more. We all know about experiences, entertainment and community. But refreshingly, as I travel about internationally and domestically, a new word is being bandied about, a word that is so much more than just buzz: The word is humanity.

Buzzwords are as transient and ephemeral as the weather, but virtue, ethics and integrity are as rock solid as one’s DNA. These qualities are fundamental and distinctive, they are immutable and unchangeable standard-bearers of character.

Humanity, empathy, morality, caring  and basic human instincts that speak to a sense of decency are coming to the fore in the face of, or perhaps in response to, an environment rife with great political divisiveness, social discord and increasing economic concerns.

Retail today is no longer about “get them in and sell them something,” this construct has gone the way of the rotary telephone and the typewriter. Rather, today’s empathic retailers understand the wants and needs of their community. They care about their neighbors’ successes and failures, their milestones and challenges.

Mattress start-up Casper, and other visionaries such as Warby Parker, Allbirds, Away, Birch Box, Phluid, and Everlane, recently planted a flag in New York’s SoHo and NoHo districts. Yes, stores are closing, but many new concepts are springing up and the differences between old and new are abundant.

Casper dissected and evaluated the mattress buying experience, it strove to understand the many reasons people buy a new mattress. With an eye toward awareness and empathy, the brand determined that it’s major life-changing events that compel people to purchase a new mattress. It’s not just show and sell, it’s understanding and caring. Casper recognizes that it’s marriages, births, graduations, new jobs and even divorces, which drive the need for purchase. The brand also recognizes and promotes the importance of sleep in one’s life. Generally speaking, the company’s goal is to understand the mattress shopping process and change it from a dreaded chore to an enjoyable and meaningful experience.

Casper’s in-store experience is far removed from the category’s more traditional warehouse-like approach of overwhelming rows of mattresses in a large open space. Rather, the retailer provides colorful, warm and cozy room settings, a residential feel in a retail space. Six distinct bedrooms welcome visitors to test the mattresses for themselves as though they were at home. In doing so, designers demonstrate an understanding of customer needs, while providing a fun and educational shopping experience.

In NoHo, the insightful creators of The Pluid Project recognized the needs of an important and dynamic demographic that was being ignored. Billed as the first gender-neutral store, with no separate men’s and women’s areas, the brand strives to break down the notion of binary shopping choices. The 3000-square-foot space, with its soothing white walls, oversized windows and high ceilings, provides a gender-free oasis, complete with a roster of recognized brand names, a proprietary label, opportunities for up-and-coming young designers and a community space for events and workshops.

This progressive retailer’s philosophy is built around dispelling societal alienation and conforms, while allowing all who visit to embrace the essence of who they are. Simply stated, their mission is to “challenge boundaries with humanity.” 

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.