Independents: Bridging the Gap

How these retailers successfully juggle multiple platforms and collaborate in the creative world
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Posted May 10, 2016

“I’m not a retailer,” was Marco’s response, the owner of the retail store, Alapash, in Chicago. I was dumbfounded and a bit awestruck. He went on to say he doesn’t know about “retail” per se, but is just doing what he loves. He’s an independent retailer. 

More than just simply retailers, independents are entertainers and hosts, storytellers and curators, cultivating communities for people to experience camaraderie while they shop. They are supporting one another in ways that foster and build each other up, not thinking in competitive terms, but rather complementing terms. Their stores are places for customers to enjoy one another’s company, savor the shopping experience and discover threads of individuality along the journey.

Here are some tips to take away from independents who have experimented with different roles, events – and, well, retail:

Retailer + Club = Vnyl
Vnyl is a record subscription service in Los Angeles with a cult following. Everything is customized as they collaborate with their customers to create the best playlist. Customers send in their moods like #happy or #moody, and their team of curators hand pick three records to send them per month. “Let’s get physical” is written on the walls and outside benches, following their belief that there’s still magic in physical music. The store’s aesthetic targets a teenage girl’s vibe with bright pink colors and neon lights, far from the old stereotype of record stores with posters and piercings. Customers can hang out all day in six listening stations, discover new music to love and join the club!

Retailer + Manufacturer = Everlane
Everlane is an online retailer in San Francisco that believes in radical transparency. Their motto is “Know your factory. Know your costs. Always ask why.” Everlane’s product costs are listed openly on their website. They believe customers should see the journey of the product, get to know where it came from and who the creators are. In their eyes, being open and honest with customers is equal to being fair. The owner, Michael Preysmen, quit his day job to start the company with a team of creative young rule breakers, and Everlane was born.

Retailer + Host = Ampersand
It takes a village of happy retailers to pull off a multi-wine tasting event. On Damen Avenue in Ravenswood, Chicago, three retailers did just that. To celebrate a new lease and move-in of their latest neighbor on the block called Ampersand, Alapash and District (retailers that negotiated their leases to be together), decided to extend a wine tasting party into each of their stores. Customers sampled different varieties at each location, raching new customers and entertaining existing ones. A “sip-n-shop” never sounded so good!

Retailer + Landlord = Marine Layer
Marine Layer, a T-shirt retailer with locations in Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland and D.C., features an Airbnb where customers can have a “brand sleepover” in the store. Furnished and decorated in the same aesthetic and vibe of the store, the owner, Mike, decided that he needed a place to crash when he visited his company’s locations. Immersing visitors in the Marine Layer brand while serving as host connects potential customers at a level beyond traditional brick-and-mortar. The offbeat combination has proved to be fruitful.

Independent retailers continue to push boundaries and use their wealth of skills in order to collaborate with customers and run compelling businesses. It’s not all about “omnichannel.” In fact, I would bet Marco hasn’t even heard that word.

Be on the lookout for the next “Independents” post featuring how the independent marketplace is connecting online.

For more information on Faith Bartrug’s 2015 IRDC presentation regarding independent retailers, click here.

Faith Bartrug of FBD Studios (Columbus, Ohio) has more than a decade of experience in transforming national brands. Her background includes brand strategy, environmental design and visual merchandising, and she has been able to practice what she preaches with leading design firms and clients such as Starwood Retail Partners, Neiman Marcus, and JCPenney.