There’s No Store There

If retailers are not using their spaces to sell merchandise and make money, what is the purpose of those spaces?
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Posted August 11, 2017

What is a store? When is a store no longer a store? What should you call a store that doesn’t sell anything?

No, you haven’t accidentally wandered onto the pages of “Alice in Wonderland.” This is still a blog on a website about retail design. But this retail design world is getting as confusing and upside-down as Alice’s world was.

In next month’s issue of VMSD, you’ll read about FordHub, a new launch by Ford Motor Co. (Dearborn, Mich.) in the retail halls of The World Trade Center’s Oculus transit hub in New York.

It has a front door, signage, display windows, retail lighting and a brand name over the entrance. It was designed by Fitch (Columbus, Ohio), which we all know of as a store design firm. Ford calls it a store.

But is it? It’s not a store by almost any definition most of you grew up with in this industry.

Ford isn’t selling anything. There’s no merchandise on the floor, on the shelves, on the wall. In fact, almost nothing in the concept has anything to do with completing a sale.

What’s in there, then? Ford is conveying ideas, expectations, predictions, aspirations, solutions, notions, and a conceptual, thought-provoking look at the future of urban mobility; how we’ll all get around in the next several decades of the millennium.

For those of us who grew up with the idea that an automobile showroom is the ultimate in hard sell, this is pretty heady stuff.

I’ll let next month’s VMSD article fill in the details of Ford’s concept. But there’s a greater issue to consider here. It’s called “the future of retail.” (Or, perhaps less pretentiously, “a future of retail.”) It seems like something we all need to get used to, as the traditional retail notion – “go to a store, buy something, go home” – continues to be turned upside-down.

Laura Krpata of Fitch, the senior designer and creative lead on the project, refers to it as “non-transactional retail,” which does sort of make sense in an Alice-in-Wonderland kind of way. It’s more “go to a store, learn something, go home” than the old model. But it’s something all retailers need to get used to if they’re going to survive in this brave, changing new world.

Imagine Whole Foods devoting an entire store to interactive displays about its Whole Cities Foundation, and how it supports bringing education and nutrition to poorer communities. Imagine an Office Depot space with nothing but tutorials on how to create better, more efficient work-at-home environments. Imagine a PetSmart space devoted entirely to education about the humane rescue of dogs and cats. Or a North Face store that is, essentially, an educational approach to traveling, playing and living more responsibly on the planet.

Creating non-transactional experiences in spaces might yet become more and more the norm. And retailers might begin facing the dilemma: “How can we use this space to say something about our brand, about who we are, about what we think and how we fit into the new business paradigm? How can we remain viable, how can we maintain our position of leadership? Who are we going to be? What will we stand for?”

In fact, those are questions retailers ought to be asking themselves already.

As a journalist, writer, editor and commentator, Steve Kaufman has been watching the store design industry for 20-plus years. He has seen the business cycle through retailtainment, minimalism, category killers, big boxes, pop-ups, custom stores, global roll-outs, international sourcing, interactive kiosks, the emergence of China, the various definitions of “branding” and Amazon.com. He has reported on the rise of brand concept shops, the demise of brand concept shops and the resurgence of brand concept shops. He has been an eyewitness to the reality that nothing stays the same, except the retailer-shopper relationship.