Surprise and Delight Can Take Many Forms

Random retail samplings from a quick trip to London
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Posted October 16, 2018

As many of us “retail road warriors” can relate, I am concluding a 44-hour business trip to London. A long way to go for an hour meeting, but we all do it. Loathe to waste an opportunity to check out the latest retail doings, I discarded my dress and donned the jeans I had removed six hours earlier upon arrival at the hotel so I could go walk about in comfort.

I was on a mission: the lining of my favorite leather jacket, by Ellen Tracy, was officially in embarrassing tatters after roughly 18 years of devoted service. The leather is perfectly broken in, and is soft as butter, and given my advancing age, I may not be able to achieve the same level of broken-in-ness with a new jacket, before, well, before I will no longer need a leather jacket! So … cue the quest for satin lining material. And where else does one turn to for fabrics? No, not Mood. I’ll give you a hint: What do Target and Simon Doonan have in common? This is where a 30-year career in retail gets you. Give up? Liberty of London.

I had shopped the retailer’s website, and had narrowed down my choices to my favorite three, but hadn’t ordered yet. So with a few hours at my disposal, I set off for Liberty to see the fabrics in person. Along the way I passed a store with an interior made from raw oriented board – the sure sign of a pop-up. Upon closer inspection, I realized it was a Diptyque pop-up. I had missed it when Diptyque’s pop up was open in New York, so of course there was no way I could pass on this second chance. In I went, and had a personal scent tour with one of the sales associates. It was a nice journey that shared the brand’s history, highlighted its heritage scents and gave a glimpse of where the line is headed. Though I religiously avoid the purchase of anything that will require me to check my bag at the airport, I tell you, had I been home, I would have bought the sample pack. I thanked my new friend for the tour and continued on my way to Liberty.

I love Liberty. Housed in a super-sized Tudor structure with medieval wood-carved detailing throughout its interior, I always feel like I should be wearing an Elizabethan gown when I walk through it. The center atrium always makes me stop and look up, and the carved wood staircase with its residential scale makes walking, instead of taking the elevator, the defacto choice. Up I went to the third floor, and found my way to the fabric department. Oh, the choices! Like a kid in a candy store, and the product being every bit as colorful, I combed through bolt after bolt, pulling aside potential candidates as I went. The sales associate that pulled short straw on working with me was very patient as I agonized over my choices. Ultimately I think the deciding vote came from another shopper, a woman with an Eastern European accent, who shared her admiration for one of the two finalists, as I went back and forth between the last two choices. Selection made, we proceeded to cash out, and the sales assistant was kind enough to sign me up for a loyalty card so I could get £15 off my purchase, and then shared that I could take care of the VAT refund on the fourth floor.

VAT refund complete, I did a quick spin through the Christmas shop, also on the fourth floor. I soon realized that I was not emotionally prepared to think about Christmas yet, so I promptly headed for that lovely carved wooden staircase and back out to the street and current day. Mission accomplished, I plugged directions into my phone for the next destination: MatchesFashion.com new store. While examining the route, I saw that Gentle Monster was right around the corner. I put navigation on pause and walked in its direction.

I had seen the Gentle Monster store in Shanghai last December, and had come away inspired by their bravery, and a bit incredulous about their business plan. I think I ultimately rationalized that when you are dealing with such small products, that in the broad view are all quite similar, introducing large scale art installations was actually quite brilliant. That impression returned as I walking into this newest version of this store.

Recalling my recent trip to Arizona, I was attracted to some planters with inflated cacti. Turning around, I saw the entry aisle was flanked by strange but adorable life-size creatures to welcome customers into the store. Seeing the spiral stair leading to the lower level, down I went. In the center of this lower sales area was an installation that recalled those inflated cacti upstairs, but ensconced within this foreign field was a choreographed boxing match between a robot and a tiny alien in its spacecraft. I promptly shot a short video of it and uploaded as a story on my Instagram.

Leaving Gentle Monster, I reactivated my navigation and headed to MatchesFashion.com’s new digs. Unfortunately, I don’t think they are quite fully “live” yet, so it was a quick (very supervised) turn in what seems like a nicely restored listed London townhouse. But on my way back to the hotel, I stumbled upon Bally, where they are currently featuring their collaboration with spray paint artist Shok-1. I only knew what this was because I had just read about the collaboration in Tuesday’s Women’s Wear Daily. An unlikely coupling, as most good collaborations are, and I was glad I had the chance to check out the merchandise in person.

So as I write this, on the plane home, I am reflecting on what was a varied, but fun, couple of hours shopping. Now you may be saying to yourself, “the only thing she bought was the fabric that she set out for.” And that would be true. But I did see a lot in the stores as I traversed them, and quite conveniently, they are only an Internet search away from purchase. The journey exposed me to brands, allowed me glimpses into their spirit, and remains top of mind for some near future recreational web surfing.

To me, that proves the ROI of experience: create meaningful moments, memorable moments, and in the process you will capture a new customer. You may not know when, or what they will eventually purchase, but the point is they are a customer you didn’t have before. And that should make it worth the effort.

Kathleen Jordan, AIA, CID, LEED AP, is a principal in Gensler’s Charlotte, N.C., office, and a leader of its retail practice with over 24 years of experience across the United States and internationally. Jordan has led a broad range of retail design projects as both an outside consultant and as an in-house designer. She has led projects from merchandising and design development all the way through construction documentation and administration, and many of her projects have earned national and international design awards. Contact her at kathleen_jordan@gensler.com.