Of all the entities revitalizing the state of brick-and-mortar retail in 2019, you’d expect the e-commerce and direct-to-consumer brands that are partially responsible for its current malaise to be at the back of the queue. But this year has shown that such businesses have a use for physical retail, and their first steps into this space are providing a much needed source of inspiration for store designers and owners across categories. The need to take space on the high street, even if temporarily, is being driven by the realization that for all the advantages of being digital first, there are key facets of the consumer-product-brand triangle that can only be facilitated offline. Specifically, digital retail has proven very good at showing consumers what they know they want, which makes it easy to grow a core audience. It’s not so good at helping them discovering things they (or their data) have no prior knowledge of however. This can make it hard to build communities past certain thresholds, or get customers to explore the full variety of your product range. That’s why in-person premium is still hard to beat, as the three brands below expertly demonstrate.


Swapping efficiency for serendipity

For its latest Hong Kong shop Harmay, a Chinese cosmetics e-tailer, wanted to create a mechanism that would encourage customers to explore more of its product range. Instead of openly displaying the inventory, they’ve hidden the items inside categorized drawers, so as to turn the straightforward shopping experience into a treasure hunt. That is: shoppers looking for a hand cream won’t be able to go straight for their known favourite; instead, they have to snoop around.

The store, designed by AIM Architecture, emulates an old-school chemist’s locale – that explains why the drawers are nearly plain and made of stainless steel. By stacking them up towards the first floor, the studio forces shoppers to play the role of chemists – some may need to use a ladder in order to reach their desired category. The 141-sq-m, discovery-led space can afford to only display a rotating, limited selection of the full range of products available in the online mothership – a great real estate advantage in Hong Kong.

By introducing serendipity into the physical shopping experience, AIM adds an element that can compete with online shopping’s efficiency.

Read more here.


Taking advantage of touch

Previously operating as a web marketplace, Zoobibi new lifestyle concept store brings an appreciation for Asian artisanship and Middle Eastern markets to the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn. Half homewares showroom, half café, Zoobibi is purposefully designed to not be too photogenic: the space – developed by local studio The Stella Collective – is meant to look better in person than it does onscreen.

A spokesperson for the studio explains that the strategy acknowledges the ‘primal need to surround ourselves with more meaningful beauty’ at a time when everything is directed toward the digital. This ethos ultimately powers the soul of the store, which The Stella Collective refers to as a ‘retail sanctuary’. The team considered how each detail could increase the physical connection between visitor and space, relying heavily on highly tactile materials.

Filled with archways, Zoobibi is inspired by Syrian art and architecture, particularly that of Aleppo, where The Stella Collective’s director Hana Hakim has roots. A light-filled central courtyard clad in tiles, where visitors can dine and drink, is a case in point. Retail areas – all featuring a consistent neutral palette to complement the brand’s changing landscape of new wares – are organized by different living settings. As shoppers wander through, they’re encouraged to run their fingers over each and every surface.

Read more here.


Finding (narrative) strength in numbers

One of the key challenges for successful DTC brands is expanding their customer base after an initial growth phase. Reaching beyond a core of internet-savvy early adopters often requires a physical presence in a high-footfall location. This usually demands a high level of capital and retail expertise to pull off, however, not things that agile, digital-first businesses have access to.

This is where stores like Showfields come in. The retailer opened its first location at the end of 2018 with a strategy aimed at introducing customers to unexpected brands whilst helping small and early stage businesses generate engagement. It does this by curating a narrativized, experience-led platform on behalf of its suppliers. This integrates their products into a wonderland-like environment far beyond what each would be capable of achieving alone.

This reached its ultimate expression in 2019’s House of Showfields, a temporary multi-room installation which sits somewhere between art museum, immersive theatre and product showcase. Slides, neon, projection mapping, mismatched furniture and attendant actors, its all here. The Lab, a more traditional retail space situated at the end of the experience – and where you can actually buy the products you will have stumbled across in the preceding rooms – achieved a four fold increase in sales in House of Showfields opening weekend compared to the average, while the rest of the store has seen a 33 per cent increase in footfall.

Read more here.

We've compiled a collection of trend roundups that reflect on this year in retail. Find them all here.