Shopping is America’s last great spectator sport.

It has all the hallmarks of traditional sports: competition ("excuse me, that was mine"), drama ("yes, and it's the last in its size"), and perhaps most quizically, emotion ("GIVE IT TO ME!"). Even as e-commerce erodes the traditional role of retailers as market interpreters, city streets swell with stores. Unlike their commoditized cousins (Sears, Kmart, etc.), this new breed of merchant sells not just goods, but immersions: a swirling eddy of sensation, where the product is as much the product as it is a souvenir of the experience.

Of course, providing the intangible has always been a part of retail. Before the 20th century, Marshall Field had made both art and science out of selling goods by not selling the product: his world-famous Chicago department store featured full-service restaurants, day-cares, and tea salons well before “shoppertainment” was coined. That’s not discounting the role that rote “customer service” plays in the tangible-intangible equation, either: multi-billion dollar brands like Nordstrom were built by codified commitments to simply treating customers nicely.

However, today’s merchants have amplified past promises into nothing short of spectacle. The ultimate goal remains the same: you leave your money, you take their product, everyone’s happy. Thanks to digital technology, manufacturing advances, and good ‘ol competition, that goal can now pursued with dizzying effect.

Sure, you could watch the game at home. Sure, you could wait ‘til the play becomes a movie. But when it comes to America’s last great spectator sport, the only true experience comes from being there. On a recent trip to New York, I went to SoHo (the city’s Retail Theater District) to visit 3 of the stores making waves in culture, fashion, and music.

 

KITH

Footwear legend Ronnie Fieg’s Bleecker St emporium is more than just a store – it’s a destination. White lights, soaring ceilings, and plaster sneakers designed by architecture firm Snarkitecture lend KITH a sacrosanct aura, and that’s before you even get to the clothes.

KITH is made up of three distinct sections: Footwear, Clothing, and a special KITH x Nike brand experience room that includes both KITH Treats (a cereal bar) and an apparel design studio featuring printed-while-you-wait custom shirts. While there’s a breadth of store to process, KITH’s unifying trait is Fieg’s finger-on-the-pulse sense of downtown cool. ACRONYM jackets share rack space with vintage-inspired Columbia fleece hats; Timberland’s iconic “6” Premium” sits opposite Aime Leon Deor’s pastel luxury sneakers.

While other downtown boutiques lean on presentation alone, KITH integrates many aspects of retail theater to present a tightly-focused experience where looks are table stakes, not the only card in the hand. Bergdorf might market OFF-WHITE to luxury-aware “cool kids” with marble columns and white glove service, but what’s comfortable to Russian plutocrats may just be stifling to the musician looking to spend their first advance. Instead, there’s KITH: luxury products, luxury environment, but dominated by taste rather than pure material wealth.

In a world of department store trattorias, be a cereal bar.  

 

Arc’teryx Veilance

Launched in 2009, Arc’teryx Veilance is proof that fortune favors the bold. The offshoot of Vancouver-based Arc’teryx (of the world’s foremost outdoors innovators), Veilance began with a radical idea: bring alpine-ready construction to menswear. The results are understated, yet every bit as bold as Veilance’s DNA. Iconic pieces include waterproof blazers, goose down field jackets, and the Patrol IS, a 3-in-1 GORE-TEX fishtail parka lined with Thermatek, a synthetic insulator designed for prolonged exposure to the wet and cold.

Arc’teryx Veilance follows a deceptively-simple ethos: take conventional shapes, add cutting-edge materials, achieve unconventional success.

Repeat.

Now, just months after Arc’teryx opened its New York City flagship, Veilance has again sought fortune with a bold step of its own. Nestled between luxury boutiques on SoHo’s Spring St, the door to the first-ever Arc’teryx Veilance store is as unassuming as one of the brand’s high-tech jackets. Once you step inside, however, the environment opens in front of you, and – just like a Veilance piece – the beauty of the transition is as awesome as the beauty in front of your eyes.

The interior is stark; the racks, sterile; the space, magnificent.

The Veilance collection is separated into 3 distinct sections by environmental use: black letters on stark white walls segment garments designed for “Cold”, “Rain”, and “Wind” from one another.

Behind the racks, rocky dividers direct traffic through the space, both unnaturally monolithic and a reference to the brand’s outdoor roots. The inside of each 8’ divider is lined with black glass mirrors, equal parts helpful and menacing.

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On the side of the dividers opposite the rack, some of the brand’s flagship pieces are suspended on eye-height mannequins, their matte black silhouettes juxtaposed with the store’s snow white walls.

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An innovative, outdoors-inspired brand in a futuristic, spaceship-meets-tundra setting. Bold fonts, beautiful product, and a design aesthetic that aligns with purpose rather than price tag.

Simply put, it is gorgeous.

Unlike KITH, there’s no gastronomic or otherwise interactive brand extension to be had. Instead, there is world-class product in a brand-congruent setting somewhere between SoHo gallery and “Westworld” test lab.

If you have eyes, you must go.  

 

Sonos

You’ve probably seen the commercials. You might’ve even heard the speakers. But for electronics maker Sonos, its first-ever retail outlet wasn’t really about the product. Instead, the Sonos store would be about what its product ultimately provides: the music.

Walking in, you’re immediately greeted by a staff member and ushered to one of four soundproof booths. Each is laid out as a miniaturized home, complete with room-specific décor (ours, for example, had a stack of artist biographies on a bookshelf to denote the “Living Room”). More importantly, each “room” within your booth also features a proportional Sonos product – subwoofer for the home theater, Play:1 (their smallest speaker) for the kitchen, etc. Every speaker is synced to an iPad mounted in the center of the booth, right by a couch big enough for you and a party of three. I went with my parents (hi, Mom!)

After a brief introduction by your staff member, the door closes, silence falls… and the music begins. Now, the theater may start. From this soundproof booth, armed with some of the world’s best speakers and the full Apple Music library, music isn’t heard – it is felt.

I’ll skip the play-by-play and instead leave you with this: two days later, I get chills thinking of the sax soars in Bon Iver’s “22 Over S ∞∞N.”

This – a song I’ve listened to hundreds of time since it first leaked last summer – came alive to me in an entirely new way. I thought I had burnt it out; I thought I was done. Now, it has visceral new life. When it came time to leave, and for a moment the three of us in the booth imagined what it would be like to have that system with that power in the home, possibility took over. Long story short, we bought speakers.

That is the power of experience. That is retail theater.      

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A special thanks to Miguel at Sonos and Owen at Arc’teryx Veilance for their time and attention.

What are your thoughts on the trend towards experiential retailing? Leave a comment below or on my Facebook page to start the conversation. 

 

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