For all this talk about the user experience online -- Why are online retail physical stores so bad?
Do retailers still think you can apply UX design interfaces to the three-dimensional world?
Shouldn't we reverse the process -- and apply architectural strategies to 2-D websites?
About a month ago, my girlfriend and I walked around SOHO on a Saturday afternoon. After checking out the Uniqlo U collection, we headed down a smaller side street, where we found some trendy shops -- Joe the Juice, Matcha Milk, etc....and somewhere along the street, we came around to Allbirds and the new Amazon "4 stars" store. We had both heard about Allbirds, from all the targeted Instagram ads and the podcast ads. As far as we know, it was "trendy" retailer that sold wool sneakers. We were also intrigued by the Amazon retail store, and we wondered what the "4-stars" meant. So we headed to Amazon first.
Boy, were we disappointed. As it turned out, the Amazon "4 star" store was a location that contained products rated four stars and above on the website. This ranged from stationery to vaccuum cleaners to computers. As we walked into the store, we were overwhelmed by the amount of products we saw -- it felt like a small warehouse, made slightly more habitable by the warm lighting and wood floors. Ironically, the Amazon "4-star" store looked and felt kind of like a Barnes and Nobles, which was the brick-and-mortar company they dethroned. The place was packed with goods and people on a small footprint - the experience was claustrophobic, and not much more different than a bargain mall store at times. We asked one of the customer reps about the place. As it turned out, the place had opened a couple months ago, and it was one of first locations in the US - the others being Seattle and Los Angeles. This line of stores was separate from Amazon Go, which was more about a customer experience without a Point-of-Sale. We left the overwhelmingly "woody" store and headed to Allbirds.
When we walked into Allbirds, I felt like I had walked in to a science fair exhibition -- but for wool shoes. The color palette of the store was hues of grey, with some CNC plywood display boards, and of course many pastel-toned sneakers and slippers. The shoes were displayed in the typical fashion of a Nike or Adidas flagship - short rows, on plexiglass ledges, sparsely populated along the walls with some brief texts on the product lines. I guess some of the display designs were intriguing -- there were some cut away materials and raw wool pellets and fabrics, demonstrating how the shoe was light, airy, and very much "Made in New Zealand". However, I found this technique to be quite rational and off-putting -- I never figured out how the shoes would feel from wandering around the store, and I was never intrigued to try on a pair. Instead of making me believe that the shoes would be warm and comfortable, just like hugging a sheep, or walking on clouds, the architecture was more informational and cold (I heard the Prince Street location was better.) We ended up spending less than five minutes inside, and headed to the Joe the Juice for a shopping break.
It's funny just how pervasive these vapid online retail stores are -- I remember back in the winter, we had also checked out the Casper flagship Store near Broadway-Lafayette, and we also found it to be lackluster. Unlike a typical mattress store, where mattresses would just be neatly laid out in rows on the floor, the Casper store featured these small and colorful plywood dollhouses inside the store, and each of these "dioramas" would feature different Casper mattresses. I guess the store concept was to appeal to young couples, walking from one dollhouse to another, trying out the mattresses. It looked really attractive in the online blogs and instagram posts -- but in reality, the space felt kind of flimsy and dead. It didn't help that the HVAC wasn't properly configured, and the air was quite stuffy and unfriendly for sleeping. I didn't understand -- how can a store selling really comfortable mattresses not have comfortable store? (Next time, we will try out the Dreamery behind the store.)
Did I just get out of bed the wrong way, each time I went to these stores? Did I just set too high of expectations?
My gut tells me there are two primary reasons I feel this way, or about most hyper-marketed things:
1) The online experience is just WAY better and way more personalized, and no physical store experience can compete. In some ways, the physical store actually reveals too much, or too many flaws -- and there are too many variables to control.
2) The physical flagship is built for the internet -- for posts, instagram shots, and marketing -- and serves as a secondary, or even tertiary, part of the core online business. It is more of another channel to access people already familiar with the brand, and not a focus in and of itself.
This is what I think: despite the problems and issues highlighted above, I think these stores can be WAY better. I believe these stores can become destinations in and of themselves, and make a bigger impression to people, even outside their core customer base. Here's how:
STRATEGY 1: Leap beyond the boundaries of the screen and the paper, and engage the physical space. Turn the instagram moment into a spatial moment.
STRATEGY 2: Design something that feels like the product, not what looks like the website.
STRATEGY 3: Utilize the full potential of this expanded marketing canvas -- kind of like Apple Town Square, but not as tacky.
(I will continue editing this post this weekend, May 18-19).