Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Organic asks: what's the concept behind concept stores?

Concept stores are somewhat unique in their ability to capture customer and media attention with sometimes over-the-top sensory experiences, unique spaces and unusual merchandising techniques. Over at Three Minds @ Organic, though, Marta Strickland wonders whether the aura and mystique they create might not be so great. Ok, the argument centers around one trip to Ruehl, Abercrombie & Fitch's attempt to cater to the 22-35 audience who outgrow A&F's standard fare. Here's her take on the store, one of about a dozen or so currently operating in the US:
Last weekend I visited Ruehl for the first time in the Twelve Oaks mall. I have usually been too intimidated to go in the store. There is just something about a darkly lit “street corner” in the middle of the mall with disinterested text-messaging girls half my age wandering in and out of the darkness that intimidates me. The one in the Twelve Oaks mall is particularly darkly lit to the point where you can’t really see anything from the outside of the “windows” to even make you certain it is a clothes store and not some wormhole to another dimension.
Despite the cool atmosphere, though, she wonders whether or not the store's concept was the right one:
In the end, I can’t say that I "get it". Maybe I’m not the right target and certainly not a fashion expert, but chic martini lounge atmosphere + 22-35 audience = "understated" screen print hoodies… it just doesn’t add up for me.
And in just those few words I think Strickland has hit upon an idea that is frequently overlooked when retailers plan a new store concept -- namely, whether cool sells. And I'm not just talking about selling a few more hoodies or pairs of flip flops. I'm talking about whether "cool" or "unique" or "interesting" are good enough concepts by themselves to garner brand loyalty. Whether it's Organic staffers' experiences at Ruehl (they feel it creates an artificial aura of superiority) or Samsung's "Experience" store (where you can't actually buy products), concept stores occasionally focus too much on the "concept" and not enough on the "store" side of things, to their detriment.

Back in the mythical time when all stores looked the same and all personnel were equally knowledgeable, a store that stood out based purely on its ambiance may have worked. But with so much focus on shopper marketing and the in-store experience, retailers must now have remarkable staff and remarkable products to win loyal customers. There's nothing wrong with being cool, of course (well, unless like the Organic folks it's cool to the point of being clique-ish), but today's concept retailers can no longer count on it as a reliable way to convert passers-by into browsers into shoppers into buyers into repeat buyers into lifelong-loyal customers (or at least demographically-loyal, since I get the feeling that Ruehl might kick you out once you cross the 35 year old threshold).

As if to illustrate that point, check out's article about (and creepy pictures of) A&F's 61 year-old CEO, lacquered up to look like a "casually flawless college kid."

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