Our regular Editors Perspectives column offer insights and opinions from the Retail TouchPoints editorial team as they dig into the latest trends in retail, marketing and tech.
Is cynicism a natural facet of growing older? I can’t tell you for sure, but I can tell you that after celebrating a milestone birthday (you can probably guess, but I won’t tell you which one) and sensing an increasingly cynical bent in my own nature, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself surprised by not one but two new retail experiences in the last few months.
It’s not that stores aren’t exciting or enjoyable anymore, it’s just that after nearly two decades covering the business of retail and even more decades as a consumer, one starts to get a little skeptical when a press release promises something “new.” To be fair, for an industry that’s existed for over 10,000 years, “newness” is a tall order.
And yet I found something new twice in the space of a few weeks. Once accidentally, when I stumbled upon Glossier’s revamped flagship on a visit to SoHo, and a second time more intentionally, while attending the opening of the new Babies ‘R’ Us at the American Dream mall in New Jersey just a few weeks later.
In neither instance was I expecting to be impressed. Yes, SoHo is a hotbed of retail and design innovation, but to be honest, most of the DTC brands that test the brick-and-mortar waters in that neighborhood do so with a fairly formulaic approach. And while the second instance marked the triumphant return of a beloved brand after bankruptcy, I’d already seen the various return(s) of sister brand Toys ‘R’ Us (both the first failed attempt and the second, which is still alive and well at American Dream), so I was prepared for something similar — not so much a reimagining of the store but a smaller version of what it always was with a few “experiential zones” thrown in.
But both stores proved me wrong and shut up (at least temporarily) that cynical little devil on my shoulder.
The New, Smaller Babies ‘R’ Us Gives Parents Just What They Need
In the case of Babies ‘R’ Us my surprise was based on how the store felt. Toys ‘R’ Us was fine as a big box — in fact, that’s what made it such a wonderland for kids and adults alike — but the Babies ‘R’ Us of yore was overwhelming to the point of being anxiety-inducing. That was my personal experience with Babies ‘R’ Us eight years ago (dating myself again), and I know I’m not alone — Babylist Founder and CEO Natalie Gordon told me she’s heard the same thing countless times. In fact it was her own dismal experience with legacy baby retailers that led her to create Babylist, which opened its first flagship store (specifically designed to “guide” parents-to-be rather than panic them) earlier this month.
Babies ‘R’ Us beat Babylist to the new-store punch by a month, and indeed, the new smaller footprint suits it. (The store at American Dream mall is 10,000 square feet compared the 40,000+ square feet that the brand’s former big box format occupied). Yet the new store is able to fit a surprising amount of selection into that smaller space without feeling crowded. The design is bright and welcoming without veering into cheesy, and I left feeling a bit disappointed that Babies ‘R’ Us didn’t exist in this form when I was on my own gearing-up-for-baby journey.
I should also mention that a Disney executive at the event I attended expressed particular excitement about the return of the Babies ‘R’ Us registry, a prime opportunity for brands for which there are not many pure-play alternatives (Babylist excepted of course).
Final thought — I think the country needs both Toys ‘R’ Us and Babies ‘R’ Us. There has been no viable alternative for either since their closure, and both fill a need in a category where you want to shop in person. I for one am encouraged by WHP Global’s vision for the new Babies ‘R’ Us and look forward to its promised national expansion.
Glossier Creates a Retail Experience that Stands Out (even in SoHo)
Now on to Glossier, my visit to which was a total fluke, but the fact that it happened at all speaks volumes. While walking through SoHo one day and noting the number of DTC brands with stores (Interior Define, Vuori, Reformation and Allbirds are just a few I noticed), I happened upon Glossier’s revamped NYC flagship and couldn’t help but go inside because it looked so…different.
As a person who’s never felt at home in Sephora or Ulta (perhaps for similar reasons that Babies ‘R’ Us made me feel overwhelmed), the Glossier store was a revelation. Sleek and streamlined without a hint of the wood-infused farmhouse vibe so popular with other DTC brands, the Glossier store is centered on allowing consumers to try before they buy. It felt like an Apple Store for beauty products, except instead of white, everything featured a not-overbearing shade of light pink.
Associates are dressed in easily recognizable pink coveralls, complete with a cleaning cloth in the back pocket, and they are eager to answer questions or check you out if you’re ready to make a purchase. If you’re not, they quickly slip away to allow you to trial all the brand’s varied blushes, lip glosses and perfumes in your own time. Indeed, the only counters in sight are try-on counters, not cash wraps or crowded displays with stacks of every shade. For customers already stocked up on Glossier beauty products, there’s a merchandise section filled with fun apparel and accessories that even the most jaded SoHo shopper would find appealing — for example the “You Look Good.” baseball hat with an inverted tagline made especially for selfie aficionados.
The whole vibe was friendly, accessible and, frankly, joyful – that’s what I call a new beauty shopping experience.
Both these stores proved to me, the slightly jaded, now-aged shopper that I am, that there is still ample room to innovate and invent when retailers listen to their customers and keep them in mind when designing in-person retail experiences.