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Brick-and-mortar innovators


A panel of retailers whose innovative brands are helping set the path for the future of the industry were the star attraction at the SPECS “Trailblazers” session. Executives from Lowe’s, Samsung, Shinola, Warby Parker and Wisteria participated in the Q&A session.

Michael Koch, Samsung’s senior director of store development, discussed the consumer electronic giant’s untraditional approach to brick-and-mortar with Samsung 837, located in Manhattan’s trendy Meatpacking District.

“We have 56,000 sq. ft. of showroom, but all we really sell is coffee,” Koch said.

He explained that the store’s mission is to get people interacting with Samsung products. It draws crowds with VR experiences, interactive art installations, workshops and live music performances.

It also has a support station where customers can get expert help to get the most out of their Samsung devices, from setting up a new phone to dealing with a cracked screen.

At home improvement retailer Lowe’s, where the living is more suburban, tech solutions are being experimented with and used to augment personal interaction.

“We’ve used robots in some stores to help people locate products,” said Ruth Crowley, Lowe’s VP of customer experience design. “Customers like it, but we find they still value human connection. It’s a more personal experience for the customer.”

Do-it-yourself retail is a hands-on business, and Crowley pointed out that while some customers shop at or start their research online, 13 million people visit the stores each week.

“We do a lot of customer research and we consistently find that, at Lowe’s, it’s a serious imperative to be part of the communities we serve,” Crowley said. “We’re creating moments that resonate with customers on a personal basis.”

For panelist Andrew Newsom, president of home décor and furniture retailer Wisteria, brick-and-mortar represents the full flowering of the company’s web retail business.  The inspiration for Wisteria, which was founded in 2001, sprang from Newsom’s and his wife’s passion for travel and unique furnishings.

“We do it all—catalogs, online, and retail,” Newsom said. “But we find the physical store more exciting. There’s so much you can do there that you can’t do online. The way we serve the customer is completely different.”

Kelly Radford, VP of real estate and development for Warby Parker, told attendees that the brick-and-mortar volume of the one-time pure-play eyeglass seller has begun to outpace its online business. The single biggest reason for the company’s brick-and-mortar growth is the difficulty of selling prescription glasses online to people in need of eye exams.

“We want to have space to do prescription checks and examinations, and we’ve found the perfect-sized store for that is around 1,200 sq. ft.,” Radford said.

Asked by session moderator and Trademark Property CEO Terry Montesi if Warby Parker would be considering more mall locations, Radford said the company preferred to have its stores on the street.

“We’re focusing on top MSAs [metropolitan statistical areas], and want four-wall stores,” she said. “We want to drive traffic from the local commuter going to and from work. As we grow, we’ll need to expand into places like lifestyle centers that offer the right co-tenancy.”

Panelist Chris Delusky, head of store development for Shinola, said that web sales remain dominant for the Detroit-based maker of watches, bicycles, leather goods and accessories.

“We’re about 70% online and 30% brick-and-mortar, but I’m a huge fan of brick-and-mortar,” Delusky said. “Our brand message is best served in the retail environment. You have the ability to put a product in a person’s hand.”

Delusky reported that Shinola was poised to expand its brand in a big way, real estate-wise, with the first Shinola Hotel, opening in Detroit later this year.

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