Brand New World

Our retail roundup includes kiosks, pop-ups, hidden shops, and a virtual experience activated by QR codes. All of this raises the intriguing question: What is a store today anyway?

Like just about everything else today, retail design is in a state of flux. We’re now living in a world where most items for sale in a store are also available online. Which raises a couple of important questions: What’s the role of traditional retail in an increasingly virtual world? And how will stores compete in the digital future? The reassuring news is that we still need physical transactions. The brick-and-mortar store will not disappear. Instead, it’s adapting to new realities, changing demographics, and perhaps a smaller budget. The retail roundup presented here is a snapshot of a fluid industry, with global brands attempting to put on a local face, big-box retailers mastering the art of crowdsourcing, and secret stores that are tucked away like Prohibition-era speakeasies. For designers, the shift is a subtle one, from places of transaction to spaces for human interaction and shared experience.

New York City

It’s a sad side effect of global branding that parts of Soho, for example, look like any other shopping mall or upscale downtown street, with the inevitable Victoria’s Secret, Sephora, H&M, Old Navy, and Starbucks showing the same storefront faces the world over. But Aesop, a cosmetics brand based in Australia, rejects this approach, preferring to stake its claim to public attention with noteworthy locations, no two alike. Giovanni Lepori, Aesop’s general manager and president, describes the strategy as an outgrowth of the company’s “passionate engagement with the cultural landscape.” It may sound a little over-the-top for a beauty brand, but Lepori’s enthusiasm is genuine: “Our stores are unique. We collaborate with designers and architects, aiming to add rather than detract from the existing built environment, taking into account the characteristics of the neighborhood.” The refreshing approach has led to, for example, a Grand Central Terminal kiosk (left) that used 1,400 reclaimed copies of the New York Times for its display. “People want to be stimulated visually and intellectually,” Lepori says, “and our signature stores offer an element of surprise and discovery.” —Lara Kristin Herndon

Excelsior Milano

The Excelsior Milano captures something of what Émile Zola called
“the ladies’ paradise” in his novel of the same name: the overwhelming capitalist glory of the early department store with everything under one roof. Designed by Jean Nouvel, the seven-floor shopping destination began with his interest in saving an endangered Milan landmark: the former Cinema Excelsior, whose history is referenced by the classic film posters showcased in a rotating display on the electronic marquees that light up the building’s renovated exterior.

The end result may recall the glory days of Macy’s, but the concept has been updated in every detail, including a gourmet grocery on the basement level and a slow-food bistro, Eat’s, located on the mezzanine. Luxury cosmetics and accessories fill the ground floor, and the first floor is devoted to American labels like Theory and Rag & Bone. Artistic director Antonia Giacinti curated the second and third floors with men’s and women’s fashions from top international designers. Nouvel has plans for more projects around the world, many of which involve rescuing and transforming forgotten urban landmarks. —LKH

Austin, Texas

The first package-free and zero-waste grocery store in the United States is the brainchild of four entrepreneurs from Austin, Texas: brothers Christian, Joseph, and Patrick Lane, and Christopher Pepe. “Our grandmother grew up during the Great Depression and used things over and over again. We were also inspired by old-time local grocers,” says Christian Lane. “With new technology and a network of suppliers, we can go back to the way things were done.” When their market, in.gredients, opens later this year in Austin’s Cherrywood neighborhood, people will measure their cereal and detergent out into reusable containers. Bags and boxes will be scanned and labeled with their tare weight, which will be automatically subtracted as shoppers weigh their groceries. Outside, the store will grow fresh produce. “By proxy, people will have a better idea of what hardworking farmers put into producing food and how much stuff we send to the landfill.” —Avinash Rajagopal


Santa Monica

It’s a well-worn truth that men don’t bring the same determined zeal to trying on clothes as do women. Yet a customer who tries on an item of clothing is far more likely to purchase it. With this in mind, Topman, the men’s retailer from the British line Topshop, conceived its new, Lee Broom–designed shopping suites in its Oxford Circus store. The suites create a welcoming environment, giving customers the feeling of trying on clothes in some hip bachelor’s exceedingly well-appointed walk-in closet—complete with herringbone-patterned lacquered wood walls, blue leather sofas, high-end lighting, a bar, and an Xbox.

Women’s clothing retailers led the trend. Anthropologie has oversize changing rooms, flattering lighting, and atmospheric fitting lounges. Wendy McDevitt, the copresident of Anthropologie, says, “These details create a level of comfort and pleasure. We see women bringing their girlfriends into the dressing room, or hanging out in the lounge serving as stylists for each other—making it a social experience.” The phenomenon of lush changing spaces makes for good design: Mancini Duffy’s retractable, paper-lantern-like dressing pods for Bloomingdale’s Santa Monica, California, store won several retail design awards this past year. —LKH

Seoul, South Korea

Homeplus—the Asian outpost of the British supermarket giant Tesco—recently transformed a busy subway platform in downtown Seoul into a virtual grocery store. The concept allows commuters to shop by simply scanning product QR codes, which appear on a virtual display of more than 500 items, with their mobile phones. Customers can choose from
a range of basic staples and even specify delivery times. (Shoppers who place orders before 1 p.m. are guaranteed delivery the same evening.) Since launching in May, the Homeplus app has been downloaded more than 600,000 times. —Paul Makovsky

Bed, Bath & Beyond

If anything causes more aggravation than everyday-use products that are badly designed, it’s the lack of an existing product for which there’s a glaring need. Ben Kaufman tapped into this frustration with Quirky, a Web site where the most casual inspiration—“Wouldn’t a flexible power strip come in handy?”—can become a finished product. Quirky helps with production and then markets the item on its site, sharing the profits with the inventor. (Kickstarter employs a similar model, letting users seek financing for all kinds of projects on its site.) Now big-box behemoths have taken an interest. Bed, Bath & Beyond has announced a new partnership with Quirky. The home goods store is seeking ideas from its customers and selling Quirky-facilitated designs on its Web site and in its stores. It’s a move toward a leaner, meaner, crowdsourced design process, driven by the Internet’s efficiency, human ingenuity, and advances like rapid-prototyping technology—which often allows companies to print a prototype in under an hour. The big-box store can tap into its customers’ creativity and foster a personal connection to its products—both good ideas at a time when most Americans are spending less. —LKH

Goodwood Revival
West Sussex, England

When times are bad, the good old days always seem a shade rosier, and a double-dip recession like the one we appear to be heading for calls for an extra-heaping helping of nostalgia. Brands with long histories can benefit from this climate, reminding consumers of a simpler time while gently asserting that their products must be doing something right, having survived tough times in the past.

Bringing an alarming thoroughness to this brand of nostalgia, Tesco Bank marked its sponsorship of Goodwood Revival, a vintage motorsport event, with a faithful re-creation of a 1960s grocery store. Customers immersed themselves in a truly retro experience, browsing shelves stocked with products that assumed the look of their classic packaging for the occasion, from Colman’s mustard and Carnation evaporated milk to Pears soap and sweets like Treets, Opal Fruits, and Marathon bars. Traditional cream soda and Tunnock’s tea cakes were also available. —LKH


Despite recent advances in self-cleaning toilet kiosks, serviceable public restrooms remain a rarity in most cities. In 2009, Eric Treurniet recognized a business opportunity in this chronic shortage. “I was doing a bit of shopping with my wife and we had to search for a decent toilet a couple of times,” Treurniet says. “I saw an empty shop and thought, Why not start a toilet store?” Why not, indeed? Treurniet’s company, 2theloo, opened its first store in Amsterdam last February and now operates nine pay-to-pee facilities in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Poland.

The setup is simple: customers pay .50 euros to use a toilet (except at the flagship, where it costs one euro). In return, they receive a .50 euro voucher for a companion store selling diapers, tampons, bottled water, lip balm, and the like. So far the formula is working: Treurniet will open another 50 locations in the next six months, expanding 2theloo to Spain, Portugal, Israel, and the United Kingdom.

Soon, anyone may be able to turn a profit on restroom retail. A forthcoming app called Cloo will allow urban residents to rent the use of their home bathrooms to people in their online social networks. Hosts get paid via smartphone tokens, and guests can rate the quality of the privies (creating a terrifying new way for people to be embarrassed on the Internet). Cloo will be available for download in early spring. —Mason Currey

Jack Daniel’s
Ad campaign

“This was once a country where people made things…beautiful things,” says a gravelly male voice in Jeep Grand Cherokee’s manifesto-like ad. The narrative walks a fine line, presenting a liberal-friendly patriotism that invokes troublesome political issues without taking a potentially alienating stand. The spot is beautifully filmed, even if the idea that buying more SUVs will restore America to her former glory doesn’t withstand the strictest scrutiny.

Patriotism may make some globally conscious consumers nervous, but it’s easy to admire the American artisans that Levi’s celebrates in its “Made Here” videos–for example, the Maine fisherman who uses traditional rope-tying techniques to create handmade artwork. The short films suggest that a humble-yet-industrious DIY ethos is part of the megabrand’s heritage. Jack Daniel’s mines the same rich vein with its “As American As…” campaign. The whiskey brand produced a short documentary about a Jack Daniel’s poster designed and produced by Yee-Haw Industries, a letterpress shop where traditional techniques are used. Over a soundtrack of beguiling banjo music, the artists carve the press plates, mix the inks (even adding some whiskey to the black), and turn the press by hand. —LKH


As mainstream advertising, in the relentless pursuit of what’s cool right now, continues to gobble up rebellious countercultures and authentic undergrounds as fast as the restless youth can spawn them, it gets harder to find things to co-opt that are genuinely off the beaten path. But hidden boutiques pluck one more feather from the vanguard’s hat, with secret locations that capture the experience of being an insider or a member of a clued-in elite that once provided the clientele for exclusive speakeasies and gentlemen’s clubs. Triple-Major, a Beijing-based concept store, pioneered this trend for retail when it opened a “nomad store” in Los Angeles that was cleverly disguised as a taco stand. The idea is to revive shopping as an experience in an age when visiting a physical retail location is often unnecessary. When you can order sneakers online, there’s no point in heading out to the shoe store—unless it’s Bodega, a Boston boutique stashed behind an actual bodega. Customers have to sneak behind a strategically placed Snapple vending machine to get in. —LKH

Click here to see the Homeplus video

Click here to seethe Jack Daniel’s video

Click here to see the Levi’s video

Click here to see the Jeep video

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