Design Retail’s Advice for Surviving 2009

Faced with a hostile business climate, retailers look for new ways to attract shoppers.

You don’t need to pore over the business section or tune into CNBC to get an accurate read on the economy. On just about every commercial block in the country, posters advertise markdowns on last year’s inventory and for-lease signs hang in the windows of vacant shops. Facing financial uncertainty, consumers have stopped consuming. Suddenly, yesterday’s can’t-do-without flat-screen TV has become today’s unnecessary ndulgence.

So what does that mean for design retailers, who, by definition, traffic in luxury goods? While some have resorted to cost-cutting measures negotiating lower rents, laying off workers, instituting four-day workweeks—most have continued to invest in forward-thinking strategies, opening additional showrooms, exploring innovative materials, and entering new markets. “You have to give customers a reason to want to part with their money,” says Kathy Thornton-Bias, the general manager of MoMA Retail. “Showing them what you’ve shown for ten years, five years, even last season, isn’t going to make a compelling argument for them to want to shop with you.” We asked some of design retail’s biggest names to share their tips for staying afloat in 2009.

Value Is in the Eye of the Beholder

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“Price is now the first question, not the last,” says Maurice Blanks, co-owner of the furniture manufacturer Blu Dot. Skittish customers need more help rationalizing discretionary purchases. In response, the Conran Shop has begun tagging what it considers good buys with blue labels, while other retailers have taken softer approaches, emphasizing the inherent value of quality craftsmanship and enduring design. An Eames lounge chair may cost $3,000, but, says Ray Brun­ner, CEO of Design Within Reach, “It was brilliant when it was designed fifty years ago, and it’ll be brilliant fifty years from now.”

Consumers are also looking for versatility and customization. Blu Dot, which opened its first brick-and-mortar store last December in New York, has seen a surge in sales of its modular SHILF shelving system. “The customer can buy a little now and a little later,” Blanks says. DWR recently launched a moderately priced modular kitchen line. Designed by Nilus de Matran with 155 storage components, the system is not only customizable but also portable—the buyer can take it with him when he moves.

Home Is Where the Money Is

As the economy worsens, people are eating out less and pot-lucking more. According to the New York Times, enrollment in cooking classes is up, as is the sale of canning jars (that ubiquitous 1930s staple). “People have a tendency to want to nest in times like this—entertaining at home is a comfort to most people,” Thornton-Bias says. “Our kitchen tools and tabletop business are all very strong.” Bucking the downward trend, the MoMA online store enjoyed record sales last December, without resorting to promotional discounts—a function, she says, of offering a diverse assortment of products at a broad range of price points.

Late last year, when the economy was already in free fall, DWR moved forward with plans to open two new stores—one in New York, the other in Santa Monica—devoted exclusively to home accessories. The rationale: consumers who shy away from a $4,000 couch may be enticed to pick up a really nice $30 garlic crusher. So far, it has worked: “The Tools for Living stores,” Brunner says, “are actually doing very, very well.” (The struggling company’s efforts may be too little too late. At press time, it was rumored to be on the selling block.)

The Cachet of Exclusivity

As big-box chains have sprung up in every city, suburb, and town, offering identical merchandise in each location, novelty has grown more meaningful. Soho’s Kiosk has developed a hipster following with its mini exhibitions of affordable products that can’t be found State­side. And last month, the MoMA Design Store debuted its Destination: Seoul collection, featuring 75 products (most new to the United States) by young, emerging Korean designers. In May it will release a selection from Brazil. Other companies, seeking to appeal to the new wave of “design-art” collectors, have commissioned limited editions by top-name designers. The Conran Shop carries a small-series run of the Bouroullec Brothers’ Steelwood chairs, each stamped with its own edition number. On a more democratic note, Target offered housewares by John Derian for only six weeks; they sold out almost as soon as they hit shelves last fall.

Just Get Them in the Door

Retailers are feeling even greater pressure to develop original marketing tools. “The fact is, today we have to increase the brand recognition and increase the foot traffic in our stores,” says Antoine Roset, of the family-owned Ligne Roset, which recently inked an exclusive deal with Sony to sell furniture on the game Home, a virtual community akin to Second Life. “It is a very small range of our collection, but people are buying it!” he says. The company is also expanding its reach in the brick-and-mortar world: the first of its planned pop-up boutiques—stocked only with accessories and smaller pieces of furniture—will open this month in Austin, Texas. The new shops will give customers the immediate gratification of cash-and-carry purchases while providing Ligne Roset the opportunity to extend into smaller markets without incurring the expense of massive showrooms.

The Inimitable Mr. M.

No retail roundup would be complete without Murray Moss, who revolutionized the industry when he opened his first eponymous Soho store in 1994 and began mounting museum-quality displays informed by his own singular approach to design. Always one step ahead of the competition, he and his partner, Franklin Getchell, invested in the Soho restaurant Centovini, turning the eatery into a dynamic exhibition space and marketing tool. The space, decorated by Moss himself, is replete with dazzling Venini chandeliers, Piero Fornasetti plates, and Joe Colombo bar stools—all, naturally, available through his stores.

Asked whether he will change his inventory to answer the call for cheaper and more functional products, Moss admits that he has entertained the idea of making some concessions. “I might say to people, ‘I think you should buy six glasses and not twelve.’ That doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t buy Lobmeyr.” But he cautions against giving customers what they think they want. “That’s the easy way out. Don’t you think I should propose to you at my own expense what I know and try to take you somewhere else? Isn’t that far riskier? Yes. Why do I do it? Because I can’t help myself, and I’m spoiled. Is that a good business plan? No, it isn’t.”

What Is Good Design

Good Is Sustainable
Good Is Accessible
Good Is Functional
Good Is Well Made
Good Is Emotionally Resonant
Good Is Enduring
Good Is Socially Beneficial
Good Is Beautiful
Good Is Ergonomic
Good Is Affordable

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