SALT LAKE CITY — Rebecca Minkoff stores in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco are like something out of a fairy tale, with talking walls and magic mirrors.
Customers are greeted by a wall screen that prompts them to select a free beverage and a few clothing items to try on. An iPad-toting salesperson delivers the chosen items to a dressing room, and the customer receives a text when the room is ready. Inside, a "smart mirror" lets them adjust the light to match the time of day they plan to wear the outfit, select new sizes and colors or save items to their account if they're not ready to commit but might want to purchase them later online.
It's a far cry from the typical shopper's experience of sorting through messy racks of clothes, examining themselves in a poorly lit dressing room and awkwardly hollering for a sales assistant to bring another size while shivering in their underwear.
Rebecca Minkoff is part of a growing movement of innovative retailers that haven't abandoned their store fronts despite a massive consumer shift to online shopping. This holiday season, 84 percent of all shoppers are expected to buy items online, according to an annual survey of about 2,070 consumers conducted by PwC. Investopedia contributor Rebecca McClay named 2018 "The Year of Retail Bankruptcies," and Business Insider counted over3,800 store closings in the United States this year. Many of the surviving brick-and-mortar retailers are finding new ways to attract customers to their stores, not necessarily to buy something, but to interact and develop a connection with a brand's products.
"There is a real value to retail. But there is pressure, too," said Bryan Eisenberg, author of "Be Like Amazon," and a partner at Buyer Legends. He says physical stores of the future won't just "sell stuff."
"Retail as shelves of product is dead. If that's all you're doing, it's stale, it's old," Eisenberg said.
That means people planning their holiday shopping shouldn't write off malls just yet. Instead, they should prepare for the way they shop to change in a big way as forward thinking brands start offering more services, hosting events, creating "Instagrammable" spaces and using technology and design to get people off their couches and into the store as they shop.
"Ten years ago, people used to 'go' online," said Steven Dennis, founder of Sageberry Consulting for retail companies. "Now people 'live' online."
According to Dennis, several retailers are experimenting with having customers use their smart phones while they browse products in-store as a way to connect the ease of online shopping to the tangible world. A mobile app shouldn't just let customers buy things remotely but should also help them do things in person, he said, like locate and learn more about specific items.
For example, Los Angeles' Nike Live store, which opened in July, is designed for customers to use the NikePlus app while they shop. NikePlus members can scan any product to request a size, check additional colors or see real-time stock availability.
If you're shopping at beauty retailer Sephora and don't know which aisle to begin searching in, you can start by getting your face scanned. Employees are equipped with handheld Color IQ devices that use color-matching technology to detect your skin color and assign you a four-digit code. Then, you can enter that code in the Sephora mobile app to look for product recommendations.
The innovation isn't exclusively happening at apparel and personal products stores. At select Lowe's home improvement stores, do-it-yourselfers can strap on a virtual reality headset and grab two-hand controllers to learn step-by-step a home improvement project, like re-tiling a shower. The Holoroom can tell a novice tiler how to mix the mortar and lay the pattern, as well as what tools and products they will need.
According to Dennis, some of these brands are primarily using technology as a way to stand out from the crowd. The trick is to make sure the experience has value and is not a gimmick, he said.
"Some companies are (using tech) as a tactic, and not as part of a bigger strategy. That's where you see the disconnect," said Eisenberg. "If you're just doing it because it's cool, if it doesn't fit with your brand and values, it's going to be a waste."
Retailers also have to make sure they employ technology in a way that makes sense for individual customers, said Melissa Gonzalez, founder of Lion'esque group, a company that creates short-term sales spaces or pop-up stores,.
"For Gen Z they are all about texting and using smartphones. You can text them a link in-store and tell them to shop mobily. That's intuitive for them," Gonzalez said. "But if you did that for my mom she'd be like, what's happening?"
At your service
Because transactions take place so seamlessly online, more retailers are using stores as spaces where customers can have an experience and develop a relationship with a brand, rather than as locations that primarily sell merchandise, said Gonzalez.
"People can transact from their couch by talking to Alexa," she said. "Brands can use physical space to offer something more."
At Casper's The Dreamery, visitors pay $25 for a 45-minute sleep session on a Casper mattress in the middle of New York City. Bathrobes, ear plugs and sleep masks are included.
Apple's Milan store, opened in July, is actually a public piazza, featuring an amphitheater that will act as an outdoor cinema in the summer.
Other stores like Williams Sonoma and Sur la Table have been employing a version of this strategy for years by hosting events, like cooking classes, said Johns. Other veterans include R.E.I, which regularly hosts outdoor skills workshops; and Vans, which holds concerts.
"You've got physical space. Stop thinking of it as a place for products, think of it as a space for your customers," said Eisenberg of Buyer Legends.
Summer Stout is a co-leader of a Salt Lake City-based women's running club called Sole Sisters, which regularly partners with activewear brand Athleta to host community runs and workout classes. On Oct. 27, a group of nearly 20 participants gathered to go for a run and then cool down with yoga at the Athleta store in City Creek Center.
Attendees of such events are sometimes offered discounts or exclusive shopping opportunities. According to Stout, Sole Sisters' partnership with Athleta has fostered brand loyalty among the running club's members and given the brand more visibility in the community.
At the Oct. 27 event "almost every single person was in head-to-toe Athleta. We’re like a running advertisement for them," said Stout, who has personally become more committed to the brand as she's learned how much the company values body positivity and women being active regardless of their size, shape or ability. "They realize if they’re supportive of the women’s ahtletic community, people are going to stick with their brand."
While some brands will combine services with products, others are choosing not to sell products at all at certain stores. Nordstrom Local isn't anything like the multi-floored department store you're used to. For one thing, you can't buy clothes there. At these smaller, urban locations, you'll find tailoring services, formalwear rentals and professional styling. You can also pick up or return items you bought online.
"It takes the friction out of online shopping and creates a community hub," said Bridget Johns from RetailNext of the Nordstrom Local concept.
Samsung's flagship store in New York City doesn't sell anything, either. It's a place to play video games on new laptops, experience a Samsung Smart Home and ski or surf in virtual reality. "It's all showing how their technology works and to immerse you in what is possible with their products," said Gonzalez.
Eisenberg emphasized the importance of letting customers interact with products.
"Typically, you'll go to a store and all the products will be in boxes. Most places do a terrible job of providing engagement with products and showing how they work," he said.
Johns said Toys R Us, which filed for bankruptcy last year, missed an opportunity to create an interactive experience in their stores and better connect with consumers.
"Find a local Lego expert to do workshops or create an area that's all about play and exploration," said Johns. "I don't think it would have been that hard."
Anything for 'the Gram'
Magnolia Market, created by Chip and Joanna Gaines from HGTV's "Fixer Upper," has turned the college town of Waco, Texas, into a shopping destination, according to Eisenberg. So much so that his 17-year-old daughter would drive an hour and half just to spend a day there, hanging out at the the home goods store, bakery and garden shop.
In addition to selling decorative items and apparel, Magnolia Market has food trucks and lawn games. The shopping complex was once the historical Brazos Valley Cotton Oil Company and the two 120-feet tall silos create a particularly "Instagrammable" backdrop, said Eisenberg.
"It's a stylized thing they've planned to really engage you in the experience," said Eisenberg. "They've incorporated little details so you want to take a picture of the green truck with their logo or the trendy whitewash wall and put it on social media."
Gonzalez calls it "retail-tainment."
"Social currency is so important to everybody. Everyone wants a great selfie backdrop," she said.
That's why the pop-up store her company created for the Norwegian cheese company Jarlsberg in New York City has a cheese tire swing with a background showing a countryside with cows, as well as large photos featuring a "cheese influencer" and the elaborate cheese platters she creates.
But Johns, who didn't grow up with social media, isn't sure the Instragram trend will last.
"People are fickle and become anesthetized to fads like that pretty quickly. It will have an important place in time but (I) don't know (if) it will be the gold standard for the rest of our lives," she said.
The general principle of using design to create a space that is engaging and makes people want to spend time there is timeless though. Dennis explained the reason interior decoration is so important in retail comes down to the difference between buying and shopping.
"Buying is when you are on a mission — convenience, selection and price are going to be very important," said Dennis. "Shopping is more experiential. There's more discovery, it may be more social."
While e-commerce is good for buying — making a logical purchasing decision — brick and mortar stores are best for shopping, which is a more emotional process, Dennis said.
Despite the rapidly changing retail landscape, experts agree physical stores aren't at risk of disappearing.
When it comes to acquiring new customers, Google and Facebook advertising tools have become so cost prohibitive that opening a store is often the most effective way to get a brand in front new eyeballs, according to Johns. For one of her clients, opening a new store was a third of the cost of online advertising tools that would result in the same number of new customers. And people who buy in person rather than online are more likely to come back to the store, experts said.
Despite that advantage, retailers still have to work hard and be creative to compete with e-commerce long-term.
"The threat is real. However, people buy from people they relate to, when they align with their brand and personality," said Eisenberg, "People love to buy local and that's not going to go away."