What’s the Secret of Retail?
Richard Morris co-founder and partner of branding agency Whistlejacket explores the power of branding in the retail environment and explains why design is central to creating the cache of brands as diverse as hipper-than-thou fashion retailer Supreme, or Apple's iconic stores across the globe.
Every day, I pass a tiny shop on a grubby side street round the corner from our Soho office. It doesn’t host events. It doesn’t build augmented reality into its shopping experience. There’s no VR. No attempt at Omnichannel. It has sent out around nine Tweets since it joined Twitter in 2011. Its Facebook page is a litany of complaints about the appalling service that customers have experienced. They haven’t bothered to respond.
Yet every day there’s a two-hour wait to get in. Except on days when new stock arrives (which happens weekly), when you often need a ticket to be allowed to queue. They had to introduce ticketing - the camping overnight was getting out of hand, with folk travelling from all over Europe to sleep out in Soho. The lines are zealously supervised by a posse of no-nonsense bouncers. There’s a constant air of tension in the crowd in case the shop sells out of what they want. No point trying to buy it online instead, it will be sold out there too.
Oh - did I mention that this shop and its handful of sister branches have just been valued at $1.1 Billion?
It’s called Supreme.
So what’s its secret? What has it built into the core of its offer that makes it almost irresistible?
It’s the same secret as BAO, a tiny Taiwanese restaurant two roads over with shared tables and no elbow room, where the lines snake round the corner and people will happily wait for an hour in the rain to buy a steamed bun.
Or even the goliath that is the Apple Store up the road, where the lines for launch day can start a week ahead of time.
It’s what everyone forgets when they are asked ‘what is the secret to success in 21st century retail?’
Supreme put product design and collaboration at the centre of everything it does. Boa’s restaurants and its website are hymns to aesthetic perfection. Steve Jobs personally prevented the original Apple Store on Regents Street opening until the two columns framing the central stairs had been moved a few feet further apart.
In a world where austerity has become the norm, people are searching for that extra, invisible value which great design delivers. They want products that feel like someone put some thought, and a little of their soul, into them. They hunt for experiences that deliver an emotional reward, as well as just functionality.
I believe it’s why Pret-A-Manger, whose design ethos and search for perfection sings out in everything they do, has seen 12 years of continuous growth. While Starbucks has seen its profits dive here in the UK; even as the barista scrawls your badly spelled name on the side of the cup.
And we’re not just talking about premium products here.
Ikea - a retailer whose ethos is “a better everyday life for the many people” - puts ‘Democratic Design’ at the centre of everything they do, with low price as one of their five key design principles (together with form, function, sustainability and quality). Ikea delivered 4.2 Billion Euros in profit last year, with revenues up 7%. Tell me about the struggling retail environment again.
Google a search term like ‘what’s the future of retail?’ and you’ll get a thousand articles extolling the merits of every kind of digital application, of the importance of making the retail experience an event, of the need for seamless on and offline integration.
You won't find any (except this one) reminding folk that what people really want in the era of Fake News, is a bit more authenticity in their lives. And delivering great design is the badge of honour that’s says you care.
Do you want people lining up outside your store, desperate for it to open?
Then put design front and centre.