ALONG our shopping strip, a performance takes place every Wednesday night. In the silvery light of a shopfront, brides parade gowns as the fitter, mum and girlfriends fuss about, tweaking bodices and adding accessories.
For peak-hour drivers, it’s a pleasant distraction from the traffic, especially when pre-wedding nerves explode and a satin headpiece flies across the showroom. But for the retail industry, it’s a lesson.
Shops are becoming performance spaces. They are evolving into places full of activity, where customers make things, talk about stuff, test products, taste produce, learn a skill, strut their stuff, and possibly buy stuff.
The makeover of our retail experience is occurring haphazardly, but it’s already making dinosaurs of shopkeepers who hover behind the till. What’s more interesting is it’s refashioning the way we think of ourselves as consumers — ha, even that expression is in need of a makeover. Here are a few businesses that have emerged from the shuttered fronts of a retail landscape in transition.
Frozen yoghurt shops have popped up like blisters on a summer pavement. They offer buyers the chance to choose the size they want, add their own toppings in whatever quantities they like and, sometimes, pay according to the weight of the treat they’ve created. They’re not just fast food, they’re a snack experience.
Or take the recently opened WilliamsSonoma, Pottery Barn and West Elm shops in Sydney’s Bondi Junction. Whenever you wander in, there’ll be a design consultant ready to offer advice; there’ll be fresh juice to taste, a pizza being pulled from an oven, a latte ready to pour and cooking lessons in the rear. The products are animated, the experience is engaging and it’s ironic the shops are in the shadow of the giant Westfield centre. Maybe not for long.
Elsewhere in our area, a fine-wine retailer has set up a vat of grapes in the window to take customers on a wine journey — from the shop assistant stomping on grapes to the fermentation process and, eventually, the stuff on the wine racks. The cupcake shop holds baking lessons and the Build-a-Bear franchise allows you to fashion your own cuddly creature.
Some shopfronts have become service centres — showing off gym bodies, yoga lessons and hot-desking freelancers who have turned shuttered shops into office spaces. Other shopfronts have an Asian flavour: foot massages, nail treatments and potion-makers.
There is, indeed, an Asian feel coming to many retail strips, reminding travellers of the way artisans and tradespeople mix their workshops with their shopfronts. It’s also reminiscent of older European ways of working and selling from the same space.
But this is more about the evolution of the consumer. As consumers, we’re spent, bored, unattached and mean about the old way of buying stuff. We want to do more than walk away with a full shopping bag.
The internet has helped re-create us as consumers or co-producers. On one level it’s turned shopping into a click experience but at another level the online experience has groomed us to be demanding. We go deeper on the net, wider too. We get experiences and feedback, and we always feel in control.
If I were a retailer, I would hate shoppers like us. If I were a department store chief executive, I too would have a whinge at the annual meeting. And yet there’ll be no respite for the Gerry Harveys of the retail world. There’s no way we’ll go back to wandering the floors of department stores, looking for a sales assistant. There’s no way we’ll be happy to flick through clothes hangers only to be told, ‘‘ They’re the only sizes we’ve got left.’’
Instead, we’ll insist on participating in the purchasing moment. You can imagine walking into a sports shoe store and saying, ‘‘ How do you expect me to buy running shoes when you don’t have a running machine where I can test them?’’ Or you might visit a bookshop and wonder why the owner doesn’t have a bookclub selection, or doesn’t play tapes of authors talking about their books. Where’s the backstory to the shop full of stories?
We are demanding partners, for sure. And, if ever you’re stuck in a traffic jam outside a bridal salon, you might watch the drama unfolding inside and think, we’re all bridezillas today.