clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Unraveling Anthropologie's Intoxicating Store Experience

In an age where many companies are closing brick-and-mortar stores, Anthropologie is focused on retail settings that attract legions of shoppers.

Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

To walk into an Anthropologie store is to experience another state of consciousness.


You've never been the type to own a Peruvian-style poncho, and yet, once you spot one artfully displayed on a mannequin, you suddenly imagine yourself swaddled in it while frolicking with alpacas on a hazy hilltop. You don't typically purchase girly kitchen gear, but one look at the brand's collection of ruffled aprons, whimsical doorknobs, and mismatched teacups inspires fantasies that involve conquering Martha Stewart baking projects on your next day off. And while you might fancy a fun accessory here or there, Anthro's enticing selection of floppy hats, tassel necklaces, and jeweled barrettes means you're probably going to drop way more money than you'd ever normally intend.

Shopping at Anthropologie is an undeniably unique retail experience. The mood lighting, dreamy music, and handcrafted art pieces give the space an overwhelmingly homey feel—and that's very much on purpose. Everything about Anthropologie's stores is meticulously calculated. In an age where companies are closing brick-and-mortar stores and spending money on perfecting the e-commerce experience, Anthro has its eyes focused on its retail settings and the sensory components that attract legions of dedicated shoppers.

Anthropologie was started in 1992 by Philadelphia-based Urban Outfitters, Inc., the parent company of Urban Outfitters, Free People, BHLDN, and Terrain. The brand has nearly 200 stores in the US, Canada, and the UK, and caters to "sophisticated and contemporary women aged 28 to 45," as the company puts it. Anthro assumes its shoppers have plenty of disposable income, considering the $3,500 bicycles, $400 beverage dispensers, and $600 knits it sells...and let us not forget that $9,000 camping tent.

Anthro is hardly the only brand that puts stock in cultivating a hyper-specific brand image. Back in the day, Abercrombie & Fitch got flak for only hiring cool, attractive sales associates in an effort to attract customers that were themselves cool and attractive. Lululemon doesn't advertise traditionally, but instead taps yoga teachers as brand ambassadors so that toned, skilled yogis show off its goods.

"The feeling of Anthropologie is like a warm bowl of oatmeal."

What makes Anthropologie's tactics different is that they're based on comfort and inclusivity. My colleagues have noted that "the feeling of Anthropologie is like a warm bowl of oatmeal," and "the store feels like you're walking into a hug from your kindergarten art teacher."

Anthropologie's corporate creative director Missy Peltz tells Racked that the brand aims for an "eclectic, rustic, modern" feel, and that the reason they focus so much on the physical details of the store is because they want to create a fantasy universe shoppers can get lost in.

"We have this romantic notion that people still want to be inspired," Peltz says. "Not only by a garment or gadget, but by an experience or scent. We want to immerse the customer in a complete experience by appealing to all of her senses. Our aesthetic is authentic and approachable. It is not pristine or precious, which at times can be intimidating. We want the customer to always feel welcomed."

Scented candles are stocked by the hundreds and sales associates even burn incense inside the stores before the doors open. The brand's merchandise is displayed not just on racks, but also on tables and quirky shelves, where items are stacked playfully. It's kind of like searching through your grandmother's closet. All of this is meant to promote customer creativity, Jill Gallenstein, Anthropologie's eastern regional display manager, tells me one recent afternoon at the Anthro store in New York City's Rockefeller Center.

"We want the store to feel lifestyled," she says. "We want people to walk through the space, to be able to visualize themselves in it. The merchandise is displayed so shoppers can pick something up and put it back down. We want people to interact in a way that a lot of luxury brands probably don't want customers to touch their product—we're hoping that people really touch it and move around the store with it. We want them to wander and find moments of discovery."

Sales associates even burn incense inside the stores before the doors open.

This exploratory element applies to its sale tactics as well: Stores come with sales nooks, separate rooms where customers can be left alone to sift through a sea of discounted items without the distraction of new, full-priced merchandise. And while peers like Banana Republic send coupons to shoppers, Anthro shies away from physical mailers.

"This is all about peer-to-peer communication," notes consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier. "By having a room of sales and not sending out coupons, it allows discovery. Customers can feel like they've found a bargain, and not because they were yelled at to shop at a sale."

Anthropologie is also incredibly strategic about its store blueprint; furniture and racks must align at 35-to-40-degree angles to create satisfying symmetry for its shoppers.

"You'll notice that all the racks will be on that same grid," says Gallenstein. "We try to be consistent with the angles that all the furniture is placed in. It creates fluidity and is easier on the eye to visualize it all on a grid. If you look at a piece of graph paper and map it out, you'd see it all kind of fits in a nice square."

She shows me a glass-top table displaying delicate jewelry that stands 35 degrees from a clothing rack teeming with sequined maxi dresses. Later, the rack will be moved slightly by a browsing tourist, only to be popped carefully back into place by a wandering floor associate.

Each Anthropologie store has its own visual display team that follows creative direction from corporate. Every season, a 13-person unit at Anthro's Philadelphia headquarters develops a concept that then trickles down to the store level. Local store display teams can interpret the concept however they choose, so long as they get the final stamp of approval from Philly.

"This is where the magic of Anthropologie comes into play," Erika Lavinia, the brand's corporate display director, writes to me in an email. "Colors are defined and materials are perfected creating examples of the overall vision, and then these concepts are passed off to the stores for execution. The feeling, mood, and personality of the home office concepts should be understood within each Anthropologie location, but the details will make each and every one special."

This holiday season, Anthropologie dreamt up "Aurora," "Silver," and "Quinn."

Part of that final concept includes profiles of three imaginary Anthropologie shoppers that catalog everything from what the girl's style is like to the type of music she listens to. This holiday season, Anthropologie dreamt up "Aurora," "Silver," and "Quinn."

"The Aurora concept is a holiday girl, so she has a lot of party dresses with shimmer and shine," says Gallenstein, pointing to a table of sparkly chiffon dresses and statement necklaces where the "Aurora" concept was executed. "The girl downstairs, Silver, is more of a ranch girl. Her color palette is much more about sunset tones, a lot of layering, heavier sweaters, a lot of capes. Then Quinn, at the back of the store, she's more of a city girl. She's a little bit more pulled together, buttoned-up, so a little desk-to-dinner wear."

The girls and their narratives make it easy to maintain a uniform concept from store to store—and it's also pretty fun. What did Quinn study in school? What books does Aurora read? These are the kinds of things store teams get to learn and interpret. And with aesthetic concepts that are purposely vague ("she likes to play with color," "her clothes have a lot of asymmetry"), they have a fair amount of creative freedom. These concepts are also meant to apply to all ages, which explains Anthropologie's wide range in terms of customer age. Looking around the store this particular afternoon, I see high schoolers, middle-aged professionals, and grandmothers browsing the exact same items.

All floor and window displays are handmade by employees and local artists. Standing inside the Rockefeller Center store, I watch a team of 10 display coordinators get to work. At the main entrance, half a dozen workers are sawing, drilling, and painting pieces of wood that will later become a mini diorama of New York's most iconic buildings. One girl is delicately cutting squares that will later pose as bricks from a sheet of gold foil; behind her, a string of dyed-green zip ties hang as spruce branches. A family of fake birds—constructed from discarded MetroCards—huddle on the branches while an employee sprinkles fake snow made from mica dust on them for an extra layer of sparkle.

Anthropologie's windows can take up to a week to create, and each store is given a budget of less than $5,000 to work with. Display coordinators will reuse wood from previous seasons, while buying things like sequins, paint, and ribbons, to build individual pieces from scratch. While it might be easier to buy items like fake birds and flowers from craft stores rather than making them by hand, Gallenstein says the budget fits with the brand's overall vision.

"Anthropologie is a brand that says, 'We have a lot of different kinds of weird experiences.'"

"The challenge is to take these relatively cheap, ordinary materials and make them into extraordinary artwork," she says as we make our way to the windows of the store's west entrance, where a woman wearing a gas mask is painting leaves onto a wall decorated with wooden birdhouses and a papier-mâché tree. "This is what makes our store experience: the ordinary to extraordinary, the handmade detail."

But why make teddy bears out of thread spools and lanterns out of corks, only to have them live in the store for a short time? Ferrier believes this ephemerality is an important hook for customers. Seasonal creations not only seduce shoppers, they convey Anthropologie's dedication to originality.

"Anthropologie is a brand that says, 'We have a lot of different kinds of weird experiences. Our handmade display is something no one else has,'" he says. "The craft efforts and the attention to detail creates a store experience where customers will want to take their time, look around at the quirky, and feel comfortable. People will buy into that promise of discovery and purchase a dress, even if it's on-trend and something everyone else has, because they feel what the brand stands for."

This also allows the brand to maintain a higher price point. In the eyes of the consumer, a creative atmosphere justifies $400 dresses and $100 cake stands because the store itself is exceptional.

Anthropologie demonstrates a similar commitment to the unique with its catalogues. The brand doesn't just send out its periodical as a way to exhibit clothing. The booklet is a glimpse into a desired lifestyle. Photo shoots take place in foreign markets, abandoned castles, and blooming fields. You'll never find an Anthropologie item photographed against a white background; Anthro knows its shoppers are more likely to connect with a sweater that's worn by a backpacker trekking through a forest—even if you can't see the sweater in full.

In the eyes of the consumer, a creative atmosphere justifies $400 dresses and $100 cake stands because the store itself is exceptional.

"Retailers think catalogues are consumed by customers looking through them and deciding what they like and don't like," Ferrier adds. "But catalogues are more used to create the brand's vibe. Anthropologie's consumer is quite strange and aspirational. The brand comes to life in this type of catalogue and lets the customer discover."

And Anthropologie's lifestyle-first approach works. It is the strongest brand in its parent company's portfolio; according to Urban Outfitters Inc.'s 2014 annual report, Anthropologie's North American net sales accounted for approximately 39% of the brand's consolidated net sales, which were just over $3 billion.

But for all the quirks that make Anthropologie the fascinating brand it is, Lavinia says it always returns to one key aspect, which isn't even all that innovative: femininity.

"We can be modern, abstract, minimal, organic, and many other things, but we are also always feminine," she says. Selling ruffled aprons to the girly masses? A piece of perfectly plated cake.

Editor: Julia Rubin

Longform

How Vogue Got Modern

Longform

México está lleno de ropa usada de contrabando de los Estados Unidos

Longform

How Celebrity Kids Took Over the Modeling Industry

View all stories in Longform