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When I went to Berlin on vacation last month, I sent out a Twitter plea for shopping suggestions. A few people who work in fashion got back to me, and between them, there was one common thread: Voo, the sort of cool-kid concept store that carries brands like Acne, Raf Simons, Gosha Rubchinskiy, and also Teva.
One friend, a writer based in Berlin, promised that the coffee there was “next level,” too.
Of course. The ol’ coffee-shop-within-a-shop scheme.
I’m sure you’ve stepped inside more than one clothing store in the last year that tries to provide visitors with an experience that’s bigger and more interesting than simply scoring a new pair of culottes or suede slides. Adding an espresso bar is only one way of doing that, but it’s proven to be a particularly popular tactic, adopted by boutiques like Saturdays Surf and Sincerely, Tommy in Brooklyn, among many, many others. Nothing says “lifestyle brand” like a beverage that literally brings you back to life.
Big brands, too, are throwing wads of cash at developing store formats with an experiential edge. When online sales started eating into brick-and-mortar revenue, executives realized they needed to approach their businesses holistically — to go for an “omnichannel” strategy, if you like buzzwords — and figure out how IRL and digital formats can be used to complement and improve one another.
One solution: give customers a store experience that can’t be replicated online.
In Manhattan, Lululemon’s Flatiron flagship houses an abnormally wide array of merchandise and, on its clean, bright basement level, has space for exercise classes, couches and chairs for film screenings, and long wooden tables — the perfect setting to jam out on ideas for your work projects, the Lululemon team suggested when I visited at a press preview last fall.
A ten minute walk uptown, you can stop in to Urban Outfitters’s Herald Square store for a snack, a cup of Intelligentsia coffee, or a haircut.
Keep trekking north, and you’ll hit the Polo Ralph Lauren store on Fifth Avenue, which features a coffee shop, Ralph’s, on the second floor. Next door, you’ll find the brand’s Polo Bar restaurant, home of the $28 burger.
It’s not all about food; some brands focus their services on the product itself. Coach and Gucci have started offering monogramming and customization options in some of their locations, for instance.
As a reporter, I enjoy clocking the development of store initiatives like this. As a shopper, however, I have often been a real hater. I love coffee, but resent feeling like a pawn in someone else’s branding exercise — particularly when that someone is a publicly-traded corporation like Urban Outfitters or Restoration Hardware, which has in the last few years made its own push into enticing people to hang out on its premises.
There’s something about listening to executives discuss retail strategies at conferences and on their companies’ quarterly earnings calls that strips a unique in-store experience of its je ne sais quoi. Because I do sais quoi! It’s about driving up your Q3 revenue by whatever percent will make investors happy.
At the risk of sounding incurious and bad at my job, I’ll admit that I’ve largely scooted clear of spending time at these sorts of experiential stores — boutiques included, thanks to the halo of distrust bred by larger brands partaking in it. So I was somewhat resistant when all Twitter acquaintances suggested visiting Voo in Berlin.
But I went with a friend one sunny afternoon. The decidedly good range of brands Voo stocks were worth it, I figured.
We rifled through racks of Carven and MSGM, and systematically smelled all of the heavy, expensive perfumes on display. I read, without purchasing, two issues of Apartamento magazine. The few sales associates on the floor didn’t bother us, nor did they make us feel like human detritus.
Visually satiated, we moseyed over to Companion Coffee, the espresso outpost that sits a few steps up from the merchandise and within spitting distance of Voo’s cash registers. We ordered cappuccinos at the bar, and the barista shrugged us off when we tried to hand over a few bills. We could pay at the end.
Some people took their coffees outside, in the little courtyard in front of the shop, which is cozily set back from the sidewalk through an arched walkway. My friend and I flipped through a big stack of magazines and surveyed from a distance the ugly-cool shoes we’d checked out earlier. We had time to kill before meeting up with another friend, and we fully killed it, enjoyably and in plain sight of the store’s management.
Apparently, the leisurely atmosphere that Voo has managed to create is the goal for many shops. Describing the state of experiential store formats earlier this year, Susan Reda, the editor of the National Retail Federation’s publishing wing, wrote:
When shoppers visit a store, they’re often on a mission. The challenge for a retailer today is to rise above a line item on a to-do list; it’s to provide a solution to shoppers’ needs — in a way that gets the shopper to emotionally slow his pace and breathe.
From the Voo barista’s unhurried air to the sales associates’ not-unfriendly indifference as we took our time examining every object in the store, I got the impression that we had license to (respectfully) mess around and hang out for as long as we wanted.
In fairness, I was in the perfect position to appreciate the store’s relaxed attitude: out and about in a foreign city, tired from walking around all day and in need of somewhere to camp out for a few hours. Berlin may feel like a (cooler) (cheaper) version of Brooklyn, where I live, but it’s not home. Discovering an establishment that made me feel welcome even as a visitor, like Voo did, was an unexpected comfort. You may not need coddling, but it’s still nice when someone hands you a blanket.
As a shopper, it’s hard to shake the feeling that a brand only wants you to visit its in-store coffee shop because it wants to win at least a small purchase before you leave, or because it hopes you’ll enjoy yourself, return at a later date, and buy something more expensive.
I’m not saying that’s not Voo’s aim, too. What I’m saying is, it worked.
I only bought a coffee that time, but when I revisit it — and I would like to — I’d be glad to get a little looser with my cash.