Turning retail on its head: Inside the clothes shops with no clothes

Press/Media: Expert Comment


Bird songs and the scent of eucalyptus greet customers at fashion label Song for the Mute's retail space in The Rocks.

But there is barely an item of clothing on display among the tree branches, reflective pond and dried straw that decorates the pop-up shop.

"There's not much clothing in here," admitted brand director Melvin Tanaya, who said customers could go online or visit the label's flagship shop if they wanted to see the entire range.

Mr Tanaya said the space was designed to "turn the idea of retail on its head". "Rather than try to sell as much as we can, it's about brand awareness, about telling a story," he said

Creative director Lyna Ty said the retail space was designed to create an environment where customers "walk into the concept behind the collection".

Song for the Mute is not the only retailer creating experiential shopping formats, according to Jana Bowden, an associate professor of marketing at Macquarie University's Business School.

Increasingly, owners are trialling new shopping formats amid dire predictions for the future of the industry. In Sydney, David Jones' Elizabeth Street store features interactive areas where customers can immerse themselves in Disney's stories and characters.

"We also see a version of retail theatre in Krispy Kreme's Donut theatre experience, Apple's tactile touch and trial based product format, and Aesop's aesthetic," Professor Bowden said.


She said retailers across fashion, food and technology were experimenting with retail spaces that offer "a sense of immersion, emotional connection and community".

"It's about attracting consumers, allowing them to explore the brand's narrative and giving them a strong emotional connection and memory of the brand to leave with," she said.

Online competition, uncertain economic conditions and greedy landlords have created a perfect storm for traditional retailers, with popular shopping strips such as Newtown's King Street lined with empty shop fronts.

Customers are increasingly using shops to browse before making their purchases online, adding to retailers' woes.

"The signs of this shift have been patently obvious for years," Professor Bowden said. "Declining financials, lower spend, lower in-store browse time and perhaps most importantly: disengaged, disenchanted and disillusioned consumers who are voting with their feet."

The situation is worse in Britain, with shop closures accelerating over the past 12 months

British retail expert Mark Pilkington in his book Retail Therapy suggests retailers use stores to provide an "immersive brand experience" before transferring customers online for actual transactions.

But Professor Bowden said new retail formats marked a return to an earlier era of shopping.

"Retail theatre was pioneered in the mid-19th century by the famous London department stores which developed a model of social shopping and shopper-tainment," she said.


By contrast, she said modern retailing rarely delivered a memorable customer experience: "Instead, this has been replaced by a mundane, and utilitarian delivery of discounted product, supported by skeletal staffing, and a parallel lack of service."

Song for the Mute also has a dedicated band of customers who, in the case of Chris Williams, wear their loyalty to the label in the form of tattoos.

"I got those because each experience I have had with Song has become a memory," he said. "I've never been there, just bought something and left. I'll spend an hour, at least, just hanging out with the team and having fun."

Mr Williams estimated he had spent about $65,000 on clothing by the label: "Buying a piece of Song feels like being part of a legacy, part of a family."


Period15 Sep 2019

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