Home is where the sale is

Clean lines. Spacious. Serene. Quality, simple furniture. Fitout materials comprising glass, wood, steel and earth tones. Hardwood floors, taupe walls, sand-coloured floor coverings.

It sounds a bit like heaven, with angels sitting above us on clouds, strumming harps.

According to some retail pundits, that’s the traditional description of much best-in-class luxury retail, along with flawless customer service and a top-flight CRM system.

But at the other end of the spectrum, we have Ikea, which although mainstream, has specialised in home-environment contexts in its stores.

Brands have been creating home-like interiors for many years, but rather than cookie-cutter homogenised retail, the counter-trend is the emergence of intimate, localised, curated spaces designed to make you feel like you’re a welcome visitor in someone else’s home. You might call it residential-style retailing.

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A richly sensual experience

Residential-style retail spaces involve bespoke, human, personalised, social environments that are richly sensual, engaging and exploratory, albeit carefully curated. They’re designed to encourage customers to relax and hang out, another form of the fabled Starbucks “third space”. Fashion designer Alex Eagle’s 180 Strand is an example, built not to look or feel like a store, but to act as a creative social, relaxation and work hub, with occasional art gallery partnerships.

The idea is that a brand’s products are shown in situ in the context in which they are used, and in a way that shows what “tribe” the brand is part of. Some leverage partnerships with artists and designers. It may be a store where everything is for sale, such as an upmarket interiors brand where you can buy the coffee tables and sofas that are part of its retail fitout. Examples include the Alex Eagle design studio in London and Marin Hopper’s loft apartment in New York.

Moda Operandi’s showrooms in London and New York feature a personal shopping experience for VIP clients set in a townhouse concept. Selected items are shown to clients based on their online shopping habits. Both outlets were profitable in nine months.

Online to offline

In a number of instances, the residential-style retail is a physical expression of an online brand.

Boutique online high-end fashion and home-decor retailer The Line has established The Apartment by The Line in New York City and Los Angeles, where it has leased out chic apartments. In an experience designed to be like “visiting a collector friend happy to part with his or her possessions”, the spaces offer by-appointment shopping where an assistant shows the customer around the space to discover a mix of boutique, designer and antique pieces. Customers have the apartment almost all to themselves, as if it is their own. There are no shelves, racks or typical retail fitout staples to be seen.

Still on apartments, L’Appartement, the physical Paris and New York presence of French online brand Sézane, boasts product sell-through rates of 90 per cent.

Pureplay retailer Kitri saw its overall sales jump immediately after opening its first apartment-style pop-up store in London. Along with having a luxury apartment-style space, the brand credits its success to creating a sense of activity and community via late-night shopping events, and talks by key influencers.

Closer to home, Australian bedroom/kitchen/sleepwear online retailer In Bed established its first concept store in Sydney five years after launch. The Journal section of the In Bed website profiles creatives across the globe from varying fields and shows the products in the context of their own home.

It was initially conceived as a way to illustrate the brand’s products in their “natural environment” and has been extended to the physical store, which features a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living room. Pieces by design creatives, such as lamps, juicers, lights and alarm clocks are showcased and for sale along with In Bed’s signature products.

The scalability conundrum

The success of these environments makes one wonder why more homeware retail chains, and even boutique homeware stores, haven’t taken the residential-style retail approach.

However, the point of the immersive home or apartment environment is its bespokeness. You won’t go to one in every city and find the same thing. Scale replication defeats the purpose.

Spanish fashion conglomerate Inditex-owned Uterqüe is having a go at scale, with its Barcelona flagship “apartment” – featuring sculptures from the ’50s, Persian rugs and bespoke French antiques and a self-published art book – set to be replicated across Spain. It remains to be seen if each apartment has its own individual decor and range.

Similarly, local luxury accessories brand The Daily Edited’s global retail concept features a loungeroom in its New York store and an apartment in Sydney. The 120sqm apartment features features a bedroom, bathroom, sitting room and study and has luxurious fixtures and furnishings, including Italian terrazzo marble, brass detailing and designer lighting.

“I want to create an experience and a reason for people to come and shop with us. If customers just want a standard shopping experience, where they add to cart, don’t talk to anyone and check out, it’s easy to get that online,” co-founder Alyce Tran told Inside Retail. “But if customers make the effort to drive to a shopping centre, pay for parking and walk into your store, I think you need to offer something more.”

A bit like trying to fake authenticity, it’s a delicate balance to strike between intimacy and accessibility.

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