When I once asked the renowned observation researcher Paco Underhill what he considered was the most important tool for analyzing retail, he quipped: “rubber-soled shoes”. What Paco meant was that the best way to understand what is going on in our industry is to get out of the office and get into the stores. And so it was that I spent a day recently walking Chapel Street in Melbourne. What I found was a “two-street economy”; at one end I came across retailers in a world of pain, at the other I discovered a new retail concept that was doing very nicely indeed, thank you very much.
As you’d expect, the retailers who were hurting the most were the apparel brands (and of course, that represents the bulk of merchants on Chapel Street). And just as predictably, the stores that were really suffering had either “Closing Down” or massive “percentage off” signs.
One store manager glumly told me how poor traffic had been, despite the “70% Off” Sale posters slapped on the window. (No wonder – if an offer like that wasn’t just wallpaper to shoppers, it was definitely a sign of desperation, and that’s never attractive.) Right across the road, a key competitor had a full shop. The secret? A VIP customer offer mailed to their database, upbeat and fashionable salespeople to greet shoppers in store, new fashion on show, and a complimentary glass of champagne to boot.
And then, right at the wrong end of Chapel Street, I stumbled across a new concept that proves there is plenty of life left in retail, if it’s done right. It’s called the “Burch and Purchese Sweet Studio” (or more colloquially “B&P”). Launched just last month by two ex-UK pastry chefs, Ian Burch and Darren Purchese, the space is conceived as a “multisensory (experience) specializing in sweet creations”.
From the outside, the whitewashed wall with the B&P logo belies the Willie Wonka world within. Once over the threshold, the front half of the store is full of an ever-changing array of “off the rack” creations, like edible greeting cards, chocolate flower lollipops, coconut caviar and half chocolate/half salted caramel spread.
At the back of the Studio is an “ingredient wall” with over 300 exotic inclusions to provide inspiration in designing a bespoke celebration cake. Book an appointment with a consultant and you’ll end up with something that is a long way from Michel’s Patisserie.
And right behind the consultation area are the doors to the kitchen, open to customers with the workspaces flatteringly lit, so you can see just where all the goodies come from.
B&P is everything retail should be – intriguing, inviting, original, tantalizing – beautifully merchandised too, and not a percentage off sign in sight. (For the fit-out aficionados, I also loved the fact that the walls were covered in cork, turning the surfaces into giant pinboards.)
So yes, while retail can be hard and tough for some, for others it is coated in sugar, has a soft centre and is “sweet as”. And if you slip into some rubber-soled shoes, it’s out there waiting to be discovered.