All Retail is Local
Local establishments have history, quirky details, and imperfections — the things that make up a personality. Photo source: Getty images
To be a ‘local’ means that you belong.
Supporting a local business inherently feels good. It’s like rooting for the underdog, like cheering on a close friend, like settling into your regular spot at the pub that’s become an extension of home.
In the age of Amazon’s convenience and anonymity, patronizing local shops offers a sense of community and connection. Local establishments have history, quirky details, imperfections — the things that make up a personality.
And having a distinct personality and repeated interactions is what makes a two way relationship possible. There’s no sweeter word in the English language than the sound of your own name — and your favorite coffee order — being called out by a barista who is happy to see you again.
So it’s no surprise that despite their size, global brands want to capture that personal feeling and the lucrative loyalty that comes with it.
‘Nordstrom Local’ locations have a more intimate feel, with special services like personal styling and custom tailoring. Photo source: Footwear News
High performing retailers have been trying to play the local card for years.
Nike, Uniqlo, and Lululemon have built stores with spaces dedicated to hosting concerts, classes, and cultural events with local celebrities and they have designed limited edition products in collaboration with area artists. The ‘Nordstrom Local’ store concept won industry awards and was heralded as the brand’s ‘savior.’ Sephora has seen success with highly tailored, neighborhood-specific studio locations that offer personalized consultations and makeovers.
However, some of these moves have been viewed by skepticism.
So what is it that separates the localization efforts that we embrace from those that receive a collective eye roll?
- Be transparent. Brands that are upfront about who they are, and why they’re there, can become part of the local fabric. On the other hand, brands that obscure their identity tend to receive blowback. For example, UK bookselling giant Waterstones was fiercely criticized for buying mom and pop bookstores and continuing to operate under their original indie names. They have since reverted to clearly using the parent brand name, while still empowering location managers to curate each store’s selection to reflect local tastes.
- Nail the details. Superficial attempts to fit in don’t suffice. As humans, we’re highly attuned to noticing what doesn’t belong, so painting a few regional colloquialisms on the walls and using the local sports team’s colors won’t impress — and can even offend. In contrast, having a conversation with a local place can engender not just acceptance, but a cult following. For example, Aesop designs each new store from scratch with area architects, ensuring every design element ties back to the specific location. Their efforts are meticulously and beautifully documented on their Taxonomy of Design site.
- Don’t pander, partner. Being truly local is about much more than just the look and feel. It is about building a substantive relationship with the community. For example, Starbucks’ new ‘community store’ concept uses a profit-sharing model that gives back to local charities and has dedicated rooms for workshops with local organizations. There is also a heavy focus on hiring and developing the careers of local talent. Having just announced the rollout of 85 more stores, I’ll be interested to see how they do.
Aesop’s obsession with researching, renovating, and running retail spaces in ways that honor each unique setting is meticulously detailed on the brand’s Taxonomy of Design website. Source: Aesop
So the question remains — upon entering a new Starbucks ‘community store’, will the barista know your name and order or will garbled misspellings remain an SNL punchline?
Right now, my sense is that we are primed to embrace the trend toward localization. Recent news headlines have critiqued the over-reach of big box stores and the ubiquity of indistinguishable, formulaic ‘blands.’ These stories come at a time when, out of necessity, society is focusing on more personal, curated connections. In the UK right now, gatherings are limited to six for the foreseeable future and it makes me wonder — if you could only choose six brands to welcome into your home, which would they be?
In short, I hope that we will see more localization and personality return to the high street, from brands of all sizes. But if big global brands are successful in adopting diverse, local personalities, where does that leave truly independent, mom and pop shops?
That, my friends, is the topic of part 2 — till next time!
This article originally appeared in my newsletter, Cream of the Shop, which celebrates the most innovative and exciting retail projects happening today. If you’d like to read more or stay in touch, please sign up here.