Why the New Dover Street Market Is a Wake-up Call for the Retail Industry
Is this the end of shopping as we know it? That thought kept insinuating itself in my head in December as I navigated the busiest spending time of the year. The revolution has been brewing for a while, of course, but this was the holiday season when I reached a personal tipping point in terms of favoring e-commerce over bricks-and-mortar. The physical act of visiting a store has finally become too depressing: You have to deal with the crowds, there’s rarely a sense of intimacy or discovery, there’s never anything in the size you want, the shop assistants in even supposedly upscale stores manage to be pushy and ill-informed at the same time (why is the line “Can I help you?” always delivered with a vague sense of threat?), and just try finding a taxi afterward. Better to stay home and log on. Ironically, one of the reasons the best online retailers win out is that they deliver a level of good old-fashioned service that their real-world counterparts have lost: Delivery to your front door (just hours after you’ve ordered if you live in New York), the ability to try things on in the comfort and privacy of home, and the option to return what you don’t like, no questions asked. Hell, if I’m logged in, one of my favorite e-tailers will even change the logo at the top of their site to Mr. Standen. It’s the little things in life.
No, I decided I was done with shopping the traditional way. And then along came Dover Street Market. I went to the press opening of the new multi-retailer space owned and curated by Rei Kawakubo and her Comme des Garçons team on the Friday before Christmas. Then I went back again a week later just to make sure my original opinion hadn’t been skewed by the energy of opening night. On both occasions, I came away with the same impression: Dover Street Market has made shopping enjoyable, even enlightening again. How? I think there are a few key lessons that other retailers could study.
1. Shopping should be a social experience first, a transactional one second.
The decision to put Rose Bakery on the ground floor immediately to the right as you enter was probably dictated by the contingencies of the physical space, but it’s a fortuitous placement. There’s nothing new about having a café in a store, of course, but what’s key here is that it doesn’t feel like a separate entity but a seamless part of the experience. The array of baked goods and the communal dining tables spilling into the shopping area immediately create a sense of well-being and bonhomie. That continues throughout the market with its seven floors and Aladdin’s Cave-like warren of individual boutiques. You feel like you are having a good day out even before you think about buying anything. That sentiment is probably helped by the slightly out-of-the-way Murray Hill location.
2. Shop assistants are the new rock stars.
First of all, they look the part here. But even if they’re dressed cooler than you, they don’t have that cooler-than-thou attitude. They won’t force themselves on a customer, but if you ask for assistance, you’ll find they are not only helpful but passionate and knowledgeable about the stock. None of this happened by accident. The assistants at Dover Street Market were cherry-picked from other independent shops around New York, then put through a rigorous set of interviews. I used to give other retailers the benefit of the doubt and assume that it was simply impossible to find great store assistants. DSM has proved it can be done.
3. It’s all in the mix.
Dover Street Market has the best variety of merchandise that I’ve seen in a long time. It adheres to the same formula that Kawakubo and Co. use in their other outlets in London and Tokyo, but perhaps because of the conservatism of most New York stores, it stands out in greater contrast here. DSM stocks a rigorously edited selection from—to name just a few—high-end designers like Prada and Saint Laurent, street/sportswear labels like Supreme and Nike, and up-and-comers like Shaun Samson and Gosha Rubchinskiy, not to mention a handful of items from an old-school French naval outfitter. Instead of feeling like you’re seeing the same things you’ve been looking at for months online or in glossy ads, there’s a sense of surprise here. Other retailers might argue that this approach wouldn’t be commercial enough for them. All I can reply is that nearly the entire stock of Supreme had turned over in the few days between my first and second visits. And it raises a larger point. Perhaps as traditional retailers do more and more of their business via their digital platforms, physical stores should become showcases for their more experimental ranges and most exciting goods, places where you enchant and engage your potential customers while the hard selling gets done online.
4. And finally…
Judging by DSM’s concrete facade, the shopwindow as we know it is dead.