Bricks & Rails vs. Clicks & Mail – What’s Next for Our Favourite Stores?

If you haven’t heard the phrase ‘death of the high street’ over the past few years, you must have been in prison or a coma. It’s been a terrifying two decades of change for shops and shoppers in the UK. At the beginning of the 90s the Internet was this little sparkle in Mother Computing’s eye, commercially at least. Everybody was throwing ideas around, trying to work out what this amazing new invention was capable of. Where would it take us? What did it mean for the individual? Would it make my breakfast?

For a long while I remember the Internet as a glorified noticeboard. Amid a nauseous explosion of Angelfire websites, terrible Web 1.0 graphics, awful CBBC games (hey, I was young), Habbo Hotel (get dat furni) and criminal levels of forward-slashing, there didn’t really seem to be a lot to do on the web other than… well, surf it.

When the Internet finally began to present more functional purposes such as broadcasting, social media and online shopping, certain aspects were embraced more warmly than others. People scoffed at the notion of buying clothes online, while the actual cost of making a purchase from somewhere like Amazon was rarely competitive compared to the shop down the road. It began, to my family at least, as a kooky luxury for those wealthy, brave or stupid enough to take the risk.

Fast forward through several years of eBay, LiveJournal, Limewire, BitTorrent, Napster, MSN Messenger and countless other online revolutions and the picture’s a bit different. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that P2P file-sharing and online blogging had a residual effect upon the way we understood the Internet.

2647 habbo calippo_01The past decade has, in my opinion, seen the net become less concerned with the technology in itself and much more interested in the individual who’s using it. Whereas institutions like the BBC were once essentially using their websites as the ‘online face’ of their business, we are increasingly seeing the appearance of hashtags and ‘like’ buttons as brands try to interact with their customer throughout the web.

Over the past few years, this accelerated integration has unarguably had a negative effect upon high street retail. The wounds from HMV’s recent administration and store closures are still fresh, while the number of independent and chain stores that have gone under as a result of the transforming market increases daily. The question people are now asking, far from whether the Internet has a place in everyday shopping, is whether the high street has a future at all. Some people are screaming about Soylent Green being people. It’s all very dystopian.

I can’t claim to have any answers about the bigger picture. I am personally very wary of a technology such as the Internet at times. We have benefitted socially from how it boomed before any overzealous government could try to take control and manipulate it too severely, but this rapid growth also sees us struggling to understand a technology that is morphing before our eyes, and I wonder if we have taken enough time to consider all the implications of these changes. Within the realm of streetwear, there are many things to be taken into consideration before we send the old model to the heap.

FIL store, Wanchai, HK Image from Superfuture

FIL store, Wanchai, HK
Image from Superfuture

For me, buying clothing online is not so much a luxury as a necessity. Many of the brands that I buy are only available in a handful of stores up and down the country and the thought of travelling to each location to make a purchase is really not viable. When it comes to purchasing some of the more discreet oversea labels, I’m pretty much held ransom to a pile of postage and customs charges that are guaranteed to hammer my bank account. I still do it though.

Our world has changed. Perceptions definitely changed. Where I once defined ‘bravery’ as the willingness to perform a dangerous feat that might even put life and limb at risk, I now define it as the ability to purchase a pair of trousers without trying them on. Where I once defined ‘patience’ as enduring the scorn of a loved one during difficult times, I now define it as the ability to wait up to 6 days for a t-shirt. Customer service? Just make sure your servers don’t crash while I’m checking out. You could say, then, that I’m one of the Internet’s first children – one of the first to grow up and engage with it from an early age, now naturalised to its role in countless industries.

The thing is that I don’t really feel it. To be clear, I do agree with all the experts who say that the internet is the most important tool for retailers in the 21st century, but it makes me worry how quick we are to abandon the ‘bricks & mortar’ concept as we embrace the new. Realistically, I accept that businesses such as Amazon, with their vast expanses of warehouse space and wide array of product, are set only to increase in size and plurality as time passes. It’s pretty much a given. I do, however, think that there are certain aspects of retail that we will always need, and perhaps there are some new ones that need to be thought up as well.

It’s possible I feel this way because of the streetwear community’s own fondness of brick & mortar locations. In London and across the UK, there are now more and more shops holding in-store events and release parties to create something more than just a place to exchange cash. These events are usually advertised online and via social media accounts too, so it ties the locations in with their online presence. It’s a great way of bringing the scene together and making it all more interesting. Could this increasingly be the way that physical shops will continue to stay relevant in the future?

White Mountaineering, Tokyo

White Mountaineering Store
Image from Hypebeast

There are more daring ways to do it. Over in the mecca that is Tokyo, brands commit huge amounts of time, money and resources fitting out shops with intricate details to provide customers with a genuinely unique ‘retail experience’. A Bathing Ape has always been famous for its elaborately decorated stores – superfluous features such as a conveyor belt adorned with BapeSTAs and banana-shaped-ball pits are just two examples of whacky fixtures designed to get shoppers through the doors. Elsewhere, Neighborhood and WTaps have their HOODS and GIP locations that serve to completely immerse customers within the brand’s universe for as long as they are in the shop.

White Mountaineering’s Tokyo store is one of my personal favourites because of how sparse it is. With all the rails pushed to the edges, it leaves that huge open space in the centre. You can imagine how unique the shopping experience would be – combined with the ominous lighting and beautiful floor tiles, the store almost looks like a temple.

white-mountaineering-tokyo-store-further-look-6

White Mountaineering Store
Image from Hypebeast

This leads nicely onto labels like Visvim and Comme des Garçons with their esteemed F.I.L. and DSM stores. F.I.L. announced a few years back that patrons would be able to bring their old pairs into locations to be re-soled in an example of aftercare that keeps people coming through your doors long after purchase.

Kooky? Yes, totally. I’ve always been wary of retail-lingo after one time when a manager told me to make a display of biscuits ‘tell a story’. I wanted to jump out of a window. Only when I thought of brands like Supreme, Neighborhood (and WTaps etc. by extension) did it occur to me how often there is a story to be told.

There are already a few people doing it in the UK, some with less subtlety than others. Everybody knows about Hollister’s beach-house fascias that lead into darkly lit dens with fragrance splashed liberally everywhere, or Abercrombie’s topless dancers.

Supreme fine-tune their shopping experience by burning incense – it’s the most powerful sense that you have, after all. I can remember walking into the London store when it opened and instantly being reminded of the Hideout. Goodhood provides the option to collect online purchases from the store, something that I now do every time precisely so I can go and look at new stuff and see what’s going on. As for DSM, there’s never a shortage of special installations, beautiful one-off pieces and kooky features dotted around that always invites a curious look-in.

WTaps GIP-StoreImage from Nagoya Yom

WTaps GIP-Store
Image from Nagoya Yom

In the case of Abercrombie et al, they’re crass examples with emphasis on the crass. There are much more subtle ways to fine-tune a shopping experience, and I wonder if that might be the key to keeping shops relevant in the future. I’m not saying that every shop needs to but a hot tub and a pet salon in the basement, but perhaps there are solutions. Unfortunately, it looks as if most of the industry has their eyes firmly fixed on the web right now, so it might be up to the individual stores to find those solutions. It wasn’t so long ago that the Internet was only good for asking Jeeves if he was a nobhead and downloading Trojans on KaZaA. Let’s not sell the farm just yet.

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