The Curators Mindset.
Like the adage goes, if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere, and so too is that true in retail. Its breadth of personalities and customer types across its many neighborhoods make it the ultimate playground for trying new things in retail. It has, therefore, become the home of digitally native brands entering the physical space for the first time, with stores being opened by Allbirds, Casper, Away, Goop, and many more. In Episode Two of Off the Shelf, we talk with Haviv Zahav, a merchant for over 20 years and the Head of Brands at Showfields of New York City. “In a world of sameness, being different is the way you thrive,” says Haviv, as part of a fascinating conversation about how merchandising is at the forefront of the reframing of physical retail.
Where the wild things are.
Standing in the Mother Dirt brand space in Showfields, I had a strange craving for s’mores. It is a stunning visual space that as akin to walking into a forest just off of the showroom floor. Trees rise up around you against the backdrop of a wall of green that is interrupted only by a small story about the importance of understanding what we do to our bodies when we clean them.
“We are actually washing away a lot of the good AO bacteria when we clean,” Haviv explained to me before he sprayed me in the face with one of Mother Dirt’s products which, I must say, was delightful. What was truly wonderful, though, was the brand storytelling of the space we were in. Having Haviv there was wonderfully informative, but the design of the space, the availability of products to try, and the story that was simply told on the walls was a stunning execution of merchandising.
I wanted to find out what makes this space so successful and how they make it work, and his response triggered a reaction in me which I’ll explain later. Haviv said “we fall into these safe zones…you need to find the areas that you’re willing to take risks.” He is right. Retail merchandising has become so much the same that it is now relatively easy to stand out, yet so few people are doing it. We have lost the curator’s mindset: the creative skills that were once key to being a successful retailer. If stores are to become the new billboards for retail brands, then we must bring them back!
The role of merchandising.
If a lot of retailing today is safe but operating in a world where success is no longer guaranteed, I can understand why people are averse to taking risks. However, we are at a precipice- a turning point where the riskier strategy is actually standing still and waiting. Haviv says it stunningly in Episode Two with his comment “figure out what your voice is. You’ve spent all this time on your product and your processes, but at the end of the day it is that visual merchandising piece that is ultimately the story telling.” Pressed on what that means, Haviv highlighted how consumers have not only gotten used to curation, but are basing their buying decisions on it. Instagram, Pinterest and more are all about curation of products in a way that is telling a story that connects with customers. I find the story that relates to me, and I buy it. Brands are getting better at doing it digitally, but physically it is rare to find brands who do it well. The brands that are doing it well are the brands that are standing out and that people are buying.
The change is nigh.
So, with digital natives popping up everywhere and driving this new theme of emotional storytelling through merchandising (not to mention thriving in a world where other brands are worried about the next sales report), what happens next? As an industry, we must reframe the problem. Retail is not dying, it’s adjusting to match the environmental shifts around it. It is an ecosystem, and weak things and those not willing to change will die off and new things will rise up. It is the nature of any ecosystem. The ones who have the strength to adjust will be those who reframe the role of stores, increase the importance of merchandising, and reintroduce the creative curator’s mindset that once defined great retail. We will leave behind cookie-cutter approaches to the way we merchandise our stores and instead merge in with the local communities and create environments filled with stories our customers want to be part of. It will mean taking risks, but nothing even remotely as risky as doing nothing. Just ask the countless retailers with the “closing down sale” signs in the windows.