Brand Development Customer Experience Luxury Luxury Brand Development Marketing Retail Visual Merchandising

The concept of Concept stores

A history of the concept store and what works for them.
No 74, Berlin

I’ve been doing a fair bit of travelling recently. As I explored each of the cities I visited, it was difficult to ignore just how different each country is in their approach to fashion retail. In particular, I thought it might be interesting to explore how local store designers approach the look of a concept store and the emerging trend of temporary ‘pop-up’ stores.


So where did concept stores begin? From my perspective, I think the first genuine concept store was 10 Corso Como in Milan. When this opened in 1990, their influence was felt across the globe. Retailers talked about creating something like 10 Corso Como, which became a common language for describing a different approach. Many of them had never seen the store and reality was very different to their impressions. However the concept of a concept store had begun.

10 Corso Como hasn’t necessarily stood the test of time. It isn’t perhaps discussed in the same hushed tones as it used to be. There is one concept store that continues to set retail trends in 2011, even though it has been open for over ten years- Colette in Paris. Colette continues to be so popular that brands frequently offer the store a limited run of co-branded bespoke products. Even Aston Martin packaged a limited edition car in the signature ‘Colette Blue’ earlier this year and Pantone have released a co-branded range of stationery.

Recent developments

So the confidence of high-street retailers in these revolutionary merchandising formats continues to build as they see the emerging independents increasing customer basket size through these innovative designs. Brands such as Specialized bikes are even branding their new concept stores as concept stores. I wonder- if a retailer defines their new store as a concept store, does that mean it isn’t one? I feel it’s like a social media consultant proclaiming themselves to be a ‘guru’ or an artist proclaiming their latest creation to be a ‘work of art’.

French Bank BNP Paribas have opened a new concept store, BNP 2 Opera which is worth a look. And then last month, House of Fraser opens a concept store in Aberdeen.

Concept stores aren’t right for everyone. Back in 2000, Naomi Klein explained in her book ‘No Logo’  (and a former marketing director of Nike in his book before that) that advertising at Nike had reached such a saturation point that overbranding a store with their identity was beginning to have a negative impact on the sales of their products.

Who does it work for?

1. When a brand has reached such an extent of general consumer awareness that the demand for a product is unrelated to its environment.

Barbour achieved this when they opened a concept store in the fashionable Spitalfields Market in East London. They stocked a run of Limited Edition designs in tribute to their heritage and success quickly followed, with industry insiders claiming that this pop-up store had become the most profitable in the group.

I was also impressed by the unique No 74 in Berlin. This store stocked some of the limited run of Adidas collaboration pieces such as Y-3 (with Yohji Yamamoto), a collection with Stella McCartney, limited run of trainers designed by Jeremy Scott and SLVR. You can see from the photos that the store couldn’t be further away from the typical environment of a sports store. No 74 also has a sister store in Newbold St, London.

No 74 Berlin, interior

No 74, Berlin

Even Nike have created an impressive concept store at 21 Mercer NYC with a limited range of trainers only sold by that particular store.

21 Mercer NYC
21 Mercer, interior

The environment is much better suited to sell some of their more directional lines such as 6.0 than a typical high street sportswear store too. Other than the small sign outside, the store was almost totally unbranded.

21 Mercer by Nike

2. For an unknown brand to create a destination retail experience.

While looking for No 74 in Berlin, I walked past a store called Platoon that had opened on a empty area of land in 3 shipping containers, stacked on top of each other, rather than investing in its own building.

3. When you’re so confident of your product, even the flagship stores can be designed as concepts.

Platoon, Berlin

Inside Maison Martin Margiela, Miami
Maison Martin Margiela Miami - interior

I was so impressed by Maison Martin Margiela in Miami that I found myself taking secret photos; I haven’t seen anything similar before. MMM had the look of an old French parlour which was created from wallpaper and chipboard to purposely create a feel of temporary permanence in their warehouse site. The New York store had a similar raw edge to it.

Maison Martin Margiela, NYC

The Commes des Garcons store in New York’s Meatpacking District was designed some years ago by Future Systems but it continues to look fresh today.

Commes interior, NYC

No logo above the door, nothing to indicate it had any link to Commes whatsoever.

Commes des Garcons entrance, NYC
Commes des Garcons, NYC

When doesn’t it work?

I think it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how to get it right. Some of the recent pop-up stores like the Gucci / Mark Ronson collaborations have probably been just on the right side of success, but maybe a little blatantly commercial in their branding to be a true success. Perhaps it all comes down to having a brand that’s strong enough to take a new retailing identity and then getting the right store design.

For me, having succeeded with their main concept store, Commes des Garcons had failed with their temporary popoup store open around the corner, ‘Edited Black’.

Edited Black

Unfortunately, with no excitement within the store whatsoever, the clothes were left to stand out on their own. But they were all black. It’s quite amazing the impact the lack of colour had on the store- it just looked lifeless. And without the spectacular surroundings of the Future Systems store, the clothes simply looked like an overpriced and over commercial venture.

Where next?

There was a rumour in the retail community last year that Starbucks had opened up so many outlets (I now have 3 within a few hundred metres of my office) that it was exploring a controversial approach to building market share. It was planning to open up some independently branded coffee shops, but with the coffee and management of the shops enjoying the economic benefits of corporate ownership. I liked the idea, although perhaps if Starbucks concealed their ownership, customers might feel duped.

Better still- a few years back, Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks tried a coffee brewed on the Clover machines. He was so impressed that naturally he bought the company and now, the only place to buy a Clover-brewed coffee is in selected Starbucks stores.  If I was involved, I’d consider launching some niche Starbucks stores in some cities where there is a standard Starbucks nearby. These stores would be ‘all about the coffee’, premium branded (perhaps Black Label by Starbucks) and have more emphasis on origin, flavour and process. Their premium coffees could be retailed from these outlets for home consumption too. I should say here that I’m totally biased; having tried the Clover coffee, Starbucks couldn’t introduce this to the UK quickly enough.

Last night, I was out with the Luxury Marketing Council discussing the difference between luxury retailing in London and New York. I think one of the main differences I can see recently is that stores in Soho, New York don’t appear to try too hard to be ‘premium’. The Louis Vuitton and Prada stores had such a relaxed air to them that put their products centre stage and made shopping a more leisurely experience. Even their flagship stores in these prestigious locations had an air of pop-ups and concept store about them. Maybe if Bond Street tried the same approach, some of these brands might attract the new wave of young luxury-loving clientele.

(Featured Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash)


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