Differentiation: Retail Lux

I’m a flaneur, a florid word that describes an urban explorer who enjoys walking long distances. On my urban pedestrian travels for some time now I’ve noted the number of empty stores in my home city of Toronto that remain without a tenant for long periods. Recently, an IT executive told me just how impressed he was with Amazon Prime’s home delivery service on a Saturday morning after ordering a large portable hard drive for his home use online just the afternoon before. With this sort of convenience becoming commonplace, it’s no wonder that there are fewer stores in our cities so the question becomes what’s coming next?

Water with your book?

With online shopping gaining more popularity I’ve been noticing what stores are doing to compete. The expansion taking place at the commercial real estate intersection of Bloor & Bay signals a trend. The Manulife building is undergoing a $100M renovation. In this challenging retail climate, the owners are delivering more luxury as their solution to how to get people to leave their homes. Some are out to deliver an experience that will draw us in to shop and the bar for novelty is getting higher. Take the Indigo bookstore at the same location, for example. Sitting here on a Saturday morning, the place is busy despite the fact that half of the store is closed for renovations and they are a successful online retailer. I’m curious if people are here for the extra loyalty points that in-person shopping affords from time to time? The piano player certainly adds to the atmosphere. The vanquish of independent retail bookshops is hardly news, but for the large-scale victor here in Canada, Indigo Books, sustaining their lead is what matters now. As with any industry, the colossal disruptor isn’t immune to disruption itself. What we are learning is that when a company stops being the disruptor it gets disrupted.

What’s the concern with retail? Some point to the emergence of the internet and others argue that it’s because of an oversupplied marketplace. Regardless of your view, the pressure is fierce to meet and exceed customer expectations. What’s planned for this bookstore is extraordinary. An ample kitchen for cookbook authors to perform demos, a water bar, early morning access to the Starbucks located in the store, a harvest table for book clubs, book engravings and adult gift wrapping. Wait. A water bar?! Keen to learn more, I enquired with the young woman at the counter about the changes and I was told “It’s because you are a fancy person.” I bristled a little. Ok, I thought to myself, I am? I guess so. Clearly the shopper profile of Indigo at Manulife is fancy folk enjoying fancy digs and unique services. And they want to fancy it up more. Make no mistake, this store isn’t going down this posh road alone. Toronto was ranked in the top 10 cities in the world last year for luxury store openings. The plan is to have the bookstore fit in with the building’s new image as an urban hotspot with lots more new retail shops. (More retail stores!)

As for me, if the featured changes in the bookstore are appealing, I’ll go back to shop. Maybe I’ll stay for a cooking demo or participate in a book club discussion and meet other readers. I won’t forfeit going to my local funky book reseller either, or my local neighbourhood library renovated in the shape of a single family dwelling house (the library’s own response to disruption). And I’ll shop online when I want to. Convenience is important, but not always. I admit that I enjoy it all. I, like the younger demographics after me, mostly like to spend money on experiences I value over products I want to own. That too is part of the presenting challenge for retailers. It won’t be long into the future until we learn if people will enjoy getting excited about interacting with human-sized robots introduced in stores as sales associates and product recommenders to get us out of the house and into the store.