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The world is in lockdown, yet retailers are opening new stores

By Robyn Turk


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The importance of brick-and-mortar retail is often questioned amid the rise of e-commerce. Consumers have increasingly favored the ease and convenience that comes with digital retail for several years, and as the pandemic forced almost all retailers to turn towards a digital-only approach for several months of 2020, the future of in-person retail seemed unclear.

Yet now we are seeing a rise in brick-and-mortar.

While retailers have had to adapt their approach to meet the rapidly changing times during the pandemic, in-store shopping will not be abandoned any time soon. It must simply adapt.

Rebag debuted a new “micro store” concept in December of 2020, condensing the offerings of a traditional store into a 180-square-foot space. Located in Columbus Circle, New York City, the new Rebag Bar has already seen a positive consumer response.

Rebag’s CEO and founder, Charles Gorra, told FashionUnited that the store serves the company’s customers “efficiently,” as it “combines intimate personal selling with [its] digital offerings.”

The store offers a “hyper-curated” assortment of products, allowing consumers an easier decision-making process. Customers can also browse Rebag’s entire offering digitally with the help of a store associate during their visit to the micro store.

“Despite being in a pandemic, the Columbus Circle location has averaged more traffic than most others thanks to proximity to major subway lines and tourist attractions including the center itself, which contains highly trafficked stores including Whole Foods and Sephora,” Gorra added.

The RealReal is also expanding its physical presence, having started 2021 with a store opening in the Downtown Brooklyn neighborhood of Cobble Hill. The store is the retailer’s first in the borough, as The RealReal is working to offer more localized neighborhood stores to meet consumers’ changing habits.

“Since we already had our retail locations in the city in Soho and on the Upper East Side, we wanted to make sure to give Brooklyn a convenient spot to consign with us,” Courtney Hawkins, The RealReal’s vice president of retail, told FashionUnited. “Cobble Hill is an ideal location because it’s convenient for our existing base and it’s a prime shopping and dining destination.”

Hawkins explained that many of the company’s consignors had been traveling from Brooklyn into Manhattan, so offering an additional location may add convenience to the experience of a large demographic.

And similarly to Rebag’s experience, Hawkins reported that The RealReal’s customers are still looking to shop in-store. “Performance has been strong since we’ve re-opened and we’ve seen people are still eager to shop and consign. We’re pleased with what we’re seeing and we’re continuing to welcome back customers every single day,” she said.

The RealReal is growing its physical presence beyond New York, as well. The secondhand retailer opened its second new store of 2021 in Newport Beach last month, with plans for more locations this year.

“We have a really great rhythm as far as what we’re doing to open stores, so I wouldn’t say the pandemic is slowing us down,” Hawkins said. “Instead, it’s helping us seize an opportunity in order to create an experience for our consignors and meeting up in their communities where we have the most condensed pace.”

The pandemic has not put an end to in-person retail

Consumers are still visiting physical stores, though their habits in stores may have changed. Previously, visiting a store was often an experience of discovery and education, with consumers returning home to consider and complete their purchase online. Now, consumers tend to visit stores with a more specific purpose.

Retail concept Showfields reported that despite a decrease in foot traffic due to the pandemic, the company has seen two times its previous conversion rate at its New York City location.

Showfield’s co-founder and chief revenue officer, Katie Hunt, told FashionUnited that “cause marketing and mission-based partnerships have proven to resonate with bringing customers in store.” Hunt has found that the pandemic has helped consumers to realize exactly what they want and need from retail, and therefore convenience remains key. Consumers want to shop on their own terms, and a retailer must meet them in order to succeed.

For Showfields, Hunt explained this meant adding e-commerce and Instagram shopping to its offerings, as well as adding a second brick-and-mortar location. The retailer opened doors to its Miami store this past December.

“At the end of the day, the future of retail is C-Commerce - Consumer Commerce - and reimagining the retail experience through the eyes of our consumer,” Hunt said.

Rebag and The RealReal each agree that convenience is the main priority for consumers, leaving an important opportunity for brick-and-mortar to work with digital offerings for an optimal experience.

Gorra has found that Rebag’s Columbus Circle micro store is a convenient drop-off location for sellers who generate an offer for their bag online or via app. Dropping off the bag in person allows the seller same-day payment, whereas sending the item in through the post would result in a wait time.

“Convenience and communication are very important to the consignor and the customer; this has existed pre-pandemic, though it is now enhanced,” Hawkins noted. “What we’re trying to accomplish with our two concepts, [physical and digital stores] is to meet our customers wherever they decide to be. We want to be there for them.”

The purpose of brick-and-mortar in a post-pandemic landscape

Physical retail will always have a purpose, as digital cannot replace the personal element it offers. “Stores bring products to life,” Hawkins noted, speaking of a “one-on-one connection point” between consumers and a brand, which cannot be replicated through digital.

Consumers are now looking for a cohesive, omnichannel experience that brings together the conveniences of both online and in-person shopping. Rather than completing a transaction wholly online or in-store, consumers are looking for a way to get the best of both worlds.

“We’ve noticed that consumers expect there to be a seamless transition between the in-store and online experiences,” Gorra explained. “Our brick-and-mortar services amplify and support the digital retail experience with the goal of eliminating friction in resale. There is no harsh divide between transacting in-person versus online, whether you’re buying or selling. In fact, you can start a transaction as home and finish it in stores, or the other way around.”

Gorra said that Rebag’s consumers often visit a store to learn and understand the brand and its expertise in circular fashion, then visit the website to discover the retailer’s full inventory. Customers are met with the same attention while shopping online as in-store, with the help of Rebag’s digital sales team and marketing campaigns.

There is no question that consumer wants and habits have changed as a result of the pandemic, though this change is not as drastic as many would have expected when stores first shut doors a year ago. Hawkins describes new consumer habits as a “shift.”

The RealReal is putting its attention on community stores, as opposed to destinations. Local stores are now convenient, which Hawkins notes is “a shift compared to when people were commuting into work, and stopping into stores while on their way home.”

Consumers want convenience, and local is now the most accommodating option.

Hawkins concluded, “We’re not so much seeing a shift in how the product categories are purchased, we’re just finding how the customer’s shopping has shifted and we’re shifting with them.”

Images: Joyce Lee, courtesy of The RealReal | Rebag

The RealReal