Amsterdam - With 47 stores across Europe and Asia, there seems little holding back the international expansion of American lifestyle retailer Urban Outfitters. As the doors of it's latest pop-up venture open in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, FashionUnited takes a moment talk to the man behind the brand's visual artistic direction, Creative Director Stephen Briars, to learn more about Urban Outfitters continual store concept evolution, and how the brand has managed to hold onto its appeal 45 years after its first store opening in Philadelphia.
"I think the great thing about Urban Outfitters is that it is quite a travelling concept. The store concept has evolved along the way," explains Briars. "From the basis of our store logo, to the store design, everything we do with the brand logo is easy to change season to season. Most brands are locked into having the same logo for almost a lifetime, but not us." Briars believes that Urban Outfitters flexibility with its store concept is one of the key reasons behind its ongoing success as it gives the brand the freedom to adapt itself from location to location, season to season.
Urban Outfitters looks to "simplicity" for store interiors
"For the store interiors we look to simplicity, as you can see here - you can see the scaffold, the exposed concrete and the raw wood,” he adds, gesturing to the pop-up store’s interior. “We have some very clean concrete buildings, but then we have some stores, like our one in Brussels which has an old 19th century interior, so we can play with this. Design-wise we can look at the building and see what goes well with it. If it's a concrete box then we can do something very theatrical with it if we want. And if it is more detailed than we can clean it down.”
Over the years, Urban Outfitters has evolved to be more “clever” with the buildings it uses as stores and the space available inside to create the ideal store experience for customers. “From the beginning of a store plan we are working out how the design is going to look and the fixtures and the layout. Our brand’s main appeal is to women, so that usually comes first and occupies two-thirds of the store. But when we were laying out this store it was done in such a way that we hope appeals to the local Rotterdam customers,” he adds, explaining how the store flows from women's wear to men's wear, with accessories and homeware tastefully blended in between.
Urban Outfitters remains flexible with store concepts
“However, a store like this has a very different sensibility in terms of how much the brand is willing to invest in it compared to a store that have a twenty year lease on it. So we have that flexibility as a brand to do something like this and we can take elements of our flagship stores and put it in here and then take elements of a pop-up and then push it into our permanent stores as well. So its great every time because every store is like an experiment.”
When looking at what collections to introduce to Rotterdam, Briars looked to Amsterdam and its stock mix before making an educated guess as to what will sell well in the pop-up. “We decided on this mix for the opening, but it may be that we see certain brands have certain strengths and others do less well,” he explains amongst the brand offering, which features mainly in-house brands for women, alongside brand such as Cheap Monday, Levi’s and Calvin Klein.
“We have deliveries coming in every week so as soon as we start to take in money we will see what works and what doesn't work, which is the same of all our locations. It can be really surprising to see how some brands work in certain cities and some don't do anything to it. But all stores seem to be very much in a Nike, Adidas and Calvin Klein moment.” Briars believes that the unique, carefully curated product mix, covering women’s wear, men’s wear, accessories, footwear, jewellery, homeware, is what helps set Urban Outfitters apart from other retailers on the high street.
"Urban Outfitters is a company based on outfitting - the thread going right back to the 1970s to now"
"Urban Outfitters is a company based on outfitting. It was an unusual thing to do in the time, when most department stores just offered all the jeans and blouses,” points out Briars. “It was about curating looks and how to pull the trends together and really suggesting fashion trend to our customers - which in 2015 is very common place. We are still doing the same trick but in another way. That's the thread that you see going right back to the 1970s to now.”
Although Urban Outfitters has existed for 45 years this year, it still resonates with millennials today - something other fashion retailers around the world struggle with. Briars believes this is because the brand has adapted to connecting to a new demographic whilst remaining connected to older customers. “We know are attractive to a certain age group, who will grow up one day and think this isn't for me anymore, which is why we developed Anthropologie. So every 5 years or so you change your customer and Urban Outfitters is reinventing itself with the new generation.”
But the new generation who is shopping at Urban Outfitters have different perceptions of how a store’s interior should look - and what sort of new technologies it should include to improve the store experience. “We are at an age when the customer walking into our store was born with technology in their hand - very different to how it was 5 to 10 years ago,” notes Briars. “I remember 5 years ago we would have meetings about our stores and at the end someone would ask how the website was doing and we talk about it for 5 minutes. Now it's so odd to think how it's changed, since our websites are such a formidable driver of the brand today.”
"Technology will come into our store concepts but it will be done in a very Urban Outfitters way"
Briars reveals that Urban Outfitters is looking into future technological advancements to enhance the in store experience, such as beacons, smart mirrors, rfid tags and such. "But we need to find the right way to implement this technology,” he stresses. “We are not a sports brand that will have huge video screens - that does not fit into the low-fi mindset of Urban Outfitters. We will make the use of these technological advancement in the right way for us. There is a pressure to do it in a very cookie cutter way and I think as soon as you do that you become a very different type of brand. So technology will come into our store concepts but it will be done in a very Urban Outfitters way."
However, when it comes to technology enhancing the in store shopping experience, Briars is a firm believer in the simpler, the better. “Something as simple as click and collect can really help people engage in the store environment, that in effect is one of the simpler things to use to get people to come into the stores. Urban Outfitters is a very store environment brand, to do that on a flat screen is very difficult, so anything that brings people into a store as well is a good technology.”
After the pop-up opening in Rotterdam, comes another pop-up event in Austin, although on a somewhat larger scale. Briars says the brand looking to create a small community, including a Urban Outfitter store, Anthropologie, a library and a cafe to create yet another new store experience to entice customers. “By creating a community feeling through extra additions like a library or cafe, not only are we promoting our lifestyle, but we are also creating a new retail environment for customers to discover and enjoy,” notes Briars, “Although it is not without its difficulties.”