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Turning Physical Stores Into Living Advertorials

As transactions move online, physical retail must amp up the drama.
The Glossier You pop-up | Source: Courtesy
  • Chantal Fernandez

NEW YORK, United States — "Hello, darlings," says a woman wearing a dark red suit in an oversized, of-the-moment cut. She's greeting customers inside Glossier's new Soho pop-up shop dedicated to the digital beauty brand's first fragrance, Glossier You. After checking names into an iPad — appointments are encouraged but walk-ins are welcome — she ties a pink Glossier ribbon around the wrist of each visitor. "You'll need it later," she teases.

Thick red curtains line the store in undulating waves, making the space seem larger than it really is. Guests move slowly from the first room — where Glossier You bottles sit carefully arranged inside glass cases — to the second, where panelled mirrors and a large ottoman provide the perfect backdrop for selfies.

In the third and final room, another red-suited woman invites guests to smell the fragrance emitted by scented foam replicas of the bottle. She explains the ingredients (ambrette, ambrox, musk with top notes of iris root and pink pepper), adding, “but the most important ingredient is you… it’s true!”

Then it’s time for the grand finale. More red-suited women usher guests kindly but forcefully into individual booths, lined with more mirrors, instructing them to “press the red button when they are ready” and to “take their time.” The doors close, the button is pressed and an inset mirror lifts to reveal a disembodied and red-gloved hand holding — what else — a bottle of Glossier You. It sprays the ribboned wrist and delicately waves goodbye before disappearing again behind the mirror. “How was it, darling?” asks one of the red suited women afterwards. Intimate, creepy — straight out of Twin Peaks — and hard to forget.


These days, there is no shortage of conversation on the changing function of the store in a digital age and the importance of creating communities and experiences that make customers want to show up and shop when they can browse products and transact online. But getting people in the door is only one hurdle; the real challenge is making them feel something while they are there, something that they want to capture, remember and share with their followers on social media.

"Stores are the most powerful, measurable, manageable form of media that a brand has at [its] disposal," said Retail Prophet founder Doug Stephens at VOICES, BoF's annual gathering for big thinkers, in early December. Brands spend billions and trillions of dollars trying to get consumers' attention online, through social media and on television, he added later. "The theatre of retail now is what people are after. If I'm going to put down my laptop or iPhone and I'm not shopping on Amazon or Wayfair, I want you to treat me to an experience that I can't have online." The future of retail, according to Stephens, is "a physical form of media; you are physically and emotionally immersed in it."

When Rachel Shechtman opened Story, a six-year-old Chelsea concept shop that gets a complete makeover from design to products and sponsorship every four to eight weeks, she says there was no precedent for treating shoppers like an audience and retail like editorial content. “We’ve been trained to think about how can we use digital marketing and media impressions to drive offline behaviour,” she says. “Why don’t we reverse it and use offline impressions to drive conversions elsewhere? It’s a consumer experience that’s a living advertorial for brands.”

Over the summer, for example, an in-store conversation about beauty and health between Refinery29’s editor-in-chief Christene Barberich and Bobbi Brown drew about 100 people and has been viewed by about additional 400,000 people since online. The event was part of Story's collaboration with Walmart’s, to highlight its grocery delivery service.

There’s no right formula for nailing “living advertorial.” Shechtman says pop-ups alone aren’t the answer. A key is collaboration with specialists outside the industry. Unlikely bedfellows will lead to strategic partnerships, she predicts, along the lines of Westfield’s acquisition of Broadway producer Scott Sanders' namesake company. “If retail needs to be about experience and entertainment, retailers aren’t experts in entertainment,” she says.

For Kate McCollough, who designed the Glossier You pop-up with partner Max Zinser, a background in set design for campaigns and fashion shows has proven to be very applicable to designing modern retail spaces. The interior designer counts The Row, Phillip Lim, Theory, Goop and Chanel as clients and brings a theatrical lens to her projects where the customer is now the photographer. "It's less about SKU capacity and more about — is my customer going to get a feeling in the store?" says McCollough. "It's really about generating an emotional response from the customer, and then also prompting them to take photos. That's the big one."

A photographable store can go viral on Instagram, as anyone who has seen Glossier You’s distinctive curtains in the background of selfies can attest, making it a must-visit destination for social media content creation. McCollough says the key is bold colours and “something kinetic,” such as blowing smoke or video, akin to an art installation. Lighting is also key. For Glossier You, she and Zinser worked with a lighting designer to ensure the light would bounce off guests in the most flattering way possible. “It was this crazy alchemy to get this perfect selfie, but also to make sure that the interior was well represented in the image,” she says. “I'm always making sure that there's enough visual candy per square foot.”


It's a consumer experience that's a living advertorial for brands.

Now clients are much more likely to take a risk on an installation that is more conceptual than product driven, especially if it is purely unique to the space. McCollough uses a waterfall as an example. “Nobody was going to pay for that six years ago [when she opened her practice], but now they [say], ‘Oh, the waterfall, everybody’s going to know it’s my store.”

The Glossier You pop-up was the first time McCollough was asked to incorporate performance art into a retail space, however. “They really wanted to get a little weird… We wanted it to be kind of the David Lynch vibe.” And the attendants and disembodied hands provided an inclusive, human component.

“That's going to be popping up more, especially with these concept spaces — taking the customer on more of a journey instead of just looking at something pretty.” Increasingly, those journeys will be increasingly theatrical, editorialised and, of course, shareable.

Related Articles:

Lights, Camera, Selfie!Opens in new window ]

7 Lessons For Retail in the Age of E-CommerceOpens in new window ]

Why Retail Is Getting 'Experience' WrongOpens in new window ]

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