Birchbox's first retail store has iPads featuring recommended products and a large interactive screen called the Product Matchmaker, but the presence of gadgets isn't what makes the retail location feel like online shopping.
Sure, the screens help. Unlike other retailers that use tablets as displays or payment systems, the beauty sample delivery service aimed for a more customer-centric approach. Like browsing online, the iPads in the Soho store nudge shoppers to popular items in a given category. The screen near the skincare products, for example, displays six hand picked skin-related items and the accompanying reviews from the beauty retailer's site.
"We made a commitment to use our roots as an e-commerce company," Birchbox co-founder Hayley Barna said. "We have a dev team in house to make a more customer-centric store technology approach. One that would be used, one that would be interactive, and one that would evolve."
Along those lines, the store's Product Matchmaker enables Birchbox's signature customization, suggesting in-store items that suit a person's hair texture, skin type, or personal style.
Even the store layout itself suggests a website. Unlike in Sephora or a department store, products are organized by type, not company. Instead of having an Essie kiosk, all the pink nail polishes from all the different brands are in a bin together, for example. That makes the shopping experience feel a lot more like searching a website, where people tend to browse terms like "blush" rather than the entire offerings of a beauty brand.
Even in places like Sephora, people would rather shop staff picks for mascaras than run around to five different booths to sample each lash extender. But the Cliniques and Macs of the world like their big, obvious real estate—hence the silos. Birchbox, however, has proven that it can get its customers to buy using its methods. "We had learned from our online customer that she is more interested in shopping in category than by brand," Barna explained.
Brands were therefore willing to let the store use its own model. "In a traditional store maybe 10% to 20% of the square footage is used for endcaps: 'best mascaras' or best sellers this month at the end of an aisle," explained Barna. "In our store design, you can think of it as flipping the traditional model and being 80% end caps."
For all the useful Internet-like discovery the Birchbox brick and mortar offers, it also maintains much of the data collection from which online shops benefit. Both the iPads and the Product Matchmaker track what shoppers, in aggregate, click and how that influences purchasing behavior. Over time that might influence what Birchbox features on the screens, as well as merchandising and placement on the shelves.
The store also has a real-life version of cookies: cameras in the store with heat sensors that track customers' movements. "We will be able to see through the information gathered through those cameras if people are stopping at the screens and how that effects where they go next."
All of this data collection is in the name of customization, which also drives sales. The more Birchbox knows about its consumers' shopping habits, the better it can serve those customers. That theory has already translated to more than 800,000 online subscribers, 50% of whom go on to buy a full size item after receiving the box full of samples.
"We wanted the retail in person experience to reflect these three important touch points of our business model: try, learn, and buy," Barna said. "Birchbox is all about discovery."