Kate Spade Reinvents Retail As A Lean Startup

Control Group teamed up with Kate Spade to create a radical new store concept that leans on iPads and a smart technology platform.

The Kate Spade flagship in Japan serves espresso to encourage customers to chat and linger. And every Saturday, it releases an article of clothing you won’t find anywhere else. The goal is to make the store a weekly excursion for millennials who may otherwise be hooked on Internet shopping.


There’s just one problem: Short-term analog experiences leave a long paper trail. Kate Spade was printing and shipping beautifully embossed signage every week. The expense was massive, and the efficiency was low. In short, it felt like a dated idea.

So the brand enlisted Control Group to bring a bit of digital deftness to their stores. The core of the makeover involves replacing most of the physical signage with iPads, but just adding iPads to a store could be a mess. Here’s how Control Group did it right:


Embracing A Lean Startup Mentality

What you see here–from the frontend graphics to the backend technologies–were created in just eight weeks. And to Control Group, that rapid-prototyping approach is absolutely perfect for Kate Spade’s use case.

“All businesses need to learn, starting with the minimum viable product, getting it into the hands of consumers, seeing how people react to it, and paying attention to what users want is the biggest success of this campaign,” Colin O’Donnell, a partner at Control Group, says. “[The signage is a] great, beautiful product. But for me, it’s amazing to see an organization embrace that lean startup technology.”

With a lean startup mentality, Kate Spade doesn’t need to prognosticate the habits of their customer base. They can hypothesize, test that hypothesis, and refine over time.


“If we threw the kitchen sink at it right off the bat, it’d be a very cluttered experience,” O’Donnell adds. “As we add new features, we should look at features we can take away.”


Balancing The iPad’s Familiarity and Depth

The digital signs may be made of iPads, but a look around the store doesn’t actually reveal this branding. The touch screens could just as easily be Android tablets, or one-off monitors. Whereas some may expect Apple products to add a level of tech-savvy appeal to a store, Control Group had good reason for removing the branding–it changed the customer expectation.

“By abstracting the iPad a bit, it takes you out of the consumer experience when you’re going to jump on the web,” O’Donnell explains. “It’s a more focused experience.”

This focused experience means that users won’t expect to load the Kindle app or do those normal iPad activities, so Kate Spade can hone in on a few clear, quick messages–like sizing charts, style videos, and in-store offers. Because the worst thing all these touch screens could do is pull customers away from the clothing, and the experience of real shopping.

“A store can actually be a really hectic environment. We see digital signage to punctuate the noise of the environment, to bring some sanity in a focal point that’s calming, rather than having another point of noise,” O’Donnell says. “We definitely spent a lot of time thinking about how to make it simple, elegant, and deceptively basic, knowing full well if there was a lot of navigation or deep content, people would be distracted and not pay attention to the garments.”



Empowering Analog Analytics

But while saving all those paper signs is nice–and indeed, Kate Spade intends to make up their investment in just two months of avoided printing costs–the greatest advantage of digital isn’t that it saves paper, it’s that cloud-based content is just a more efficient way of tracking and disseminating information.

“This enables opportunities,” O’Donnell says. “Globally, if they want to promote a dress or garment, they can put it on an iPad across all their stores.”

Control Group built more than an iPad app. They constructed a whole, invisible backend CMS, with a workflow that would allow corporate to develop and launch campaigns. The particular brilliance of this setup is that these campaigns can be organized and customized at the store level by local managers. Because each iPad is modular, it can be moved with any display, and managers will have the opportunity to experiment locally while results feed into the greater network.

“They can see sales corresponding with a change. So you can do A/B testing seeing how you drive consumer behavior,” O’Donnell explains. “Using those web analytics in the real world is a super exciting place to be.”



The Digital, Analog Store

In the last cycle of Internet technology, we watched mega online retailers like Zappos disrupt through the web. Now, it seems that we’re in a technological reverberation, in which online consumer expectations are echoing into physical stores. But that’s not necessarily bad news for retailers. If they’re clever, they won’t be burdened with a bunch of new technology to invest in but empowered by a new wave of engagement and analytics formerly relegated to the online sector. That and a good espresso never hurts.


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach