Yael Aflalo, founder of the eco-chic fast fashion label Reformation, was in a curious predicament. About three years ago, business at her brick-and-mortar locations in New York and Los Angeles was blowing up, but the stores were so packed that the shopping experience was becoming downright unpleasant for guests.
"Our sales were soaring, but our Yelp reviews were in the toilet," Aflalo recalls.
Then it occurred to Aflalo that the problem had to do with the way traditional retail stores are structured. Couture brands, which schedule personalized fittings, can offer a plush, luxurious in-store experience for customers. But brands like Reformation, TopShop, and Zara are trying to grow their customer base and generate a lot of foot traffic. Stores are set up a little like self-service cafeterias, with customers rifling through racks, searching for their sizes, and carrying bundles of garments to a dressing room.
The floor plan of clothing stores only exacerbates this problem. Typically, the largest part of a store is devoted to storing racks and racks of garments in all sizes. Only a few outfits are displayed on mannequins or tables for customers to see. Dressing rooms are almost an afterthought—they tend to be small, poorly lit, and too few in number. In many cases, these uncomfortable rooms seem deliberately designed to get customers out as soon as possible. And yet, everybody has had the experience of queuing up to try out clothing. On the weekend, it's not uncommon to see long lines of customers snaking through popular clothing stores waiting to use the dressing room.
"Our store associates are always in survival mode," Aflalo says. "They're just desperately trying to clean up. They don't have the bandwidth to offer customers personalized recommendations, which is really what they should be doing."
Aflalo wanted to totally upend the in-store experience. As she looked around for inspiration, she found a couple of brands that had mastered the art of creating a high-end, high-volume retail experience. Tellingly, all the examples came from outside the fashion world. Apple, for instance, came to mind. "The stores are always so busy, yet they're always able to maintain a high level of customer experience," she says. "The floor isn't cluttered with boxes of products; there are just a few key items that customers can play around with."
Then there's Tesla. Unlike with traditional dealerships, there's no enormous lot with rows and rows of cars. Instead, there is a small showroom, with a single model on display, and flat screens where you can learn about the bells and whistles you can purchase. "I bought a Tesla in a showroom and it left a profound impression on me," Aflalo says. "Usually buying a car is so difficult and horrible. But buying a Tesla on a flatscreen monitor was so easy that I wondered if I was doing it right: I picked the color I wanted, entered my address, and swiped by credit card, then it was all done. My car showed up a month later."
She's used all of these insights to build out a brand-new store in San Francisco, which officially opens on February 21. The store radically reconfigures space. Rather than using the front of the store to hold racks of clothes, there are just a few best-selling outfits on display, giving the space an uncluttered, clean, minimalistic feeling.
"Across fashion brands, 20% of your styles drives 80% of your business," Aflalo explains. "Why not put out the 20%? This is a way of curating the experience for the customer."
Around the store, there are touchscreen monitors that allow customers to scan through outfits. When they find one they like, they can click on the size and it will appear in the dressing room, as if by magic. In reality, an associate will go to the stockroom to pick out the item in question and lay it out neatly for the customer. Since the whole process is automated, there's almost perfect inventory accuracy. (No more being disappointed when the system shows one sweater left in your size, but it's nowhere to be found on the racks.) Meanwhile, the computer system is gathering a lot of data about which outfits or sizes are popular and how long customers are spending trying on clothing. All of this can be used to make the store run more efficiently.
The real fun begins when you start trying on outfits. Since the front of house is so pared down, there's space to make dressing rooms larger. Aflalo also wanted to deck them out with plush materials and large mirrors, and importantly, lots of knowledgeable store representatives who can offer styling advice and size recommendations. Instead of rushing customers to make room for more people, the goal is to allow the customer to spend as much time as they need to try on outfits and style them just right.
Aflalo recognizes that this store is very much an experiment. She'll be gathering information as she goes along, making adjustments, and finding ways to improve. But she believes that to improve the shopping experience, she needed to rethink the brick-and-mortar store from the ground up, not just incrementally improve on the existing model.
And she's already planning improvements, including a more sophisticated touchscreen system that will merge the online and offline experience. "Imagine being able to just purchase an item on the in-store touchscreen and have it sent directly to your home," Aflalo says. "Or picking out a couple of outfits on the internet at home, and having them ready for you to try on when you enter the store."