My mother used to use a phrase, "shop like a Frenchwoman," that I never really understood until the summer we spent a month in Normandy. I was 15, and my parents, along with my aunt (my mother's twin) and her family, had rented an old farmhouse on the top of a hill in the rolling countryside. My schoolgirl French was deemed the most passable of the four cousins', so I was the translator for the women's daily trips to the markets of the little town of Manerbe. There I began to get the picture.
If the twins couldn't exactly talk like Frenchwomen, they could cook with the best of them — and that started with their approach to ingredients. They would pick over baby potatoes, inspect haricots verts for color and crispness, smell herbs for freshness, and poke and prod everything within reach in the outdoor stalls. They'd move from charcuterie to boulangerie , passing over the pâté for some particularly succulent chickens or pointing out the exact baguette they wanted. As often as not, an unexpected or particularly fresh item would result in a surprise twist in the menu.
It wasn't efficient, but we usually came away with a story: a conversation with one of the shopkeepers, a motorbike run amok in the marketplace, a circle back to replace the tarte Tatin devoured in the car on the way home. And, inevitably, the smells, sounds, and textures of the market seeped into our dinner, adding an intense flavor.
These days, for the most part, shopping like a Frenchwoman is a lost art, having vanished somewhere between the sommelier at Costco and the organic arugula now available in virtually every supermarket in America. The multisensory ritual, with its open-ended sense of discovery and the thrill of the hard-won find, has given way to a uniformity of style — and a stylish uniformity.
And then there is Anthropologie. This vibrant, 40-store women's-clothing and home-furnishings chain has cultivated a shopping experience unlike almost anything else in retail today (including the noteworthy fact that it is growing fast and registering record sales). Grab the hand-forged twisted-metal handle on the massive wooden doors of the Anthropologie store on West Broadway in New York, and something clicks in your shopper's reptilian brain. Your peripheral vision is activated. There's so much to take in that you can't focus on any one thing.
Your eye darts right and alights on what seems to be a Tuscan dining porch, artfully packed with chipped dinnerware, rose-colored drinking glasses,whitewashed iron candlesticks, and weathered mismatched chairs. Just beyond, there is a jumble of fresh, bright wares — hand-embroidered dishcloths, ceramic colanders, an enormous enameled teakettle — on an old, rough-hewn French kitchen table that evokes a county fair.
Cast your eye back through the cavernous, high-ceilinged structure, and you get a flash of the Far East. A fringe of rag ribbons hung with glass lanterns marks the entrance to what looks like a stall in a North African souk, laden with embroidered pillows, throw rugs, beaded frames, old fishing baskets, and burnished copper vessels. In scattered vignettes of latticework chaise longues, velvet patchwork pillows, ornate birdcages, leather-bound books, sari fabrics, and teak benches, Morocco blends into Turkey and India mixes with Bali.
Clothing is clustered in minicollections throughout the sprawling space. Flirty skirts and vintage-inspired cardigan sweaters hang beneath red-and-white-striped café awnings; tailored trousers with quirky detailing, embroidered jackets, and lace-edged blouses share space on hand-crafted wood and metal racks; sporty slacks and ethnic T-shirts are piled on antique tables; Chinese pajamas and cobwebby camisoles spill out of an old glass-fronted cabinet. The bold mix of fashion-forward pieces, laid-back staples, and ethnic accents is just what you might imagine for the wardrobe of an itinerant exotic returned to a rich nest in the First World.
It's quite possible to think of Anthropologie as the anti-Gap (and not in the highbrow sense that its Frenchified academic name implies). The Gap pours its investment and creativity into expensive, splashy, celebrity-studded advertising campaigns. Yet, as striking as the spots are, little of the groovy vibe carries over to the actual experience of shopping in the stores (which may be why so many of the Gap's stores are struggling).
"One of our core philosophies," explains Anthropologie president Glen Senk, "is that we spend the money that other companies spend on marketing to create a store experience that exceeds people's expectations. We don't spend money on messages — we invest in execution."
Customers: What (Certain) Women Want
Anthropologie is an oasis of offhand sophistication where you can shop without feeling like some SUV-driving, gold-card-wielding, will-my-kids-get-into-the-right-school suburbanite; where you can buy into the season's runway-sanctioned trend without feeling like a fashion victim; and where, miraculously, almost everything fits. That formula, replicated in each of Anthropologie's unique, custom-designed spaces, holds an almost magnetic appeal for an affluent and influential set of customers — a set of customers that most other retailers only dream about.
Anthropologie has never advertised, yet its customers stay longer in the stores than most chain shoppers. Their average visit lasts an hour and 15 minutes. And some visits extend to an epic four hours. They spend more — the average sales per square foot is over $600, and the average customer spend per visit is a relatively high $80. And they keep coming back: Net sales have grown at a 40% compounded annual rate over the past five years; and same-store sales growth was 16.8% in Q4 2001, a rate surpassed in the first half of 2002. The 10-year-old division of Philadelphia-based Urban Outfitters Inc. continues to evade the fate of small box chains in a dismal season for retail and is on target to grow revenues from $121 million to $200 million this year. (That figure includes online and catalog sales.)
According to Senk, there isn't anything offhand about the retailer's connection to its customers. "Most stores cater to a broad base of customers or specialize in a product category. We specialize in one customer. And we offer her everything from clothing to bed linens to furniture to soap."
A veteran merchant who began his career at Bloomingdale's more than two decades ago, and who ran retail and mail-order for Williams-Sonoma Inc. before joining Urban Outfitters in 1994 to build the fledgling Anthropologie business, Senk has a healthy disregard for the conventions of retail. "In my experience, retailers spend most of their time looking at things from the company's perspective or the marketer's perspective," he says. "They talk about trends and brand but rarely about the customer in a meaningful way. We're customer experts. Our focus is on always doing what's right for a specific customer we know very well."
Wendy Brown, director of stores, adds, "We have one customer, and we know exactly who she is. And we don't sit around a table and say to each other, What do you think she'd like? We're out there. We're in the stores, we're in the marketplace. We live where the customer lives."
Ask anyone at Anthropologie who that customer is, and they can rattle off a demographic profile: 30 to 45 years old, college or post-graduate education, married with kids or in a committed relationship, professional or ex-professional, annual household income of $150,000 to $200,000. But those dry matters of fact don't suffice to flesh out the living, breathing woman most Anthropologists call "our friend." Senk, 46, says, "I like to describe her in psychographic terms. She's well-read and well-traveled. She is very aware — she gets our references, whether it's to a town in Europe or to a book or a movie. She's urban minded. She's into cooking, gardening, and wine. She has a natural curiosity about the world. She's relatively fit."
While most retailers today are obsessed with the highly lucrative and populous "tween" (preteen and young teen) and boomer markets, Anthropologie has cultivated an understanding of and connection to the ultimate tweener: the thirtysomething sophisticate, once known as a Gen-Xer, who has carried her mildly rebellious, against-the-grain independence into a serious career and family life. She's defined less by static qualities and more by a set of dynamic tensions. If the tween anthem is Britney Spears's "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman," the Anthropologie customer's plaint is more Alanis Morissette: "I've got one hand in my pocket, and the other one is giving the peace sign." Translation: "I can't pick up my children or sit through a meeting in low-rise jeans, but I'm not nearly ready for an elastic waistband."
The Anthropologie customer is affluent but not materialistic. She's focused on building a nest but hankers for exotic travel. (She can picture herself roughing it with a backpack and Eurail pass — as long as there is a massage and room service at end of the trek.) She'd like to be a domestic goddess but has no problem cutting corners (she prefers the luscious excess of British cooking sensation Nigella Lawson to the measured perfection of Martha Stewart). She's in tune with trends, but she's a confident individualist when it comes to style. She lives in the suburbs but would never consider herself a suburbanite. (This is where Senk's kinship to his customer is most apparent. He had lived in cities all over the world — London, San Francisco, New York, and Philadelphia — before settling in an elegant turn-of-the-century house in the Philadelphia garden suburb of Chestnut Hill with his partner, Anthropologie antiques buyer Keith Johnson. Says Senk: "We're city people — we'd never dreamed of moving to the suburbs. But Chestnut Hill is sophisticated. It's like a suburb in the city.")
The Anthropologie woman is not so much conflicted as she is resistant to categorization. Her identity is a tangle of connections to activities, places, interests, values, and aspirations. She's not married with two kids: She's a yoga-practicing filmmaker with an organic garden, a collection of antique musical instruments, and an abiding interest in Chinese culture (plus a husband and two kids). It's no coincidence that Julia Roberts is the celebrity avatar of Anthropologie. Not only is she a frequent shopper (along with many of Hollywood's strongest-minded women, including Susan Sarandon, Sharon Stone, and Madonna), but her bohemian-chic wardrobe in The Mexican was Anthropologie sourced.
The attraction of Anthropologie is that it revels in the nuance and complexity of these women and the world they live in. And the power of its approach lies in its ability to create a vibrant, comfortable zone where they can put the puzzle of their multiplex, hybrid lives together.
Style: From Upscale Homeless to Humble Luxury
In his book, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (Simon & Schuster, 2000), David Brooks casts Wayne, Pennsylvania as the classic Bobo (bourgeois bohemian) outpost. Typically ahead of the curve, Anthropologie arrived in the Philadelphia suburb as a prototype store in 1992, a few years before the encroachment of gourmet coffeehouses, high-end bistros, and health-food supermarkets.
Richard Hayne, the founder and chairman of Urban Outfitters, first demonstrated his ability to limn the lifestyle of a core customer group 32 years ago. He nailed the shopping, sleeping, and furnishing habits of the upper-middle-class college kid with Urban Outfitters. Today, the 52-store chain is an emporium for "upscale homeless" — men and women, 18 to 30, whose purchasing behavior is still driven by their social lives. The impetus for Anthropologie was straightforward: Hayne and his wife and friends had outgrown Urban Outfitters, and they needed a new outpost to reflect their changing lifestyle.
Hayne enlisted architect Ron Pompei, who has led the creative direction of every Urban and Anthropologie space, to help envision an experience for the post-Urban generation. Hayne's training as an anthropologist informed the process. The two spent nearly two years on a "cultural odyssey" — traveling, reading, visiting museums and exhibitions, attending cultural events, and scouring outdoor markets. What surfaced in the course of this amateur anthropological dig, says Pompei, "was a return to an earthier sensibility. We saw things that were tactile and visceral. Things that engaged the whole body. Texture was very important. Storytelling was central."
These clues translated into two driving aspects of a retail concept. First, in a nod to the shift from mating to nesting, Pompei says, "We developed Anthropologie as a place for them just to be. The way people evaluate themselves and others boils down to three things: what they have, what they do, or who they are. The mainstream culture focuses on what you have. Recently, what you do has become more important. We wanted to respond to the shift toward 'who you are.' "
Second, the founders didn't just want their customers to be ; they wanted them to grow . "We wanted to create an experience that would set up the possibility of change and transformation," says Pompei, "where the visitor's imagination was just as important as that of the designer." The store's creators hoped to spark "interaction on a new level," says Pompei. "People would start to connect the dots in their own way and tell themselves a personal story."
The chain doesn't simply sell an unprecedented mix of wares — home furnishings, bedding, apparel, antiques, gifts — it provides a range of ideas . Of course, retailers like Ralph Lauren and Martha Stewart have always sold their sensibility along with their things. But where those lifestyle purveyors tend to model perfection and prescribe one style, Anthropologie offers up diverse starting points and a multitude of cues to set the customer on her own path. If the stores have an ethos, it's imperfection, eclecticism, and quirkiness. If they adhere to an aesthetic, it's "low country" — the humble luxuries of peasant heritage, whether French farmhouse or Ukranian folk art. "I wouldn't call it a retail store," says Pompei. "It's a place where culture and commerce intersect. It's more like the Silk Road — a sense of exploration mixed with the exchange of things and ideas."
Stores: Path of Discovery
Anthropologie's approach to its stores flips many of the conventions of retail on their head. For instance: selling things. Glen Senk is quick to say, "Our customers are our friends, and what we do is never, ever, ever about selling to them." Advertising and merchandising in most chains is about selling the Thing of the Moment (stretch denim!) to the largest number of people. Anthropologie doesn't advertise, and the merchandising does not highlight product so much as set a mood and create context.
Anthropologie pours even more creative energy into building a vibrant store experience. Nothing is standard in an Anthropologie store, but a few organizing principles help structure the experience. Nearly every store features a sweeping, sculptural post-and-beam structure called "the arcade," which creates a series of niches or"vignettes" along a curved path. (One exception is the arcade-free Philadelphia store, which occupies the old Van Rensselaer mansion on Rittenhouse Square and which is limited by the rooms and orientation of the building.) The vignettes range from a Tunisian Casbah-inspired collection of exotic wares to a gauzy bedroom tableau. Anthropologie's energetic young visual director, Kristin Norris, is responsible for every aspect of the stores' look and feel, including the creation of these vibrant little worlds.
"I think of everything as a story," says Norris. "A bedding story isn't just about linens and comforters. It's about the feeling of nighttime and a sense of place. It's about the pictures on the wall, the soft glow of a lamp, a closet with robes and soft clothing peeking out." Likewise, a dining table overflowing with plates, glasses, candlesticks, table linens, and hay is "a story about fall entertaining." Whether a setting is based on the rooms of your house, the artifacts and way of life of a foreign culture, or a season's collection, Norris and her team create rich, seamless arrangements of one-of-a-kind objects, home merchandise, clothes, and visual themes. It's hard to tell where the merchandise ends and the display begins.
That's precisely the idea, says Norris. "We try to create little environments that tell a story. The idea is to capture a customer's attention so that she'll explore every corner and let her imagination go. We mix up the stock in a way that gives the customer ideas — ideas about how to mix colors and textiles that she'd never think of combining or ideas about how materials like turquoise and leather can cross categories from clothing to accessories."
Norris's team (in tandem with each store's visual manager, display coordinator, visual sales associate, and a loose circle of contributing artists and craftspeople) adds a rich layer of artistry and visual wit to the store experience: A stunning, four-story yarn sculpture is cantilevered off the top floor of the Philadelphia store. An upside-down tea party — complete with dangling cups, saucers, and brightly patterned café table — delights visitors at the entrance to the Westchester Mall store. Branches covered with leaves cut from rich velvets and tweeds speak of fall.
Along with visual cues, Anthropologie trips the customer's imagination with physical sensations. "Anthropologie is defined by the idea and activity of discovery," says Pompei. "We do everything we can to ground the experience in tactile, visual, kinesthetic, sensual elements. From the materials we use to how the space is laid out. There are no aisles — you wander and chart your own course. It's subliminal but effective. I describe it as like taking a walk in the woods, or walking the hill towns of Tuscany. The paths are never straight; they're always arched or curved or faceted. You always have a sense of anticipation of what's 15 feet in front of you. Consciously or not, your senses are activated. That's fun. Not in the entertainment sense, but in the engaged sense. It's fun because it's stimulating. It's fun because you're seeing things and connections you've never seen before."
Merchandise: Philosophy, Fit, Mix
Every customer discovery in an Anthropologie store starts with discoveries by buyers in the field. Keith Johnson, de facto chief product anthropologist, spends half of his time (down from nearly three-quarters a few years ago) traveling the globe to scour antique fairs, flea markets, obscure emporiums, tiny shops, museums, and factories for inspiration and artifacts. For eight years, his job has been literally to shop the world — and he has the passport (reinforced with 72 extra pages crowded with stamps and visas) to prove it.
For Johnson, the ultimate find is not only a one-of-a-kind object that Anthropologie can sell in the store (found objects make up a small percentage of home sales, which comprise 35% of total sales), but also one that inspires a new in-house design. "My job is to provide the store with some backbone to create wonderful displays and ambiance," he says. "We sell antiques, but the focus is to create an evocative environment. At the same time, I'm always looking for products that we can reproduce and turn into our own collection. There's a high premium on proprietary product. It reinforces the unique experience of Anthropologie — and the margins are great."
Fresh from a two-week trip to Europe, Johnson is standing among years' worth of finds (including a massive antique wooden refrigerator rescued from a French butcher shop and restored to working order) in his Chestnut Hill kitchen. He is holding his latest: an English plate featuring a black-and-white drawing of a large, steaming pie. The inscription reads: "Denby Dale Pie in Aid of the Huddsfield Royal Infirmary" and lists the pie's measurements: "16 feet long; 5 feet wide and 15 inches deep; 4 August 1928."
The plate in his hands fits his criteria for an Anthropologie find: "Beyond quality, it has to have a lot of personality. It has to be homey. Maybe it has a sense of humor. It has to have a little quirk. People respond to fun — a little whimsy goes a long way." Johnson thinks that with a few tweaks (he would replace the word "infirmary" and add color), the plate could make it into the Anthropologie collection.
His thinking is confirmed later that day at lunch with Polly Dickens, the design director of the home-furnishings division. Dickens (yes, she's Charles Dickens's great-granddaughter) is a recent transplant from London, where she ran Terence Conran's home business. She and Johnson work in concert, talking in shorthand about stenciled Italian pasta bowls, making quick decisions about adding the English plate as well as a small iron rooster from Parma to the collection. She's planning a Christmas trip to Eastern Europe with special attention to the ceramics factories of Hungary, partly inspired by a book on folkloric pottery that Johnson picked up in an old bookstore.
Of course, the home business isn't based entirely on arbitrary wanderings. All Anthropologie buyers — in both the home and apparel divisions — organize their collections around three high-level concepts: a multicultural or ethnic look; a pretty, feminine look; and a clean, modern look. Each season they flesh out those categories into three unique collections. For fall 2003, Dickens's team envisioned three distinct women as inspiration for the collections. "Estella" is based on the character in Great Expectations and is "a very grown-up and feminine" line of bedding in smoky pastel colors and cobwebby fabrics. "Licia" is a blend of wares from Turkey and Morocco. And "Sonia" is a very clean, Swedish-inspired line of furnishings.
Dickens not only works the mix for style and personality, she also maintains a healthy, ever-changing assortment of commodities and more-unique items. "Our mix includes unique things in small volumes, things that sell in large volumes, and the things we invent or produce that are unique but which we can sell in large volumes at a competitive price," she says. She thinks nothing of buying a limited edition of 75 blank books made from a gorgeous textile recovered from old print tables in India. And she adds new color choices to a longtime hot-selling commodity — for example, a $4 reproduction French ceramic latte bowl that sells by the thousands each week.
Beyond smart merchandising, the critical factor in keeping the mix fresh is maintaining fresh eyes. At Anthropologie headquarters in Philadelphia, everyone travels. Everyone visits markets, museums, and cultural events. In fact, "cultural events" (from movies to art exhibits to sporting events) are a critical item on the agenda of the Monday-morning meeting attended by all 60 staffers in the home office. "The Anthropologie gift," says Ron Pompei, "is that they can look at the creative edge of a culture and see how it relates to a more mainstream experience. They're always trying to find the common language, materials, textures, and patterns that reach people."
Nowhere does Anthropologie connect the fringe to the mainstream more skillfully than in the apparel business. Found objects, home furnishings, and visual merchandising make a huge impact, but what keeps women fanatically loyal to Anthropologie is the store's approach to fit and fashion. For all of the fantasies of Tuscan dining porches and pillow-strewn Moroccan-inspired living rooms, what women really want are jeans that make their butts look great.
Wendy Wurtzburger, head merchant for the women's apparel and accessories business, maintains a fashion philosophy based on a close reading of the Anthropologie customer: "Young thinkers who are interested in trend and fashion but don't want to look victimy. We always want you to feel you're buying something fresh, and new, and right. Not necessarily trendy, just fresh. And we want to make it curve in if it's supposed to curve in — we don't ever want to look dumpy."
The women's division works with Anthropologie's three-concept framework every season. (The clothing is currently primarily feminine, with a smaller amount of ethnic and modern.) "We create a story: Who is she? Where does she live? What does her favorite sweater look like?" says Wurtzburger. For spring 2003, the modern concept is named "Johannes" — after the midsummer's night festival in Finland — and is a casual concept that mixes a preppy look with old-world detail.
The design team's creativity is matched by its focus on fit. Wurtzburger has led a huge effort over the past two years to get fit right. She introduced a quarterly ritual called a "fit party," where real customers "shop" a makeshift store, try on outfits, and pour out their comments, complaints, and pain to a range of Anthropologie staffers. One outcome of the fit party is a private-label line of pants, called Flying Room, for women with "a larger hip-to-waist ratio." Flying Room has been flying off the shelves.
After fit, it's mix that fuels the success of Anthropologie on every level: "We sell an incredible amount of ethnic, an incredible amount of preppy, and an incredible amount of pretty," says Wurtzburger. "We manage that balance. We also manage the balance between basics and novelty. We're always looking at balance by concept, balance by color, balance by weight, balance by fabric."
That mix — and the ability to move it — isn't just an aesthetic at Anthropologie's stores; it's also a rewarding strategy for the business as a whole. "We measure success in a different way," says Johnson. "We love to have big numbers on things. But we're also happy to have fringe items that are very evocative. We know it won't set the world on fire, but it's something that will make a big difference in the store. What we're trying to do is not think of individual items as make-or-break, but to think about the overall aesthetic. A small part of the assortment might not sell very well, but it could add tremendously to the aesthetic of the store. That's a win. If we had only best-sellers in the store, that would be very boring. There's nothing more boring than last year's big win."
Sidebar: Anthropologie 101
Not surprisingly for a business named after an academic discipline (and then translated into French!), a visit to Anthropologie's home office in Philadelphia can feel like a graduate seminar in the semiotics of trade. But it's precisely the combination of intellectual rigor with an intuitive ear for the customer that makes for such compelling selling. What follows is a cheat sheet of Anthropologie's central disciplines and some of its tricks of the trade.
Your Fieldwork Never Ends If you really want to understand your customer, you have to spend a portion of your time excavating the creative edge of the culture that defines her. For Anthropologie president Glen Senk, that means lurking around upscale neighborhoods, looking for blue plastic New York Times delivery bags and calculating the ratio of Starbucks to convenience stores. For found-objects buyer Keith Johnson, that can mean four-to-eight-week treks across multiple continents in search of new sources of inspiration. "It's important," he says, "to go to the source: great museums, antique stores, cultural events, and farther afield. I will absolutely go down any alleyway that looks like it might lead to a discovery."
Name Everything The Anthropologie merchandising mix is so dynamic, richly layered, and dense with references that it's hard to keep it straight. In the buying department, each season's collection is organized into three companywide categories (feminine, ethnic, and modern) that are then refined and named at the department level. The feminine line of bedding for Fall 2003 is called "Estella." In the visual department, visual director Kristin Norris concocts names for every vignette — Angels & Insects, The Collectors — for internal use.
Don't Forget Feedback "The Anthro Dig" is a weekly newsletter published on the intranet that features success stories, product highlights, $1,000-plus sales, PR of the week, celebrity shopping. Good Idea Sheets are one-sheet forms that any person can send to the home office. Sales associates send ideas about customer service, store experience, and product fit to the home office; Norris attaches a picture of the best execution of a merchandising concept or visual "story" and sends it around to every store's visual team.
Get Personal Anthropologie's designers and buyers constantly draw inspiration from far-flung sources. But sometimes the best ideas are closer to home. After 40 years without picking up a brush, Polly Dickens's mother started painting when her husband died. "It turns out she's a great painter," says Dickens, design director of home furnishings. "She did a great series of chickens, which I sent to be made into table linen. It's been the number-one table linen collection for months."
Be Cheap Unbridled creativity and strict cost control are by no means mutually exclusive concepts. Anthropologie has always favored humble, recycled, and natural materials. Some of the store's most striking visual effects have been crafted out of mundane materials. Last season, the visual team took the idea to new levels of austerity when it created window displays using only big pieces of butcher paper, scissors, and a needle and thread. The windows featured paper cutouts of some striking silhouettes with detailing from that season's collection. The backdrop was a big sheet of butcher paper covered in hand-written poetry. People called from all over the country to see if they could buy the cutouts.
Sidebar: Talk Like an Anthropologist
Retailers speak a highly technical language full of obscure terms and acronyms: "open to buy," "receipt flow," "SKU." Anthropologie's unique approach translates to its vocabulary. Explanations of three critical terms:
Happy Clothes When you boil it down, Anthropologie's philosophy is, "Our customer wants happy clothes." According to Wendy Wurtzburger, head merchant for women's apparel and accessories, happy clothes are first and foremost colorful, pretty, and feminine. (A happy look for fall would be "colors that are unexpected for the season, like yellow and pink in a vintage-looking sweater.") Sad clothes, by contrast, tend to come in darker colors and have sharp, edgy shapes. "We've learned to steer clear of sad clothing in sophisticated darker colors and strange new edgy shapes," says Wurtzburger. "Our experience is that sad clothes end up on the markdown rack."
A version of this article appeared in the December 2002 issue of Fast Company magazine.