“Retail Experiment” Turns Shopping Into Scavenger Hunt

Unless you’re a design-crazed hipster, Subports is bound to make you feel very, very old.


In the annals of weird retail concepts, it’s hard to top the recently launched Subports, a retailer of design-fetish knicknacks that’s half social network, half scavenger hunt.


You first have to register for Subports either at their site, or at one of the kooky retail happenings (more on that in a second). Then the shopping experience becomes a scavenger hunt: So-called “subcodes” written out in quotes, with no spaces–for example, “kioskpaperhat”–are peppered basically anywhere in the world. You might see one on a flyer. Or a social network. Or simply by word-of-mouth. Or on their affiliated Web site, Stackist. Armed with you subcode, you text it to “Portal”–and, at last, the thing goes out in the mail.

According to the organizers:

Charged by experimentation and a dash of contemporary art worldmystique, we bring you Subports, a curious way to buy and sell. Our aimis to significantly lower the barrier of entry to the digital marketplace by giving local merchants, new-to-the-scene designers and upstartboutiques a competitive advantage in promotion, marketing and selling.

All the mystery is maybe a bit misleading–basically, Subports sells backend support to boutique retailers, allowing people to buy their wares via text message. As a seller, you could, for example, pepper your Twitter account with subcodes. It’s kind of like a secret shopping club for hipsters. Mystery and insider-ism is a big part of what they’re selling.

Currently, they’re convening a series of secret “shops” at a location you have to find by texting “bookstore” to Portal. And then, when you finally have the location, the wares are hidden in cutout book safes:

book safes

Confused yet? It gets weirder. Subports also holds retail events that can only be described as performance art. For example:


At our street side bazaar customers who wish to buy an item areturned away when they offer to pay in cash and instructed to registerin a nearby trash can. The trashcan is noticeably new, clean and white.Flush mounted inside the can is a wireless, touchscreen computer wherethey create an online account with Subports. Once finished, thecustomer is handed an envelope with a transaction card and instructionson how to complete the order. The experiment begins:

Walkto Brooklyn Ale House at the corner of N. 8th and Berry. Sitting at thebar will be a person eating a stack of pancakes. Walk up and–sayingnothing–lift the top pancake off and place your transaction cardinside. If you make zero eye contact with the person and you are quiet,she will present you with a complimentary drink ticket. This willcomplete your transaction and your purchase will be sent to yourshipping address.

newsletterPromo(“FCNow”, “right”);

Now, at some point, all this secrecy gets downright hostile–I just want that shiny lawnchair, dammit!–but somewhere buried in all these concepts, there’s a good idea. And somewhere, there’s an ad agency aiming to crib that idea for use as viral marketing.

[Via Core 77]

About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.