Where is value and desire created online? What is the importance of physical retail space in era dominated by e-commerce? And what is the future of retail? These are a few of the questions that Wallet, the budding Oslo-based critical commentary publication launched in 2018 by editor Elise By Olsen, aims to answer it its fifth issue. Olsen gave TFL a sneak peek at what a handful of retail industry insiders – from SSENSE founder Rami Atallah to Arun Gupta, the CEO of streetwear/menswear resale site Grailed – had to say about money, business and politics in the fashion industry.
How has fashion retail evolved to encompass changing consumer behavior and financial technologies?
In the pursuit of profit, the fashion market has shown extreme innovation skills, from the development of the department store in the late 19th century, to the rise (and fall) of mall culture, the return of the boutique and concept store, and more recently, the pop-up shop. Meanwhile, older models of consumption – the high street chains, for example – continue to change and develop fashion markets around the world. Rapidly changing shopping patterns in a time of globalization have made the fashion retail game increasingly difficult, financially and ethically.
Even digital retail space, once the frontier of fashion consumption, is now entering its second or third generation as players develop new unique strategies – editorial, technological, social – to entice customers. In this new wave of online retail, we are intrigued by the increasing importance of the editorial and the social, values that have long been crucial in fashion market spaces, but have been somewhat neglected in the contexts of the internet. The digital user experience has especially shaped the way we shop – with seamless transactions, fast shipping, mass inventory and re-sale culture.
What is the enduring appeal and importance of physical space in a time of totalizing digitality?
Like Rami Atallah, founder of SSENSE, said when I interviewed him, “A website is a must-have, but having a store, in this day and age, is a bit of a luxury.” I think “the store” of today is treated more as an exclusive site for fashion experience; a performative space for fashion practice, not too dissimilar from a gallery or a museum. Stores are being used to stage and create experiences and emotions between the clothing and the audience – such as with books, music, cinema, clothes and fashion, art, food, and graphics.
Every store is trying to undo the look and feel of the store to instead provide ‘experiences’; they want people to stay there because they need to buy and while buying meeting different experiences: the store needs to be an archive or a library, or an art gallery, people need to be able to play, listen to music, dance, interact in the space. But at the end of the day, these spaces do embody transactional elements, and are dedicated to fashion consumerism; buying and selling fashion with completely normative economic and institutional behaviors, though perhaps in disguise.
Where is value and desire created online?
This issue also takes a closer look at the symbiotic relationship between creativity and commerce – how the creative spaces inform and reciprocate the commercial spaces, and vice versa. One of the most distinguishing features of many online retail spaces today is this privileging of editorial content on e-commerce platforms – a strategy that many stores and brands follow today. The content is usually a mix of general cultural reportage and content with a commercial hook, creating this value and desire, [thereby], directing readers to buy products.
As Grailed CEO Arun Gupta said in our interview, “In the same way we’re talking about physical and online being synergized, I think the marketplace and the editorial are also very synergized.”
What responsibility do retailers have beyond making shareholders happy and making money?
Vittorio Radice, CEO of La Rinascente, a major department store in Milan, talked about the responsibility of being a leader: “If you own a big piece of real estate in the center of a major city, you have a huge responsibility to keep that city center alive. If you don’t do a good job, it’s not only you suffering, but the entire city will feel the pain … Keeping these anchor stores alive and healthy is mandatory for a city to progress … We are in the city center! Most of the time department stores are the best and biggest open building in town, and with that comes a huge responsibility of keeping the city alive.”
Another responsibility is perhaps to make the customer feel more comfortable in these alienated luxury stores; some stores stress their democratic and accessible retail experiences, while others are relying on selectively curated content combined with steep prices that become a threshold for most people to enter. Hand-in-hand with this commitment to detail and appearance of high-fashion comes an unspoken requirement to buy something, which leads to ‘potential customers’ walking past shop windows without daring to actually enter. Heavy surveillance and security guards who can deny entry also scares people off.
What’s the future of retail?
The future of retail – which includes the very diverse and different modes of what a fashion retail experience is and can be; spanning from luxury brand stores, independent boutiques, high street chain stores, shopping malls, online Big Cartel stores and “alternative” shops – seems to have a very synergized approach to the digital-physical complex. These stores approach their buying, curating and programming strategically and merge their creative and commercial, editorial and social values, in order to give the customer multiple choices of how to shop. The future of retail might also be technology-driven, like everything else; with big data, artificial intelligence, faster shipping and so on.