Retail: The New Disco

I am observing a growing trend: retail space doubling as social space. Recently, my sister and I attended a singles event at a supermarket here in New York. We ventured down to the Whole Foods on Bowery and Houston to attend the first-ever Check Out, hosted by Gothamist.com. It makes perfect sense on the surface — people often talk about meeting people at the supermarket, so why not hold an actual event there? Plus, since it’s Whole Foods, you are bound to get this sort of upper-middle class, socially aware, health conscious crowd. I suppose Mischa and I qualify for that.

But Whole Foods isn’t alone in this. Aside from the numerous housewares and fashion shops (e.g. Pottery Barn, and the like) that host big events for new store openings, new season lines, and sometimes just new products, it seems electronics stores are getting in on the action too. While Best Buy may host midnight openings to buy the Playstation 3, for example, it is the Apple store that has been presenting itself as the ‘social’ store. Come for the iPods, stay for the band.

Last month, I saw one of my favourite singer/songwriters perform at the Apple Store in SoHo. Apparently, this was only the latest in a series of musical performances woven in to their schedule of lectures, workshops and presentations. But the newer 5th Ave. location is where the real party is — full-on DJ’d dances are the norm every Friday at midnight. And while it is a bit out of the way, I did attend once. Last year, Melissa Anelli, of The Leaky Cauldron fame, wrote an article for the Staten Island Advance about how the Apple Store (in Staten Island) has become the place for teens, and others to hang out.

Generally, I’m in favour of this growing trend. It’s no secret that consumers can bond over their common shopping experiences — it’s part of the ‘tribe’ philosophy and the growing emphasis on ‘experience’ branding. I like seeing stores embrace the customers as people, instead of merely as walking wallets. They realise, accurately, that the consumers are the truest and most effective brand ambassadors, especially for those brands that have been lucky enough to create for themselves a cult-like following. (Ikea, Starbucks, Ben & Jerry’s, etc.)

But this whole retail-as-social concept is somewhat perverse, if you peel back the glossy top coat. Think about it, you’re hanging out in a store! Some might even draw parallels to religion; it bears the same symptoms in terms of devotion, exclusivity, community and faithfulness. Do we really want to give up both money and time to a seller of plastic goods? When do we stop owning, and start being owned?

These same questions were asked about 100 years ago when the first mega department stores began to pop up in Chicago. People flocked there on Friday nights simply to bask in the electric glow of all that glittery stuff — they called them ‘Palaces of Consumption’. Of course, that was before swing dancing, so you can’t blame the people for being corporate proletariats.

Time will tell how this current trend pans out — I predict that eventually so many diluted brands will adopt the practice that it will become another empty gesture in the great lexicon on bullshit marketing. The only reason it works today is because it’s only the strongest and most daring brands that attempt it.

Here’s some photos from the Check Out event last month.

strange days indeed

strange days indeed

strange days indeed

strange days indeed

strange days indeed
Scott with Jen Chung of Gothamist.com