“Unstores” Underscore the Intangible

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On the face of it, it’s an extraordinary idea. A store as showroom only, no cash registers in sight. Shoppers in these spaces aren’t shoppers at all. More like tire kickers. They look around, ask some questions, maybe try something out. But they leave empty handed. And that’s just the point.

The concept of the “unstore” is that customer engagement and product education trump hard purchases in the customer experience game. And though still fairly new to the retail scene, this stock-free paradigm shifter is an idea on the rise.

Samsung’s got a big one, with its 837 store in New York. At this colossal three-storey hotspot in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, consumers can “capture the holiday spirit” with a 360 selfie from inside a snow globe, get interactive with the movement-responsive snowflakes in the window display, or hang out in the “holiday living room,” where “How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story” play in rotation.

Michael Koch, Samsung’s senior director of store development, was the first to reference the un-store concept during his presentation at the International Retail Design Conference in September. He talked about aspiring to create a retail situation where people could relax without feeling the pressure to buy.

Nordstrom has an unstore, too, in Nordstrom Local. This unique small-scale space in West Hollywood has a styling suite, eight dressing rooms, on-site alterations, personal styling services, beverages and manicures. What doesn’t it have? Inventory.

Other examples include:

  • Starting with three Boston-area stores, Staples has just started a partnership with office-sharing startup Workbar that sees it devoting a portion of its square footage to workspaces—where customers can’t buy a thing.
  • With its magnetic wall panels, in-store power concerts and interchangeable displays, Sony Square NYC is set up to do everything but sell product.
  • In one of its San Francisco stores, Target operates an Internet of Things concept store that functions as a learning lab for shoppers.
  • Reebok has CrossFit gyms at its FitHub stores.

“The idea was never, ‘Let’s go and create a store without any inventory for our consumers,’” Samsung’s Koch says. “The intent was always to find a better way to display products in a way that people would understand them, and be educated in a more comfortable environment.”

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