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All Aboard!

By Robert Nieminen

If you’re a foodie like yours truly, you’re undoubtedly a fan of Anthony Bourdain’s TV show, No Reservations, or are familiar with it at least. In one of his more memorable episodes, we find the cynical New York chef riding a train in Thailand and making characteristically wry observations about his surroundings when he begins to describe the rather unusual Maeklong Market.

Like most typical outdoor food markets, there are dozens of merchants under makeshift tents offering a colorful selection of fresh foods that one would find just about anywhere in the country. Unlike most other markets in the world, however, several times each day—ready or not—the vendors are forced to move their merchandise out of the way to make room for the local train that Bourdain is riding in this particular episode.

Interestingly, the Association for Retail Environments commented on a similar clip of the Maeklong Market train on their website, suggesting that U.S. retailers who are seeking smaller footprints can learn a thing or two from these Thai merchants, who chose to adapt and make their spaces multifunctional rather than look for a new plot of land to sell their goods. Safety and health regulations aside, the analogy here is rather fitting for the U.S., given that the economy has pretty much railroaded the retail market, and retailers have been scrambling to lure consumers back to their stores.

In fact, a recent Bloomberg market report indicates that July showed the slowest growth for retail sales (excluding autos) since 2010, and with declining home values and unemployment above 9 percent, consumers are still “holding back on spending, prompting retailers such as Target to sweeten discounts.” But markdowns alone aren’t going to suffice in tough economic times like these. Much like those agile Thai street vendors, major retailers will need to adapt quickly and completely rethink the buying and branding process. The concept of the storefront is being turned on its head, and it’s the brand experience, rather than in-store sales, that will shape the store of the future.

According to Doug Stephens of Retail Prophet Consulting, with consumers now comfortable buying just about anything online, retail stores “will function less as places that simply sell products and more like interactive galleries, showrooms and workshops—places where consumers can have aesthetic, visceral and emotional experiences with the brand—that can’t be replicated online.”

One global company known best for its straightforward slogan (“Just Do It”) has perfectly embodied this concept of the in-store branding experience to which Stephens alludes. The 8,000-square-foot Nike Stadium NYC project, designed by New York-based Architecture at Large, is perhaps more accurately described as an informal community space with a small retail project on the side. The Nike Stadium concept, which has been replicated around the world, is intended to function as a space where visitors can “experience product, design and innovation, combined with the worlds of film, photography, art and music,” rather than just buy sneakers and jerseys.

Similarly, the new Candy Rox store in Rye, New York, designed by D-Ash Design, challenges the traditional retail model by focusing on cross-generational elements such as music and surf/skate culture to bring children and parents together in the same space. While the client obviously wanted to feature (and sell) candy, the store also doubles as a place to showcase an assortment of offerings such as apparel, and even features “a hangout space” in the back with skateboards hung on the walls, old guitars, an amp and video games, all of which customers can play.

With stellar examples of new retail concepts such as these popping up—be sure to also check out our cover story on the Lotte department store in Busan, South Korea—it won’t be long before the economic train starts moving again. And to quote the infamous Johnny Cash, “I’d let that lonesome whistle, blow all my blues away…”