Friday, February 22

Hey, Big Schlepper

Several recent articles point to the growth of the boutique outdoor clothing chain Nau as evidence of something more than a unique marketing strategy. In particular, a great piece by Alex Steffen of Worldchanging describes how the company's way of selling could alter consumer habits:

I'm really intrigued by NAU's new retail model, where you go in, try clothes on, check out their look and feel, and then order them for delivery to your home (you can buy them and carry them home yourself, but you pay a premium). The main advantage for you is that you don't have to schlepp (meaning you don't need to be driving to shop there); the main advantages for NAU are that they can carry more items in a smaller space (because they don't need to stock multiples of every item in each color and size) and distributing clothes through a central warehouse is more efficient. The storefront, in effect, becomes a "webfront" -- a physical trial space for online shopping.

Through altering how goods end up in the hands of consumers, the "webfront" concept could also impact urban and architectural form down the line, Steffen explains. It's a conflation of mass environmental awareness, ubiquitous home delivery, savvy store design, and the ascendance of e-commerce.

Is it greener to shop on foot or online and then have the stuff delivered? Well, surprisingly (at least to me) the answer is generally yes. Sometimes it's much greener. The ecological cost of driving a number of online purchases in one truck (a truck, I might note, that is increasingly likely to itself be more efficient than some US cars) on a pre-set route (programmed to also be highly-efficient) is a small fraction of the ecological cost of driving to and from the store to get them yourself. Even when shopping in person, if not having to drag your loot home means you can get to the shop without driving, delivery is still more efficient, I'm told.

And just like that, the exurban rings of big-box "power centers" and "category killers" familar to residents of so many metropolitan areas teeter on the edge of obsolesence. Or they could, eventually.

Nau_store

Above, a prototypical rendering of a dressed-down Nau boutique (via), where the minimal, monochromatic finishes envelop the shopper in the brand experience. The design of the webfront presents a physical manifestation of the company's values and is as such a way of selling "sustainability":

And its retail spaces are defined by features such as the stump-like stools made of reclaimed timber in the dressing rooms. Its clothes feature custom-made environmentally friendly fabrics and non-toxic dyes. (The company employs third-party labs to make sure its fabrics and contract manufacturers adhere to Nau's strict environmental and labor standards.) Nau's polyester-based clothes are recyclable: You will be able to turn them in at a nearby store when they're no longer wanted. The rest of its garments, made of cashmere or merino wool or organic cotton, are designed to be biodegradable.

More subtly, the clothing's color palette—think chocolate, charcoal, olive, and sea—doesn't change much from season to season, and the modern, elegant cuts are designed to go from the mountain to a hip café. The idea is to reduce the amount of clothing a person needs. It's about "being smart about how you consume. We're trying to create new, cool, timeless classics that wouldn't go out of style quickly," says Mark Galbraith, the company's vice-president of product design, whose team is working almost non-stop in a large open space at the rear of Nau's warehouse-like office, just beyond the sea of cubicles.

Londoners can experience something analogous at Oki-Ni, where in-store purchase isn't even offered (all purchases are made from network consoles in the shop after the customer has made their selections).

What happens to big-box retail (and by extension so much of suburbia), when the need to schlep is taken out of the equation? How does changing the experience of shopping change the experience of place? Does reducing potential reliance on the automobile outweigh the appeal of the instant gratification of loading up the car with big-box purchases? You'll note that such a retail philosophy is the opposite of IKEA's, whose low prices have always been at least partially predicated on the fact that you, the consumer, have to schlep everything home and assemble it all yourself. Steffen notes how consumer habits and a rising interest in the public realm dovetail so neatly into concern for the environment:

And, of course, more and more people are putting a premium on the experience of community shopping. Think about the exploding number of farmer's markets. Think about the newly resurgent neighborhood main streets in upscale compact neighborhoods. People like walking around in their neighborhoods and buying things from people with whom they have a connection.

And with increased home delivery services, the architecture of the home itself adjusts, with the addition of a "shop and drop," a "password-protected area built into a house or garden, much like the coal bunkers of yore." There's a great design problem for the consumer society of the near future.

It occurs to me that the reduced square footages needed by a webfront retail endeavor could make it easier and cheaper to place retail in spaces that larger chains shy away from--older shopping streets with small storefronts, for example. This could be good news not only for the company looking to locate new retail outlets, but also for neighborhoods and cities that have retail spaces available but do not have the traffic to support large stores. (Could this be applicable to grocery stores?)

via Brand Avenue

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