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« When Less is More in Retail: Be locally Relevant and Other Truisms | Main | Retail Forecast: Retail Trucks and Pop-Up Stores »

Experience Retail on a Global Scale: Bring in the Locals

Sports Chalet in Los Angeles, Calif. Image © Ryan Gobuty

In many cultures around the world, the experience of shopping is an event that friends and family cherish and share. Shoppers prize the journey of shopping as much as the end product. They don’t just shop to purchase a specific item or items. They shop for the thrill that comes with the discovering new products and services. They shop to take advantage of time to socialize with people they care about. They even shop to learn new things and have new experiences.

Those of us who work with retail professionals can sometimes lose perspective about what makes shopping such an innate component of cultures all around the globe. We obsess over cost effective strategies and boosting the bottom line. When we do this, we lose of sight of a significant opportunity. By always remembering that shopping and commerce are integral to the human experience, we can help retailers connect their brands to consumers in ways that are beneficial to both parties and beneficial to the local cultures in which they thrive.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll share examples of retailers who have transformed retail from a forgettable transaction into a memorable experience. This week looks at retailers who have found success in adopting a “bring in the locals” strategy. Tapping into local culture and turning retail spaces into community venues designed around interaction weaves a retailer into the fabric of that community in a seamless manner. It lies at the heart of making retail a memorable experience based on connection rather than an impersonal one based on the exchange of money for goods.


We all need to socialize with people we already know as well as people we don’t know. Spontaneous socialization between people cultivates that critical sense of community we all seek. Retailers can foster socialization by hosting events that go beyond the experience of regular shopping.

Take the Whole Foods in Brooklyn, NY. This is more than a grocery store. It boasts a bar/restaurant that hosts regular events such as trivia nights and brewery spotlights. This location also includes a record shop, juice bar, in-store roasted coffee, and a bike repair station.


For their first flagship store, founder and Chief Shoe Giver Blake Mycoskie of TOMS envisioned a place where neighborhood folks could “go inside and just hang with their dog, with their baby, or with their newspaper.” That type of mentality lead to the creation of a shop which functions as a buzzing meeting spot, coffee shop, event space, and community center. Every month the store hosts over 20 public events that cater to a wide audience, like tie-dye lessons, coffee tastings, children’s story hours, yoga sessions, and comedy nights.

These types of events bring people to the store who may never have heard of the TOMS brand, and you can bet their first experience with TOMS is a positive one.

REI in Round Rock, Texas. Image © Benny Chan.

Classes + Workshops

Don’t ever underestimate people’s instinctive desire to learn new things. Few joys rival that which comes with learning a new skill. Stores which give people the opportunity to master a hobby or learn a new trade form a powerful connection with the shopper.

At the REI Round Rock store, the mezzanine level is a community center. It’s a focal point for outdoor events and recreational information, volunteer opportunities, classes and other resources for outdoor adventure. People come here to discover new things and celebrate their love of the great outdoors.

Bring in the Locals Neighborhood Pride

Stanley’s Pharmacy, located in New York, does more than just give people a convenient place to fill prescriptions. It acts as a space for the local community to connect with their pharmacist for health advice, and to gather socially while doing it. The whole store centers around an eight-seat wellness bar serving probiotic-rich fermented Chinese ‘kombucha’ tea on tap, homemade organic sodas, medicinal teas, and antioxidant-packed espresso drinks.

Easy access to such a unique pharmacy has become a point of pride for the neighborhood and encouraged locals to shop at Stanley’s rather than one of its many faceless competitors.

Sports Chalet in Los Angeles, Calif. Image © Ryan Gobuty.


Sometimes size matters, other times, smaller stores with increased specialization get the job done. Sport Chalet’s new urban concept in downtown Los Angeles is a prime example of the latter.

Though half the size of a standard Sport Chalet big box, this urban retail venue caters to the specific tastes of Los Angeles residents who have chosen to live in city-center and pursue a more urban lifestyle. The branch carries equipment for cycling, training, and running, all popular with local clientele.

Encouraging Good Habits

Healthy lifestyles are not easily achieved. It’s very easy to give into temptation and devour food that’s bad for our bodies. Sometimes we need a nudge from a third party. And retailers which spur us to healthier options tend to earn a special place in our hearts.

Tesco’s Eat Happy Project is a perfect example of a retailer engendering goodwill with the community by providing healthy eating options to those who need it most. The initiative will enable up to one million primary school kids to go on educational trips to farms, factories and supermarkets, so they can find out where food comes from, and how it is processed. This knowledge will help them make better choices about the food they consume as they grow.

Barry Bourbon AIA, LEED® AP, is a leader of Gensler’s global retail practice and a principal in the San Francisco office. With a constant eye on the latest tools and technologies that connect consumers and retailers, Barry inspires colleagues to stay focused on the rapidly evolving issues facing clients, and to design for the holistic experience of a brand. Never one to shy from a challenge, Barry is an expert problem solver who excels at leading multi-location, multi-disciplinary teams with the tightest schedules and budgets. Contact him at barry_bourbon@gensler.com.

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