Retail analysts are buzzing about Nordstrom’s merchandise-free store concept, but the approach itself is hardly new. A number of major retailers and startup fashion brands have pioneered a local showrooming strategy, divorcing the purchasing of products from the distribution, and focusing more on experiences than in-person sales.
On-site stylists and manicurists, and curbside pickup, are designed to amp up the luxury at Nordstrom’s new Nordstrom Local outposts, with a more personalized shopping experience that consumers are looking for. But in order for Nordstrom Local to survive once the initial buzz has worn off, the company will have to deliver on its promise of convenience and improved customer service.
Here are six examples of other retailers that have been able to successfully navigate this merchandise-free (or light) approach to local retail, and insights into how they found success with the concept.
Bonobos became a pioneer in local showrooming when it launched a series of “Guideshops” around the U.S. in 2015. Bonobos’ Guideshops carry every version of each garment the company offers — including each size, color, fit, and fabric — which means shoppers can try on anything they’ve been curious about when browsing the company’s e-commerce website. The catch, of course, is that Bonobos does not carry enough of its garments to sell them in-store. Instead, employees called “Guides” walk shoppers through the Guideshop, helping them select items that will be the perfect fit, and then assisting as they place orders that will ultimately be delivered to their homes. Guideshops are intended to elevate the online shopping experience with more one-on-one attention than shoppers would expect to find in a typical retail environment.
After years as an online-only retailer, the indie fashion giant opened its first showroom in Austin, Texas, earlier this year. (Modcloth was also acquired by Walmart in March.) Rather than trying to carry a portion of the company’s massive inventory, Modcloth has taken a more refined approach at its physical store, with a big emphasis on customer service. Out on the showroom floor, each garment is available in just two sizes (medium and 2X), which makes room for Modcloth to bring in more product without making the store feel overwhelming. A full size range is kept tucked in the back, available for customers to try on. Most items in the store are a part of the company’s “Fit and Ship” program, which offers free two-day shipping. Ready-to-wear items on black hangers are part of the “Take Me Home Today” program, which as the name implies, can be purchased directly at the store for shoppers who need something right away.
Brick-and-mortar stores can help online-only brands establish themselves as leaders in their industries. The Canada-based prescription eyewear company Clearly was able to do just that when it opened its first physical store in 2013. The company’s Vancouver outpost offered a more customized shopping experience than customers could expect online, and it also helped to introduce the brand to eyeglass wearers who’d never heard of it before. Clearly’s brick-and-mortar store also offered additional services that would be impossible to provide online, such as on-site optometrists conducting exams and “fit experts” to guide shoppers toward the right frames for their faces. Despite the in-person touches, Clearly still requires orders placed at its physical store to run through its website rather than selling inventory directly on-site.
As one of the biggest retailers in the country, Target has the leeway to get creative with new shopping concepts. In 2015, the retailer opened a concept similar to what Nordstrom is trying today. A space in San Francisco was dubbed the Target Open House, serving as a laboratory for selling one specific category of products — smart home devices. Designed like a model home, the Open House showcased connected devices like light bulbs, baby monitors, sprinklers, and doorbells working in a setting that simulated the real world. Education was a key component, as shoppers tinkered with products and learned which items they might want in their own homes. Target’s Open House concept also opened the door to partnerships between the retailer and the technology brands it chose to showcase at its concept store.
Like Target, Sears also opened a showroom concept store focused on the home electronics category in 2015. Built within an existing Sears mall location in San Bruno, California, the connected showroom was designed to look like a traditional home, complete with a living room, bedrooms, and a faux backyard. Each room featured various connected home devices, like Philips Hue lights and smart TVs, that shoppers could operate. Salespeople working in Sears’ Connected Home were specially trained to provide guidance on picking out and setting up smart home devices. Although the concept store was setup like a showroom, employees were able to access the product and sell to customers directly from the sales floor, making Sears’ concept more merchandise-light than merchandise-free.
The men’s dress shoes startup Jack Erwin began as a direct-to-consumer company in 2013. Since then, the company has opened a series of concept stores it calls Fitting Rooms in New York City. Like Bonobos’ Guideshops, Jack Erwin’s Fitting Rooms carry samples of products in every size, without any actual inventory to sell on-site. Instead, shoppers are paired with sales representatives who help them select the right style and size, and they can purchase anything they like online. (Salespeople can also help shoppers place web orders via iPads at the store.) The company says this retail method helps keep costs low, allowing it to sell high-quality shoes manufactured in Europe for much less than traditional retail.
Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.