Ok so we’re sure you don’t need much of an introduction to Seattle. This was the second stop on our annual retail tour*. We absolutely love Seattle, it punches way above it’s weight when it comes to retail (eg. Starbucks, Nordstrom, Amazon.com, Costco all started here) …and unlike NYC where it’s easy to dismiss retail concepts on the basis of a wealthy, dense and larger population. Well this is not true of Seattle (Seattle population just over 3.5m; av. HH income is US$80K) and yet this is a place definitely not following the typical ‘globlisation’ retail model (aka take something working elsewhere and just replicate it in your local market) but one who is learning in real time by sticking to the bleeding edge. So here’s out pick of the best Seattle retail.

Restoration Hardware:
Sales**: US$2.36B; Comps: 7%

What a business! This is one for anyone currently going through a transformation process and keen to lean from someone that made it happen. RH used to be a chain of stores focused on home DIY. As sales waned CEO Gary Friedman choose to refocus the business and pivot towards becoming an upmarket homewares business. To quote Friedman: (We chose) “to transform our business from a promotion to a membership model that we believe will enhance our brand, streamline our operations and dramatically improve our customer experience”. What’s that? A furniture business that’ chosen not be drive by price!

The move worked turning Restoration Hardware into a US$ 2.3B powerhouse. Here’s the thing this strategy is reliant on a belief in the leader, as it was heavily aesthetically led. It required management to believe in the creative direction of Friedman. They did and it’s worked – in a huge way.

I can’t stress how hard this must have been and how much courage was required to back a strategy and stick to it. A strategy that wasn’t watered down. The result has been an investment in 15 flagship stores called galleries. We visited their gallery in Seattles University Village – it was a totally inspirational and emotive experience. Unlike pretty much every other furniture store we’ve visited the last thing you were shown was the price – the idea being you’ve already fallen in love with the product that price just becomes a justification. They’re also due to open a store in Napa, they own a vineyard there so you can just imagine what the store is going to be like. Oh, and they’re also opening a hotel in partnership with Starwood in NYC (in the old Pastis location) – this is a business redefining the furniture market.

**Q4’16 to Q3’17

Starbucks Roastery and Tasting Room:
Global Sales FY17: US$22.4B; Comps: 3%; Stores: 26,696

I know you saw right, we included Starbucks in this list. In 2014, Starbucks opened a huge store (if you can call it that) in Pike Place, Seattle. It’s a roastery -where you can watch them roasting beans, a tasting room – a place to trial all different types of filters coffees, a wine bar – self explanatory, a bakery – run by cult baker Princi Milano and finally a gift store – but not your ordinary store instead it’s full of collaborations with local artist like recycled denim, art prints and even a reworking of the Starbucks logo from a local tattoo artist.

Overall it was so impressive. Not only was the presentation on brand but the decentralised model of having multiple ‘experience areas’ through out the store (aka bakery to one side, tasting room to the other, and another coffee area at the back of the store) means the whole site felt very busy not just one hot zone.

We think this is a great flagship store, designed to show that although Starbucks, although global and highly commerical, (still) care about coffee. It’s also a great tourist trap 🙂

FYI They’re due to replicate this in 2018 in NYC

University Village:

This is a shopping centre outside of Seattle city that is a bright spot in the whole discussion around the reduction in foot fall to malls. This centre goes to show that when you get the mix and experience right for the local community you can still, not just survive, but thrive.

This centre is outdoors (which is unusual) and made to feel like a village. Although this centre has been around since the 1950s It was developed by the chairman of QFC (Supermarket with 64 sites now owned by Kroger) and a partner as a part of Pine Street Capital. In contrast to other malls we’ve seen in the states this is interesting for a couple of reasons:
1. It’s not anchored by a department store and in fact there are no department stores on the site;
2. It’s 61% local retailers (you have to remember that Starbucks is a local in this case)
3. It’s heavily weighted towards specialists in homewares, food, cosmetics and athleisure (Restoration Hardware, Williams Sonoma, Pottery Barn, Nike, Sephora)
4. There’s no emphasis on fashion – there’s only really Anthropology, and Bonobos (men’s).
With sports/ athleisure dominating soft apparel.

Maybe the reduced emphasis on fashion is why this is working – this local community are big outdoorsy so athletic gear is more important than an H&M.

Amazon Books.
FY 16 Sales: US$136B; Sales increase: +27%

Although this store copped a lot of backlash from journo’s when it first open – namely for it’s lack of technology – it is quite possibly the best bookstore we’ve ever visited. It has less stock than your average store but it uses it’s sales data online to curate and predict the product that is right for that particular catchment. For example, in their Bellevue Store they had books that the area had read, and in the University Village location is was ones that area have read. Added to this the store is organised into categories like ‘if you read X you’ll love Y’ (using their online shopping data of what people who bought one book where likely to also buy), ‘top rated books on Amazon’, ‘celebrity picks’ etc. Added to this they feature a rating under each book with a review from Amazon.com. We could spend hours and hours in the store.

What’s important to understand about Books is it’s an acquisition tool for Amazon to grow it’s prime subscribers and sell Alexa enabled devices. Firstly, the store is cashless and requires you to have the Amazon app downloaded to see the pricing for any of the books (unless you find one of the terminals to check this in stores), added to that there is a discount on books etc if you have a Prime membership and finally there is a dedicated area in store just for Alexa and enabled devices like lights etc.

Finally it seems that they are trialling the store as a place for returns from items bought online. Stay tuned to see if this rolls out.

Amazon Fresh:

Ok last one we promise (jokes Amazons always doing stuff, so just the last one for this article). Amazon Fresh is the ultimate lazy persons experience to buying groceries. Let’s face it grocery shopping is one of the most boring things you can do – that’s why it’s called a chore. So what have Amazon done? Basically they’ve created a platform where you order through the app on your phone to pick up at an Amazon Fresh location (currently there are only 2), the app is GPS enabled so when you’re within a mile of the store the Amazon Fresh team are notified, you then drive up to a parking bay with license plate recognition and the team come out and puts your order in the car boot. And then you drive off!

What’s even more amazing is that you can get your order in as little as 15 minutes from app to pick up. This will be at least part of the future of grocery, as it plays to a fundamental human insight the fact that we have better things to do than go to a supermarket and also at our very core we’re build to be lazy (or save energy in the positive) it’s part of our wiring. That’s something that Amazon truely get and they work to reduce the effort taken to purchase with them – at it’s very core this is why they are so consumer-centric.


We could go on…if you’re interested in learning more we’re running a Big Breakfast in February to talk about our learnings. To attend email us at enquire@retailoasis.com

*If you want to take it one step further we’ll be running another retail tour next year to the US to get information email us at enquire@retailoasis.com


Author Pippa Kulmar

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