Does the digital origin of DTCs produce a specific approach toward physical stores?"

Leading up to the pandemic, the bedding brand Casper was in the midst of opening 200 stores across North America. It was among a number of direct-to-consumer (DTC) companies opening physical stores at a rapid pace. While many DTCs are reconsidering expansion plans, the DTC-to-brick-and-mortar trend will continue, as DTCs experience greater awareness and a surge in online sales in markets they open a physical location.

From the design of their stores to the purposes they serve, I’ve noticed commonalities in how DTCs treat brick-and-mortar. And I’ve wondered: Does the digital origin of DTCs produce a specific approach toward physical stores?

I found most DTC stores share an emphasis on product demonstration and prime location — and a shortage of personality. It’s like they applied their focus on user experience in the digital space to the physical one. But that strategy is fading in digital and it is in real life, too. As DTCs enter brick-and-mortar, they need to focus on improving shopper experience to enhance the opportunity for sales.

Side-by-Side Comparison

Let’s compare retail store neighbors in Boston’s Seaport District, one a brick-and-mortar native, one operated by a DTC brand. Before Filson, a heritage clothing brand that launched in 1897, opened its store in this location, Chief Creative Officer Alex Carleton scoured New England for unique antiques to fit Filson’s rugged, hip American aesthetic. The result is a quirky space with a larger-than-life wooden bear at the entrance that greets customers and dressing rooms that could be guest rooms at the Ace Hotel.

The Filson store is a great contrast to DTC retailer Away’s brick-and-mortar, which opened next door. Away is sparse, efficient, and transactional. It mainly encourages customers to test its flagship product, a well-designed suitcase. Similarly, the store opened by shoe brand Allbirds, famous for using wool, features wool swaths to touch and detailed explanations of the material’s benefits. Indochino, a menswear company, displays a wall of fabric swaths to exhibit color and variety. For these DTCs, product demonstration is paramount.

Advice and Opportunities 

DTC stores are often built around single products. This approach can feel contemporary in the online world but incomplete in the physical one, where even brands using the showroom model (with just a few sizes for each item) still offer a full line. Casper understands the value of a full line and expanded a while back from a single mattress to a spread of sleep-related products that fill its brick-and-mortar stores. It went even further as it recently prepared for an initial public offering, attempting to become “the Nike of sleep.” The retailer assembled a “sleep advisory board” and instituted internal policies to rally around quality sleep. While it faced an uphill battle in a competitive environment, this was the right play.

If you’re a DTC using this time to plan brick-and-mortar expansion, here are some ideas:

  • Pick your moment. If you don’t yet have a full product line, consider a pop-up store in a choice location first.
  • Let personality lead design. Dig into what makes your brand’s personality unique and reflect it in design. If your brand doesn’t have much personality, start by developing one.
  • Connect product to personality. Even functional elements should convey personality. Consider how Apple’s genius bar took what historically was a routine service and made it a branded centerpiece that embodies the brand’s charisma.
  • Think big and small. What makes Filson’s Seaport store impressive isn’t just the things you first see like the big bear. It’s the details like dressing room fixtures and antiques that unveil themselves the more time you spend in the store.

If product-first DTCs aspire to last more than a century like Filson has, they should use brick-and-mortar locations to help shoppers to get to know them and not just their products. Personality signals a company’s identity and purpose. It also helps foster customer relationships, which will be key in weathering this storm and others ahead.

Benjamin Y. Seldin
Strategy Director
AMP Agency

Benjamin joined AMP Agency in 2019. He has worked in advertising agencies as a brand and creative strategist for the past 10 years.

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