When you walk into the Madison Avenue Bonobos, don’t expect to walk out with anything.
Sure, you can try on a pair of pants, or about a dozen different gingham work shirts, but when you pick your favorite, there’s no cashier to ring up your purchase, no line to stand in, nor shopping bags to haul it home.
Instead, Joshua Jones—you call him Josh—swipes your card on his iPad and offers you a bottle of Perrier “for the road.” If you’re not in a rush, he’ll help you rank Jessica Alba movies, or chat about your upcoming vacation. Within a few days, your clothes will arrive at home, shipped from a warehouse in Massachusetts.
Josh isn’t a sales associate. He’s what the upstart menswear company deems a “guide.” He knows the intricacies of menswear intimately (style, fit, comfort), and has a client book of regulars who trust his taste. On a recent weekday afternoon, he convinced Phil, a new customer, to try on a pair of olive trousers he ended up buying. After Phil rushed out the door to make a business meeting, Josh made a mental note to follow up with him by email to make sure there’s no buyer’s remorse.
“I make it easy for them,” Josh says. “People say all the time, ‘I hate shopping. You made this enjoyable.’ ”
Josh doesn’t work on commission. When he hands you that sparkling water, remembers your kid’s name, or waves to you through the store window, it feels sincere. At past retail jobs, employers encouraged him to upsell constantly, and to adhere to strict styling guidelines. Here, things are a little different.
Bonobos is a newcomer to the brick-and-mortar game and is betting on a new trend called “experience shopping,” a catchall term that has come to define physical spaces that seek an emotional connection with their customers, and a relationship that goes beyond a fitting-room handoff and debit card swipe.
As industry giants move their operations online, shuttering stores and shedding thousands of employees, Bonobos and other brands that offer experience shopping are taking the opposite approach. The company started as an e-commerce men’s pants store in 2007 and branched into physical spaces five years later, adding suits, dress shirts, and other clothes that cost about the same as those at any retailer that targets the upper middle class. But while a dress shirt at Bonobos will run you about $98, just like a shirt at J. Crew, the retail climate for those two brands has been radically different. This year, as J. Crew, loaded with debt, announced closings and staff layoffs, Bonobos announced a string of new stores. Today there are 44 physical “guideshops” in the U.S. and about 300 guides.
For Josh, this job isn’t just a paycheck or a placeholder for more meaningful work. At 25 years old, he wants to manage his own brand one day. When he first interviewed at Bonobos, the general manager who hired him asked about his five-year plan.
“I was kind of shocked,” Josh recalls. “And then he said, ‘I want to help you get there.’”
Josh’s story might seem a little strange. Eight years after the recession, charismatic college graduates aren’t supposed to be working in retail—and they’re definitely not supposed to like working in retail.
And yet, as these jobs teeter on the brink of what pundits have dubbed the “retail apocalypse,” Josh and a fleet of new, energetic employees are taking up the fight.
Together, they’re challenging everything you think you know about shopping.
It’s no secret that the rise of e-commerce has left a stain on traditional retail. In the past year alone, a laundry list of once-thriving shopping mall staples like Payless, Toys “R” Us, and Wet Seal have led for bankruptcy. Other iconic brands that shaped fashion in the ’90s and ’00s, like American Apparel and the Limited, have shut down in-store operations for good.
Brick-and-mortar jobs are also disappearing: In the first nine months of 2017, layoffs at department stores like Macy’s and J.C. Penney led to the loss of more than 70,000 jobs, according to the outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas.
Delivery from Amazon Prime can now fetch your coffee beans, tampons, dog treats, printer ink, Ziploc bags, daily vitamins, and tube socks in a matter of days, if not hours—and can be scheduled on a self-reliant loop. If you live in a major metropolitan area, FreshDirect, Boxed, and Seamless will gladly handle your grocery, toiletry, and takeout needs. And companies like Netflix and Spotify provide endless, on-demand entertainment. So why would you stand in an exceedingly long line, spar with a quick-tempered cashier, or wander aimlessly around a megastore if you no longer have to?
For physical retailers, it’s not enough to have things anymore, experts say. Now you need an experience—a convenience, activity, or ambiance—to rope people in.
“There’s been a lot of fear that retail is on the decline,” says Andrew Chamberlain, Glassdoor’s chief economist. “What’s happening instead is a shift. People are still going into the brick-and-mortar stores that feel good to be in, and where you can expect to find a person to help you navigate a complicated product space.”
Retailers that are thriving, Chamberlain says, have learned the not-so-secret formula for winning over an audience spoiled for choice: a strong e-commerce presence to snag online sales, paired with an in-store experience to keep them coming back.
You may have noticed what’s called the “omni-channel strategy” trickling into the places you already shop. Sportswear giants Adidas and Nike have recently unveiled massive, immersive retail experiences, with basketball courts, treadmills, and soccer practice zones. Outdoor activewear brand REI has outfitted stores with rock-climbing walls and has added mobile offerings like hiking-trail apps and instructional videos for the gear it sells. Last year, as competitors’ sales dipped, REI announced record revenues.
At Sephora, a makeup behemoth that has long embraced experience shopping, stores function like massive test labs, where customers (“clients”) try on hundreds of makeup and skin-care brands, and consultants (“cast members”) mosey around to demonstrate as needed. Employees don’t need a ton of beauty expertise to work at Sephora, but they do need some digital fluency—enough to school customers in its expanding range of digital tools.
“We know the lines are blurring,” says Karalyn Smith, senior vice president of human resources at Sephora. “We’re embracing every way the client wants to interact with us, and equipping our cast members in the store to be a part of that.”
Most important, Smith says, Sephora’s employees need to be emotionally intelligent and know how to create a “human experience” in this increasingly digital space.
For new entrants to the retail space, baking experience shopping into a business plan is a no-brainer.
Many of them, like clothing retailer Everlane and prescription- glasses company Warby Parker, opened physical locations after growing a customer base online first. Their physical stores share a renewed faith in that warm and fuzzy, the-customer-is-always-right mentality that Mom and Pop figured out ages ago. And they’re making sure every hire you interact with reflects that.
“Roles are changing,” says Jane Greenthal, a senior design strategist focused on the retail industry at the design and consulting firm Gensler. “It’s a different skill set. Employees aren’t just there to stock merchandise; they’re building relationships.”
If ghost malls and empty parking lots point to a tragic end for apparel retail, Rent the Runway exists in a parallel universe.
In its New York City flagship store, color-coded formalwear and airy fitting rooms fill 6,000 square feet of prime Manhattan real estate. On a recent weekday afternoon, it was buzzing with activity.
“This is nothing,” says 26-year-old Luisa Orozco, one of four store managers. Before it opened at 9 a.m., there was a line of about a dozen women waiting to get in, she says. “You should have seen it at lunchtime.”
Rent the Runway is an omni-channel pioneer: The company launched in 2009 as an online destination for designer- dress rentals and branched into physical stores in 2013. In 2016 it added a subscription service that lets customers rent a rotating closet of designer clothes for $139 a month, and in October it introduced a new tier that lets them rent four pieces for $89 a month.
For all its Pinterest-perfect accoutrements (blush-pink accents, jewelry arranged like artifacts), the shop is surprisingly comfortable—staff and customers chat like girlfriends in a beauty salon or at a neighborhood bar. For special occasions, they meet with stylists in private appointment rooms, mingling with other maids of honor, job seekers, and prom dates to be.
“It’s kind of like Cheers,” says CEO Jennifer Hyman. “Everybody knows your name.”
Hyman likens Rent the Runway’s brick-and-mortar outposts to mini community centers. At the San Francisco location, regulars use the store as a coworking space, dropping by in the morning and huddling around marble communal tables for hours, she says.
From a hiring perspective, that’s an important distinction. You can’t fake community with apathetic college students. So when the company hires, it looks for applicants who have worked intimately with customers in the past, usually in hospitality roles at hotel concierge desks, fine restaurants, and cult-favorite fitness studios like SoulCycle.
Rent the Runway also looks for employees who are gifted conversationalists, judicious, and patient. Compared with other brands, employee turnover is low. The majority of managers have been with their stores since they opened, including the entire managerial team in Washington, D.C., Hyman says.
Orozco, who worked as a celebrity stylist before joining Rent the Runway, has been with the company for four years—a year longer than the average retail employee stays at her job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. She’s already got more responsibility than managers in similar posts, helping the executive team suss out which marketing, sales, and service strategies work for New York customers. She even draws career maps for the stylists who work in her store.
On all levels, experience-shopping venues tend to pay better than traditional retail stores. At Bonobos, employees like Josh (experienced nonmanagers, or “lead guides”) make an average of $17 an hour, and new guides make an average of $15 an hour, according to a company spokeswoman. Benefits, too, are abundant: Bonobos offers nearly unlimited vacation, maternity and paternity leave, and an annual team-building retreat for full-time employees.
Glassdoor data shows that the average wage for entry-level sales associates at other experience stores, like Warby Parker, is about the same as Bonobos’. Compared with Glassdoor estimates for stores like Gap($10 an hour) and Macy’s ($9 an hour), and the BLS national average for sales associates ($12 an hour), it’s clear these brands are willing to pay a premium for talent.
“They have to be a good listener, a good problem solver,” Glassdoor’s Chamberlain says. “Skills that go beyond scanning an item. That’s definitely valuable today.”
Brick-and-mortar retail has been moving in this direction for years. When was the last time you saw an empty seat at Apple’s Genius Bar? Or a deserted Trader Joe’s checkout line?
Like any industry shift, there are growing pains. Rent the Runway tried an accessories- focused subscription service that never left beta. The company also went through staff shake-ups and lost several of its executives; it became profitable in 2016.
Sustainability is another constant concern for the omni-channel. Companies with e-commerce origins may be better equipped to compete with Amazon than traditional brands, but there’s no guarantee the retail behemoth won’t scoop up their customers anyway. Amazon already has its sights set on the fashion industry: Prime Wardrobe, a subscription clothing service, is currently in the works.
But perhaps the biggest tell is coming to Walmart.
In the past two years, America’s largest private employer—long plagued by a bad customer service reputation and consistent reports of low wages—has spent $2.7 billion on training programs designed to improve how employees interact with customers. It has also raised wages: The average pay for nonmanagerial full-time employees is now $13.85, up 17% from three years ago.
“The human touch becomes a competitive differentiator,” says Walmart spokesman Ravi Jariwala.
Over the past year, Walmart has doubled down on the experience philosophy.
This spring, the company tapped Rent the Runway cofounder Jenny Fleiss to oversee a tech startup it’s calling Code Eight, a project from a Walmart- backed tech incubator rumored to revolve around highly personalized shopping. A few months later, Walmart announced it had acquired Bonobos and named its CEO Andy Dunn senior vice president of digital consumer brands.
For longtime Bonobos customers, the Walmart buyout was predictably contentious.
Josh, though, isn’t stressed. He suspects the merger will only lead to more personal career growth. Plus, he’s got too much going on to think about that right now—like that follow-up email to Phil.