Observation | Monocle

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The shop floor is as good a place as any to gauge how the economy’s doing, so to mark the end of the first quarter 2010 we embarked on a tour to see how the world’s retail and service sector is coping. While the international financial dailies brought tales of woe from department stores, online retailers and mom’n’pop shops for most of last year, there were also a number of bright spots across pretty much every retail segment. Just as the saggy economy brought about a more speedy end for those retailers that were already on life-support, it also forced others to rethink their marketing plans, service schemes, product mix and design philosophy.

Last April we focused our coverage on the state of service in the retail industry and highlighted the firms we felt were nailing it in their respective markets. This year we decided to broaden our search and have identified 25 personalities, concepts and operators that offer inspiration through their curatorial approach to buying, clever design and unflinching commitment to sticking to one product and never compromising on quality.

In Auckland we toured an emporium that’s rethought the concept of the department store and rescaled and remixed it for Kiwi tastes. In New York we lingered among the shelves of a much-loved Chelsea bookstore and spoke to its owners about their method for selecting titles. And all over Tokyo we found shops, restaurants and salons we wish we’d either thought of first or had on our doorstep.

Unfortunately there are too many pockets of the retail sector that seem to be mirroring newspapers in their approach to the physical, bricks and mortar experience versus the digital. In short, they’ve given up on trying to be shopkeepers and have restyled themselves as logisticians.

On a recent visit to Honolulu I popped into a branch of Borders in search of a copy of Dean Sakamoto’s book on the work of architect Vladimir Ossipoff. Charmless interior aside, the store seemed to be running on auto-pilot. When I eventually tracked down a sales assistant to help with my hunt and was told the book wasn’t in stock I was ushered over to a dusty computer terminal and told to order the title myself. In three very short steps any hope of a relationship with the company was instantly severed. Out of politeness I clattered around on the keyboard for a few seconds and then made for the door.

Twelve hours later I was visiting Bonjour Records in Tokyo’s Daikanyama district and gently swaying to the music thumping out of the speakers. At the cash till I spied a small stand displaying the disc that was spinning and went to find it on the shelf. By the time I found it and approached the desk the disc had changed and something equally catchy was rattling the walls. The sales girl recognised my interest in this new track and trotted out from behind the cash desk and walked me over to the appropriate section for the featured artist. As I made my way back to the cash till another infectious tune had been popped into the deck and by this point the sales girl already had the album at the ready. This game went on for the better part of 15 minutes and by the time I left the shop my wallet was ¥70,000 (roughly $700) lighter but my music collection that much richer.

Bonjour had done everything Borders hadn’t – the environment was welcoming, the staff engaged and the selection pitch perfect. Moreover, I had spent more money in one session than I’ve spent online since iTunes launched. Just as some newspapers have cut their print offer to the point that they no longer need to switch on the press let alone offer a web edition, too many retailers have neglected their shops to the point that you’d neither cross their threshold nor seek them out online.

As we gear up to the launch of our first shop in Asia, we guarantee this won’t be the case with Monocle. Our investment in our core business (journalism) is increasing while we’re committed to offering superior customer service when we open on Tokyo’s Aoyama-dori at the end of May. If you’d like an invitation to the launch party or have any comments drop me (tb@monocle.com) or my assistant Alex Mills (ajm@monocle.com) a note. Thank you for your input and support.
For more from our editor-in-chief, read his column in the FT Weekend

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