Would you like a gin and tonic? Perhaps a beer? Glass of wine? OK, please yourself. A couple of weeks ago the PR for a fashion brand, which has an admirable commitment to bricks-and-mortar retail and likes what we are doing to champion this cause, came by Midori House, Monocle’s HQ. And the big headline? As part of exciting plans to give its stores a boost, the brand is going to start serving shoppers with – wait for it – cocktails! The PR paused after delivering the big news. Was I supposed to applaud? Open a tab?
Now I like a drink, I like two drinks, but I have never thought, mid-jumper purchase, “Ooh, I could do with a piña colada.” And I am pretty sure that the sales assistant wouldn’t really be that excited about watching me knock back even a glass of wine while they are forced to make small talk – “Doing anything interesting this weekend?” To be frank I’d rather save any cocktail moments to share with friends (although I am not as harsh as our own Robert Bound, whose endless and baffling rules about dining include: only children should be allowed to have fruit juice after 10.00 and breakfast should only be shared with the person who you slept with the night before).
But there’s a lot of booze on offer in nice menswear shops and cool women’s boutiques at the moment. It’s “experiential”, you see, and marketing officers have decided that this is the word that offers the promise of salvation to the high street. Look, we all like the idea of fun and, if you have kids in tow, the chance to whoosh down a slide in the mall can be a deal-maker. But does the average short-on-time consumer really want to linger another 20 minutes while a drink is made for them?
You can see the extremes and the pitfalls of the experiential trend in the flagships of the major sports brands. They now only just merit the moniker “shop”. As you enter, some cheery youth smacks a football at you (yes, they do actually work here) and you feel immediately panicked in case you knock it back and smash a window. Then a DJ will be bringing the house down and drowning out your thoughts. You struggle to find the shoes you want so you ask Mr Keepie-Uppie where you should look – but he tells you that your best bet is to go the company website.
Over the past week we’ve been meeting people in the property world because the lease on our London HQ is up at the end of the year. And as they talk about the market and their insider knowledge of the shifting fortunes of the various sectors, you really worry for retail. London landlords, they tell you, are still demanding aggressive rents but, from Kings Cross to St James’s, the talk is of shops unable to meet the costs and being horribly short on foot traffic. They tell you of even the most ambitious brands refusing to take on overpriced units and headline-grabbing projects that are pulling in lacklustre numbers. It’s messy out there.
What is clear, however, is that the retail shake-out is going to continue. And it increasingly echoes what happened in the media industry, where newspaper and magazine houses shuttered, leaving a landscape in which success was shared among the smaller publishers that found a powerful, distinct audience; a handful of prestige newspaper groups that adapted to the new world; and the digital behemoths. So all is not lost. But it feels as though many retailers have yet to discover their own brand’s new formula for success.
And while experiential is getting talked up, the shops we see making money are like a good magazine: passionate about what they do, good at telling stories, carefully edited, both innovative and reliable, and confident of their brand values. And as for the mid-afternoon cocktails, we’ll let the landlords and retailers who are lost drown their sorrows.