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More Shoppers Gravitate Toward 'Brand Stories'


Yesterday, we kicked off a series of conversations guided by the wise words of Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Ebenezer Scrooge) I will live in the past, the present and the future. The spirits of all three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.

CORNISH: The lessons they teach, in this case about the time-honored activity of shopping. Yesterday, we explored the past, talking about the golden age of the department store; today, the present. Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan is here to talk about the latest trends in retail design and the retail experience. He's co-founder and CEO of the design and lifestyle website Apartment Therapy. Hi there, Maxwell.


CORNISH: So today, we see a lot of retail businesses that have both, stores with an online presence or increasingly some online stores that are now starting little brick-and-mortar pop-ups. But now that it's easy for us to make our purchases online, how has the function of the physical store changed?

GILLINGHAM-RYAN: Well, let me start by saying when I started in 2001 and then blogging in 2004, my job was to help people as an interior designer connect them to resources. And back then, most of the resources were stores. But when I was writing about them online, I would ask them if they had a website so that I could link to them. And most of the time, they didn't. And oftentimes, they get quite fussy about with it and say, well, we don't really want to have an online store. We really want people to come here and actually have an experience.

And I would say, well, that's great, but I can't get them there if I can't link to you, and it was a fight. And now in 2012, it's completely changed. Everybody really needs to have both.

CORNISH: One term that I've been hearing uttered in both fear and delight is the showroom, the store as just a place for people to come in, look and touch and then leave and buy elsewhere. Talk about that phenomenon.

GILLINGHAM-RYAN: Yeah. I think it's true. People love to go to the store, but they no longer feel any need to purchase in the store. So if they can just go to the store, sort through things, look at the thing that they're considering, whether it's a sofa or a bowl or whatever, and then they can go home, think about it and make the purchase online, I think they'd prefer to do that most of the time.

CORNISH: So how have retailers responded?

GILLINGHAM-RYAN: I think the store couldn't compete in terms of being a better place to transact business. But what it does a lot better is it tells the brand story, and it also provides service. And so stores have adapted to do those things really, really well. It's the ones that that are succeeding.

CORNISH: And to tackle one of those, what is a brand story?

GILLINGHAM-RYAN: A brand story, as I've learned over the last year, is the story of where something comes from. So in a very littered landscape where you have lots and lots of choices, lots of bowls, lots of cups, people get overwhelmed. And what they'd naturally gravitate towards is something which they can emotionally connect to. And they can emotionally connect to a story. A really great brand story would be a store like Anthropologie. If you close your eyes and you think: I wonder what - what does Anthropologie - if someone says Anthropologie, you close your eyes, most people know exactly what it looks like. They can close their eyes and see it. That is a successful brand moment.

CORNISH: And what's that story?

GILLINGHAM-RYAN: Well, the Anthropologie story - I'm not an Anthropologie shopper. It's a little bit more feminine, but it's romantic. It's not American. It's more European. It's more antique. It's sort of a previous era. It's a little long and flowy. It's colors but not modern colors, more vintage colors. So it has a sense of nostalgia.

CORNISH: And so the idea is you walk into the store and it's like somebody's house, right?


CORNISH: And they're trying to convince you to - that you want to be that person and buy everything in the house.


GILLINGHAM-RYAN: In a way, it's a lifestyle. You want to live this way. And, in fact, they're ready to do that for you. You can make - you could do your kitchen, your bedroom, your living room and all your clothes from Anthropologie, and you'd have an Anthropologie house.

CORNISH: How does this trend move across the kind of class strata of retailers? I mean, when I think of Apple or Anthropologie or J.Crew, the experience also feels kind of tony.



CORNISH: They didn't know if you're seeing it in other stores as well.

GILLINGHAM-RYAN: I think we're going to see it across all the stores. There's a trickle-down effect. When someone does really well, it doesn't matter if they do it at the top or the bottom, everyone else starts to follow suit. JCPenney is about to relaunch in the New Year a completely new in-store merchandising concept. They're going to change from being about JCPenney to being about these stores within stores or all these brands that have their own areas in the store. And you'll go into JCPenney but - and you'll go to the brand area, the Jonathan Adler area or the Martha Stewart area or the Conran area to be in their brand world to buy something. You'll no longer go, say, just to the bedding section and look at bedding across different brands.

CORNISH: Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan is co-founder and CEO of the website Apartment Therapy. Maxwell, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GILLINGHAM-RYAN: Thank you, Audie.


CORNISH: And tomorrow in our trip through the past, present and future of retail, we'll pull out the crystal ball and look at what is yet to come. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.