Showrooming, With Heart

A look at retail trends heating up in 2014.

Verizon Store at Mall of America

The future of retail looks a lot like a Verizon store. Yes, you heard me now. Just before the holidays, Verizon debuted a nearly 10,000-square-foot “destination store”—the first of its kind—at Mall of America. It’s a store designed around possibility rather than product. There’s a DJ turntable where you can try out headphones, a treadmill to test-drive fitness wristbands, and a panoramic screen that visitors can control with hand motions and use to make animated short videos that are immediately sent to their phones. From a store experience perspective, it makes Apple seem almost monotonous.

“This is not about finding a phone,” Verizon Wireless chief operating officer Marni Walden told reporters on opening day. “This is about helping customers find what works best. It’s an evolution from retail to service.” The store staffs 71 red-sweater-clad employees. Their untraditional training included sessions with DJs, athletes, and leaders in other key fields to learn more about how they use technology.

This is “showrooming” at its best, as retailers begin to embrace the phenomenon they feared would be their demise: customers browsing in stores before ordering from amazon.com. I talked to Verizon execs who said their consumer research shows that very few shoppers are purely in-store or online. We do it all. So if a retailer can wow customers with an environment like the new Verizon store, have knowledgeable sales associates on hand, and add instant gratification experiences—like a station to customize smartphone covers with personal photos on the spot—then people will have reason to linger, to buy, and to come back again.

Here are a couple of other retail trends likely to influence our shopping this year:

Entertainment at the mall. MOA wrote the playbook on combining commerce and entertainment, and it continues to evolve. In addition to the expansion underway just north of the mall, a 65,000-square-foot center for rotating exhibits will open this spring on the third floor of the former Bloomingdale’s space. When the department store left two years ago, the mall earmarked that area of the Southeast Court for discount retail. Instead, Barbie—The Dreamhouse Experience is moving in. It’s a 30,000-square-foot interactive exhibit that will cost $23.99 per person to visit.

Outlets in the city. Gone are the days of outlet centers being located on the outskirts of town. Brands used to require a certain distance between discount and full-priced stores. The new thinking is that much like we shop online and still go to stores, the same consumers shop outlets and major malls. Both can build brand loyalty. Still, it will be interesting to see if MOA feels a pinch when some of its closest shoppers have a new, more convenient option in their backyard. Saks Off Fifth, Cole Haan, J.Crew, Michael Kors, and Nike are among the stores slated for the Eagan outlet center. It’s a promising lineup, yet it’s B-list compared to the luxury outlet center that opened a few months ago near O’Hare Airport just outside Chicago (fashionoutletsofchicago.com) with Gucci, Tory Burch, and Prada. But then, we haven’t managed to land a Zara store yet, either.