Clothing Stores Are Apparently Trying to Become More Like ‘Community Hubs’

Retailers are rethinking the shopping experience for post-pandemic consumers, but did we ask for this?

Clothing Stores Are Apparently Trying to Become More Like ‘Community Hubs’
Photo:Andrew Toth (Getty Images)

Long gone for me are the days when it seemed appealing to linger in a clothing store. Even before the pandemic, I was a no-fuss shopper: Get in, try on, purchase (or not), and get out.

And so it’s a bit difficult for me to wrap my head around the idea that it might be desirable to spend hours in a store, especially if there’s no actual shopping involved. Nonetheless, that appears to be the aim of a number of clothing stores and retailers, which reportedly plan to turn their locations into something more closely resembling a “community hubs.”

This was the takeaway of a professional summit hosted by the trade publication Business of Fashion called “What Is a Store For?” According to panelists—a BoF senior correspondent, a real estate developer, and the co-founder of a popular streetwear brand—if retailers want to survive, it’s become increasingly vital that they turn their stores into places where there is something to do besides buying things. (Even though encouraging customers to spend is, of course, the end goal.)

“To just get [your customer base] to go and sit on the lawn, read a book, or have a coffee in a courtyard, I think you create much deeper bonds and deeper loyalty,” Samantha David, president of WS Development, the real estate company, told BoF. “The people I know wake up every morning and they think, What am I going to do today, not necessarily What am I going to buy today. So, we want to respond to that need.”

It makes sense that this conversation is happening now. With the pandemic forcing stores to rely that much more on online sales for revenue, retailers have to justify holding onto their physical locations, and give customers a reason to return. And though it may sound improbable at first—stores as community spaces?—it also isn’t unsurprising that this is the solution at which experts have arrived.

If you’ve stepped into a Glossier showroom before, if you’ve witnessed hoards of micro-influencers “doing things” at Outdoor Voices fitness events, you have experienced retailers’ subtle turn toward “community.” It is a plausible strategy for a generation of consumers who so value self-branding; the acquisition of things is a way we make our identities legible to other people. (And of course it fits right into the long-held belief that millennials prefer “experiences” to things.)

This is what we call lifestyle, and though it’s not new, the expression of it has evolved. “If lifestyle as a pattern of thought and behavior and lifestyle as a matter of consumer taste were once separate, they are now one,” wrote Daisy Alioto last year in her essay “What Is Lifestyle?” “The contemporary definition of lifestyle is propped up by the unprecedented visibility of things on social media, making individual consumption more public than ever before.” A lifestyle, Alioto argues, is “created when it is described.” And so retailers are trying to give customers a story to tell about themselves.

Most of us participate in this logic every day without thinking too hard about it. But it can be jarring to see it spelled out by the people who seek to interpellate us. True community spaces, after all, are so rare—it’s a depressing prospect to see them being coopted by companies trying to sell us things.

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