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Inside the Stores Shaping the Future of Brick and Mortar Retail

The online shopping revolution has irrevocably changed the way brands and retailers use their physical spaces.

Filson's New York City store features reclaimed Douglas fir, sourced from an 1850s barn once housed on a fourth-generation family-run cattle ranch in Ashland, Oregon. | Filson

From Issue Seven of Gear Patrol Magazine.

It’s hard to remember now, almost a decade after it was founded, but Aether‘s first physical store wasn’t a shop. At least not in the traditional sense. It was a trailer. When the brand started offering minimalist technical apparel in 2009, it sold its wares through a few wholesale accounts and on its website. But then, after a couple of years of growth, the time came to find a way to reach new audiences. So its founders, Jonah Smith and Palmer West, customized an Airstream, dubbed it the “Aetherstream” and started towing it around America. “Our initial approach was this mobile pop-up store that could go around the country and not look like a typical pop-up,” Smith said.

The success of the Aetherstream led to stand-alone stores: one in a traditional building in New York and another in San Francisco, where instead of using standard construction techniques, the brand stacked three shipping containers on top of each other to house its clothing. “We transitioned into our own store at the same time we transitioned out of traditional wholesale accounts,” West said. “We found that if we could present our story, we could dramatically outperform what our hundred-and-some-odd wholesale accounts were doing for us.” These physical locations gave the brand a chance to share its design ethos, contextualizing the clothing in the process. “If you like our stores, you’re probably going to like our clothes,” West said.

Aether is one of a handful of brands changing guys’ perceptions of going shopping — and it’s part of a small class of stores doing that without adding too many superfluous details to the shopping experience.


Aether’s San Francisco store is made up of shipping containers stacked on top of each other.

“There’s a certain integrity that a brand should maintain,” said Garen Barsegian, the 32-year-old founder of New York’s Whooden Collective, a multidisciplinary creative firm that creates content for media companies, agencies and brands. “The idea of adding extra things to stores is a marketer’s idea or an accountant’s idea — those are the wrong people to be making choices like that for a brand.” While some features add to the product experience and can help shopping decisions — like treadmills in the Nike store — others don’t. “Would I go to the Nike store to play basketball? No,” Barsegian said.

And he would know. In his line of work, Barsegian has to look his best — and think deeply about how to help brands attract new customers while keeping current ones interested. But because he frequently works twelve-hour days, he has to limit how much time he spends in physical stores. “I want to make life as easy as possible,” he said. “For things that are high-dollar-amount items that require you to feel and to touch, I prefer to go into the store. Once you have your favorites, it’s easy to just reorder [online].”

It’s part of why he does a portion of his shopping at Mr Porter. “It’s nice when you can have something same-day messengered to your office. You can try it on, you don’t have to think about it and then they take it away,” he said. That ease makes it all the more challenging to get guys into stores.

“If someone comes into your space, and they feel good, they’re going to want to come back and spend time in there.”

“The most important thing is that it’s quick, it’s instinctive,” said Toby Bateman, the Managing Director for Mr Porter. “When we look at the journey the customer takes on-site, it’s got to be really simple.” When Mr Porter launched in 2011, it was one of the first e-commerce sites dedicated to men’s clothing. It was able to tap into the resources of The Net-a-Porter Group, its female-centric parent company, to offer an unparalleled user experience with great service, an intuitive interface, personalized packaging and inspiring on-site content. The brand offers a staggering array of clothing from high-end luxury brands to accessible casual brands and, most importantly, launches new products three times a week.

“Physical stores don’t tend to launch new products every week,” Bateman said. “They get a delivery at the beginning of the season, they put all the stock out on the shop floor and they merchandise it.” The rolling release process is integral to Mr Porter’s success and has created a new way for men to think about clothing. “That has caused a seismic shift in the way that men approach shopping,” he said. “It’s gone from being traditionally a need-based activity for a lot of men, to men now getting really engaged in clothing.”

It’s a change that’s led shoppers to expect even more from the physical stores they visit. Before starting at Mr Porter in 2010, Bateman worked in department stores for 15 years, watching the industry evolve with the rise of e-commerce. “I think there’s more interesting product, it’s more dynamic,” he said. “There are more opportunities to be individual and to make a statement for your own particular style and to have the freedom and the resources to help you develop that style.”


Filson’s New York City store was thoughtfully filled with art, artifacts and materials from the Pacific Northwest, where the brand was founded.

With online stores offering an incredible assortment of products and unparalleled service, what’s the purpose and the function of physical stores today? It’s a question that’s more pressing than ever before. In April of 2018, CoStar Group, a leading tracker of commercial real estate, reported that retailers in the United States had closed 77 million square feet of store space, priming the industry to set a new record for store closures. (In total, 2017 saw 105 million square feet close.)

But there’s a bright spot in the style space. Brands that sell clothing realize that stores can no longer just be places where you make a transaction. They’re important stages where brands and retailers can tell their stories and help their products stand apart — and make the argument that they’re more in tune with you than their competitors. And as a result, more thought is going into store design and experience than ever before: brands are commissioning local artists for interiors and are integrating cafés, bars and barbershops to further cater to customer needs. While this shake-up in the market creates an interesting challenge for businesses, it’s overwhelmingly positive for male consumers.

Under the leadership of its chief creative director Alex Carleton, Seattle-based Filson has overhauled its in-store experiences. “It would be a very different experience to go to Yellowstone and stay in a modern white box brought to you by Marriott, as opposed to staying in the Old Faithful Inn.” he said. “That’s how we looked at creating retail for Filson. We wanted to create spaces that reflected the quality and the heritage and the history of the brand.”

“Going into a store, trying a garment on, feeling it, seeing how it fits you — that’s an emotional experience.”

In 2015, Filson opened its flagship store in Seattle, a soaring space with a vaulted ceiling supported by massive wooden beams. The unique space, opened to coincide with the brand’s 120th anniversary, feels more like a modern hunting lodge than a place where you’d go to buy a briefcase.

Following that success, Filson opened a New York City flagship this fall. “I can safely say it will not look like any other place in New York City,” Carleton vowed. And he might be right. After all, how many other stores use reclaimed Douglas fir, sourced from an 1850s barn once housed on a fourth-generation family-run cattle ranch in Ashland, Oregon, in their entryways? Featuring traditional wood joinery, the seven and a half tons of reclaimed barn wood is complemented by art from Pacific Northwest artists Aleph Geddis, Alexis Hilliard, David Fjeld and Jeffrey Samudosky. The 6,000 square-foot, two-story store includes a ground-floor men’s department complete with a bar. There’s another bar, as well as a sitting room, in the women’s department on the mezzanine level.

“We don’t reference other retail stores,” Carleton said. “We reference museums, we reference galleries, we reference parks, we reference recreational sites. We reference everything but retail.”

The focus on a unique experience that is not derivative of other shops is key to the brand’s success as it continues to plan other flagship stores in major cities. As Filson forges ahead in the digital generation, Carleton continues to champion the brand’s deep history, creating distinctive experiences for customers. “I think too many retailers are focused on trying to be all things to all people, and we absolutely are not that brand,” he said. “And I think in today’s market, when everything is available, really the only thing you have is your own personality.”

Though Filson is drawing on a rich history, the goal is something far less tangible. “We’re focusing on the feeling of the space as opposed to just the metrics of the space,” said Carlton. “If somebody comes into your space and they feel good, and the people are personable, and the energy is right, and the character of the place is great, you’re going to want to come back and you’re going to want to spend time in there,” he said.

“You’re going to want to connect with the brand,” Carleton added, “and the way you connect is by walking out with something in your hand.”


Warby Parker’s first store feels more like a fun library than an antiseptic optical shop.

Or, alternatively, by going into a store and letting a sales associate place an online order for you, to be delivered to your home or office later. That’s the way it works at Warby Parker. The eight-year-old direct-to-consumer eyewear brand was founded as an e-commerce operation. And while you can still buy its glasses online, it now has 75 physical stores across the United States and Canada.

“I think we surprised a lot of people when we started opening stores,” said Warby Parker cofounder and co-CEO David Gilboa. “At the time, there was this perception that e-commerce was really the wave of the future and that all physical retail was going away.” But the idea to open brick-and-mortar came from customer demand. People wanted a chance to try different frames and have face-to-face conversations about prescriptions and optics. “We’ve seen really great synergy between having a great online presence and a great off-line presence,” Gilboa said. “When we open a store in a new market, we see an immediate spike in [online] sales in that geography and a sustained elevated lift in sales in those cities.”

Warby Parker made a conscious choice to showcase the brand’s wide range of affordable eyewear in a nontraditional setting. “When you walk into one of our stores, you’ll immediately notice it looks nothing like a typical optical shop,” Gilboa said. “Instead of having our frames behind lock-and-key in cases, we have all our frames out on open library shelves.” The brand merges elements of online efficiency within a physical space, and in-store advisors utilize customers’ past shopping history to offer optimal service.

With plans to open another 15 retail stores by the end of 2018, Gilboa is confident about the future of brick-and-mortar retail. “There’s always going to be a desire for humans to interact with other humans,” he said. “Our goal is to make sure that we have a product and experience that is convenient and engaging, and it also has to be integrated with our online experience.”


One half of Unionmade’s San Francisco store is dedicated to tried-and-true staples, while the other features more experimental clothing

But it’s not only online start-ups that are finding success in this new landscape. San Francisco’s Unionmade, founded in 2009, is one of a group of smaller multi-brand retailers that have managed to keep their doors open, and that’s largely due to a focus on its customers’ needs.

“We have a really strong brick-and-mortar business because we have a differentiated experience that’s being offered,” said cofounder Todd Barket, who attributed that strength to loyal customers from before Unionmade offered e-commerce. After spending 20 years at Gap as the head of visual merchandising, Barket created a store that merchandised its products around ideas, presenting different points of view and a mix of well-made brands. The store’s inventory has evolved over the past decade from an assortment of denim-centric heritage brands to include a number of complementary contemporary designers. And following a recent renovation, these newer styles are displayed in their own part of the store.

“I think there are people who have moved beyond denim and button-down oxford shirts and t-shirts who want something even more unique or more interesting,” Barket said. “I wear a sweatshirt so I shop both sides [of the store], but I may want a weird drop-crotch wrap chino pant from Prospective Flow. We’re all about mixing everything.”

“There’s always going to be a desire for humans to interact with other humans.”

Unionmade built its own e-commerce store in 2011 after numerous requests from customers. The site promotes the brand’s point of view with a much wider customer base, and in hand with social media, strengthens the overall business. “I’m convinced that if we didn’t have online, our brick-and-mortar business wouldn’t be what it is,” Barket said.

But for him, there’s a major point of difference between e-commerce and brick-and-mortar. “Going to a store, trying a garment on, feeling it, seeing how it fits you — I think that’s an emotional experience,” he said. “I think shopping online is something out of convenience; it’s like checking boxes and kind of getting things done.”

But for many growing brands trying to gain new customers, traditional storefronts with long-term leases don’t seem like a strong investment. In 2017, Aether began experimenting with a temporary modular store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The set-up consists of dressing rooms, full-length mirrors, tables, checkouts, shelves, racks and displays, all of which fits into a Sprinter van. “It gives us the flexibility and the ability to be in front of a new group of people in a quicker period of time without the financial commitment of a traditional store,” Smith said. Along with a five- or ten-year leases, retail stores normally require costly interior construction before opening for business. Aether finds short-term leases and circumvents initial build-out costs with its modular system. “We can paint a space and be selling clothes within forty-eight hours,” Smith said.

The modular store was so popular that Aether has plans to use another similar system on the West Coast. “This is a way that we can try neighborhoods, cities, areas where there’s a group of people coming that might not be familiar with the brand,” Smith said. “And one of the big jobs of retail these days is to get in front of people so they know what the brand is.” The success of Aether’s modular store has proven that beautiful design and flexible spaces aren’t mutually exclusive, which creates exciting possibilities for the future of retail in underserved markets across the country.

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