Fashion Briefing: What a convenience store on steroids can teach brands about physical retail 

In this week’s briefing:

What a convenience store on steroids can teach brands about physical retail 

Since opening its first location in October 2020, Wally’s has worked to make every aspect of its retail stores a draw, down to their restrooms. Ambitious for a convenience store, yes, but it’s paying off. 

At a time when brands are navigating how to amplify their story, build affinity among customers and make their physical stores worthy of the trip, Wally’s has managed to crack the code in a matter of months. At the same time, it’s gone against the grain, in terms of the current playbook of more traditional retailers: It has yet to invest in paid marketing or e-commerce, and, for now, it’s not exactly “meeting the customer where they are.” Its second location — opened in a suburb of St. Louis in March 2022 — is decidedly a destination, with its closest neighboring business being an Amazon warehouse. However, its target road trippers are catching on. Some TikTokers have mentioned they like stopping there while en route to a nearby Six Flags.

TikTok has certainly fueled the Wally’s buzz. Most of the #wallys-tagged videos that have attracted 1.6 million views feature documented visits to one of the company’s two locations, with people spotlighting the external signage, doing viral dances in-store while wearing branded merchandise and zooming in on outside-the-box elements. As such, many people who have never stepped foot into a Wally’s know that it houses a full wall of packaged jerky options, 60 fountain soda flavors, 72 gas pumps and plenty of branded merch, among other unique features. 

They also know that a 1970s or ’80s family road trip is what the brand is all about. 

The fact that most everything nostalgic is currently resonating with Gen Z is purely coincidental, according to company execs. “We don’t really pay attention to TikTok,” said Andy Strom, Wally’s chief experience officer. “But people are interacting with the brand a lot on Instagram Stories.”

Along with Strom, Ben Balvanz, the company’s creative director, is behind its branding, which includes providing QA around the authenticity of across-the-board elements. Their great attention to detail and prioritization of “unexpected delight at every turn,” as Strom put it, has been key to the company’s success out of the gate. 

“We want the generation [of people who were] kids in the ’80s, and now have kids of their own and are going on road trips, to say, ‘Oh, my gosh. I totally remember these,” Balvanz said. 

Merch sales are a big revenue driver for the company. All 20 of its top-selling products are items created by Strom and Balvanz. Among the 200 products they’ve developed from scratch are more than 60 T-shirt designs comprising three lines: those with Wally’s branding, those referencing its Route 66-based locations, and “Pop Life by Wally’s,” splashed with cultural and local references. A tee with an image of a mosquito reads, “Missouri state bird.” Depending on the store location, “St. Louis” or “Pontiac,” located in Illinois, is stamped on a large percentage of the merch. 

Branded apparel by companies living far beyond the fashion space has caught on, with Dunkin’ Donuts now selling bow ties and Taco Bell recently collaborating with luggage company Calpak. Five Guys launched hoodies and acid-washed tees just this week. In January, L’Officiel declared branded merch “the new symbol of luxury.”

But it’s the products by local companies that are both nostalgic and known primarily by locals that have the real cool factor. Last year, The Cut coined this trend “Zizmorecore,” after New York dermatologist Dr. Jonathan Zizmor. He was locally well-known in the ’80s and ’90s due to his excessive advertising on TV and subways. In Australia, the category has become known as hospobilia. Totes from Zabar’s, the grocer on NYC’s Upper West Side, fit the bill. In March, Coach tapped into the trend by teaming with Zabar’s on a leather version of its iconic style.

I recently reached out to Ben O’Meara, head of marketing at menswear retailer Huckberry, to inquire about his own passion for merch from small local companies. Days prior, he had posted to Instagram Stories about his addiction to buying caps from small businesses in his home state of Maine. “I have quite the collection,” he said. “I [just] opened my most recent eBay shipment — it’s some oyster farm vintage trucker hat I bought from a guy in Maine.”  

On that note, Wally’s has come out with 60 hat designs, in silhouettes from trucker to university-style. A “mechanics’ hat,” available with a “Wally’s” or “Midwest” patch at the crown, calls to mind a style by apparel brand Seager that was featured in Huckberry’s customer email on Thursday. 

As stated in the sections below, there’s increasing demand for merch from local businesses, and both consumers and brands are responding accordingly. Per Chloe Baffert, merchandising and curation expert at Poshmark, merch products often provide “a sense of connection and community.” People are “craving that comfort” that being “in the know” can provide,” she said. Meanwhile, Hendrik Juergens, director of collaborations and special projects at Highsnobiety, compared such merch to souvenirs, representative of an enjoyable experience, or “a specific place and time” — like, for instance, a road trip.

Rounding out Wally’s assortment are bumper stickers (i.e., “If you’re rich, I’m single”), drink koozies, playing cards and games, like road-trip bingo. Their prices top out at $20. 

Among merch inspirations Balvanz listed are 7-Up with its ’70s-era “Uncola” branding, and Budweiser and Schlitz with their all-over prints that once appeared on products from bucket hats to sleeping bags. 

Strom recruited California-based Balvanz for his position — the two had worked together in various jobs and on freelance projects over the prior 20 years, since meeting in college. Strom grew up with Wally’s founders Michael Rubenstein and Chad Wallis. 

“We’re allowed to be super creative, and we don’t get told no; we push [design elements] as far as we want,” said Strom, who’s based in Boulder, Colorado. However, he noted that such freedom came with earning the trust of stakeholders, after seeing the first completed Wally’s and the subsequent customer response. 

In the opening month of Wally’s second location, Jason V. from Glen Carbon, Illinois, reported via Yelp that, “The hype is real!” adding, “I can’t stop talking about it.” Other Yelpers have shared the sentiment.

“The level of detail we go through to get [product details] right is insane,” he said. That includes “sourcing things from all over the world,” often going overseas to see if concepted designs can, in fact, be produced, before bringing production stateside if cost-effective.

Adding “old-school” flocking to the back on graphic tees required adding an additional company to the mix, said Balvanz. And he noted that he and Strom have yet to find a manufacturer that can pull off tees with the type of glitter iron-ons that were popular back in the day. 

Of course, nailing the feel, fit and design elements of styles that were popular 40-plus years ago has become more difficult, as even standard supply chains are experiencing obstacles at every stage. When I told Strom and Balvanz that I had planned to visit the Missouri Wally’s on the weekend following our conversation, Strom warned me that it was awaiting a big T-shirt order. That wasn’t apparent.

I visited that Saturday with family members, including three kids ages 7-11. Despite there being a large section of games and toys, including their beloved fidgets, the kids zeroed in on the branded apparel. The oldest had seen it on TikTok. They settled on a T-shirt, a ball cap and a visor, the latter stamped with the Wally’s tagline, “Home of the great American road trip.” They also got a “Sloosh,” Wally’s name for a slush drink. Between the six of us, we spent $150, no gas included. We likely stayed 30 minutes, the length of the average visit, according to Strom. 

The authentic details definitely added to the experience: Old advertisements from beer companies line the walls of Wally’s beer cooler. Meanwhile, an endcap is dedicated to candies that launched in the ’70s and are still sold in their original packaging. And packs of throwback scratch-and-sniff stickers were made to feature Wally’s-perfect scents, including pizza and popcorn. 

Floors are topped with terrazzo tiling, while labels and signage — including branding on soda dispensers and candy vending machines — have been swapped out for their ’70s-era counterparts or remade to look retro. A camping diorama mid-store includes a vintage Winnebago. On that note, a complementing mural on a 40-foot wall is an image plucked from Winnebago’s catalog archives, Balvanz said.

Other than the exterior of the building and some interior structural elements, which are overseen by Wally’s principal Garrett Thomson and an external architect, Strom and Balvanz manage all design elements of Wally’s physical locations. (They recently transferred the responsibility of the company’s social media presence to a St. Louis-based agency.) And they’re clearly itching to expand their purview. Balvanz said that, in a recent meeting, he proposed putting a roller coaster on top of the next location. 

“We want people to come to the store and feel like they’re at an amusement park,” he said.

Wally’s isn’t the only player in the gas station-meets-experiential retailer-meets amusement park space. TikTokers have been quick to note its similarities to Texas-headquartered Buc-ees, which has more than 40 locations. Its next location to open, in Springfield, MO, will have 100 gas pumps and a store spanning 56,000 square feet. It’s expected to drive $30 million in annual sales, with the average shopper spending $100 per visit. 

For its part, Wally’s will announce 2-3 more locations by the end of summer, with plans to expand throughout the Midwest and beyond. Noting the extent of a location’s buildout — stores are 36,000 square feet, with 10,000 square feet of retail and full kitchens producing fresh food — Strom said each takes 10-12 months to open. In addition, Wally’s will launch e-commerce on Labor Day. 

Buc-ees doesn’t sell its merch online, though there’s been demand for years. A 2012 Facebook post of a T-shirt reading, “The Most Interesting Beaver in the World,” pointing to its mascot, received comments including at least seven versions of, “Why isn’t there an online store???”

To those who currently attach value to the limited nature of Wally’s products, the company’s distribution of merch far and wide may disappoint. But, then again, you can now get most anything online — on the same day, in many cases. Brands now know better than to limit their sales opps, particularly if there’s broader brand awareness. And why forfeit all online sales to the eBays and Poshmarks of the world?

“We want to transcend the travel center,” Strom said. “At some point, the brand will stand alone, [beyond] the merch program and what we’re doing in-store.” 

When I said Wally’s is begging for a fashion collaboration, he agreed. “That’s a spot where we could be headed, for sure, and something we’ve got on our radar.”

Highsnobiety’s Hendrik Juergens on collaborating with local institutions

On June 22, during Paris Fashion Week Men’s, Highsnobiety launched “Not in Paris 4,” the fourth edition of its biannual activation encompassing a digital exhibit, e-commerce and physical experience in the form of a souvenir shop-style pop-up. This time around, along with exclusive product collaborations with an updated roster of well-known brands, including Rick Owens, the shop featured an expanded assortment of collabs with local Parisian establishments. Among them: Café de Flore, Hotel Amount and Caviar Kaspia.

I asked Hendrik Juergens, Highsnobiety’s director of collaborations and special projects, why the local focus made sense. 

What signaled that collabs with Parisian institutions would be a draw? 

“Paris Fashion Week really is about a certain vibe. When initially imagining a collection of merchandise and collabs for ‘Not in Paris’, it was very natural to gravitate toward some of the local brands and institutions that trigger this special feeling. When people enjoy their experience of a place and time, it’s a natural next step to want to bring home a souvenir to be able to incorporate it in some way into day-to-day life.”

What was the demand for these collabs?

“Sales surpassed our expectations. But what was most exciting to see was the excitement of people about what we created. The beauty of having such a wide spectrum of offerings, all sharing a quite specific point of view, was that there were stories within the range that resonated with all corners of our audience. So, one [product] didn’t necessarily outperform another, but rather provided a unique and interesting souvenir to a different part of our community.”

Why were included establishments chosen? 

“You could say that we’re doubling down on our local yet internationally relevant institutional approach. These are locations that our team and our audience love and frequent, and that have an element of storytelling; [they’re] iconic spaces which are representative of a community or a specific place and time.”

Have you taken this approach to collabs in the past? 

“Yes. This past March, for example, we released a line of apparel, accessories and bar goods with Milan’s inimitable Bar Basso. [It’s] a Milan institution with a close-knit audience both locally and globally. During design week, it becomes the go-to spot for the art and design community. We’ve also released collaborative products with other local yet internationally relevant landmarks from gastronomy, like Paris’ L’As du Fallafel, and also museums, like Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie. We enjoy bringing these places closer to us and our community.”

‘A subtle flex’: Poshmark on the appeal of local branded merch 

Poshmark merchandising and curation expert Chloe Baffert breaks down why wearing merch from small businesses offers both “clout” and “comfort.”

“Wearing merchandise from the limited inventory drops of small businesses has quickly become a subtle flex over the past three years. Sporting a tee from your local diner has a certain amount of clout. It tells people a few things: You obtained something limited in quantity, you know what this business is and are therefore ‘in the know;’ and you support small businesses, which is very much in line with how millennials and Gen Z are embracing sustainable consumption.

More well-known, yet still local restaurants, like Jon and Vinny’s in L.A. and Russ and Daughters in NYC, are even taking current fashion trends into consideration when designing their merch, and it’s paying off. Jon and Vinny’s did a collaboration in April with an ‘it’ brand their customers are already wearing: MadHappy. And Russ and Daughters’ tie-dye T-shirt collaboration with Jake Gyllenhaal was aptly timed to the pandemic-driven tie-dye craze and sold out in less than a week.

There is also a conversational, or silent nod, aspect to wearing this merch. You can be on a flight to Tulsa and see someone rocking a hoodie from a restaurant where you had the best squash blossoms of your life. Instantly, you’re both in the same supper club. The same is to be said about passing someone in your apartment building: It’s a common interest and a common respect for small businesses. That sense of connection and community, wherever you are, has taken on even more meaning in the past couple of years. People are craving that comfort.

When there’s demand for limited-edition merch, we’re almost always seeing that demand show up on Poshmark. For example, we’re [currently] seeing sales for Gildan, a popular brand for branded merch. Its sales are up 345% YoY, while Gildan T-shirt sales are up 368%.”

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