Online luxury retailer Ssense has built a new brick-and-mortar store around appointments, not inventory.
Ssense Montreal, which opens Thursday in the company’s home base, doesn’t carry regular stock from any of the 200 brands it sells online. Instead, the store is organized into personal styling rooms, and customers who visit the store’s standalone website are directed to book an appointment. With 24 hours’ notice, customers can request any of the 20,000 items found online to try on in-store with a personal stylist. Items can be sent back, purchased at the store, or sent to an online cart or wishlist.
The model was inspired by customer behavior in the retailer’s original physical location, which opened in 2004, two years ahead of the Ssense e-commerce site. The new store is a relaunch of the previous retail store, which closed in April.
“Customers would call or send an email requesting styles from the website to be tried on in the store and would often look to our staff for styling advice,” said Krishna Nikhil, Ssense’s chief merchandising officer. “The majority of sales were a result of this behavior, and it became clear that this is increasingly how people want to shop.”
But individual styling sessions don’t drive much foot traffic. In addition to booking appointments, the Ssense store will carry capsule collections exclusive to the retailer, kicking off with a four-piece collaboration between Prada and Venezuelan producer and artist Arca. It will also host in-store events and installations, opening with a Prada and Arca installation in honor of the collaboration, and a Calvin Klein “Icons” series.
“This model also liberates the space from traditional merchandising constraints, enabling us to use it for experiential programming and experimentation,” said Nikhil.
As it plays out past opening, the Ssense retail model could serve as a format to be followed by other multibrand retailers, as they try to evolve past the outdated department-store layout. Rather than take on sprawling inventory overheads, they can dedicate floor space to events, collaborations and exclusive collections, and most transactions can be concentrated online. And don’t forget the café.
“There’s a unified strategy here on the retail level, which is the focus on combining new product assortments with experiences,” said Malinda Sanna, founder of the branding and advertising agency Spark. “Everyone’s trying something different.”
To pull off a constantly revolving inventory selection in-store that’s personally tailored to each person who visits, Ssense is using technology known as a Vertical Lift Module, which was built in-house, along an accompanying personal stylist app used by stylists to manage appointments and customer orders. The automated network operates behind the scenes to source items on-demand from the Ssense warehouse, deliver them to the store location, and assign them to the right personal styling room at the right day and time.
Using in-store technology as a behind-the-scenes facilitator, rather than a forward-facing customer play, has become a popular method for retailers looking to build a new retail format. Reformation has built a “magic fitting room” for stores, which lets shoppers build baskets on their phones or with the help of a store associate, and then send everything to a fitting room to try on. Since sizes on the sales floor are limited to just a few, the fitting rooms are stocked by a behind-the-scenes operating system that pulls from the stockroom. The goal is to declutter the front of the store, while emphasizing the in-store novelty of trying on different sizes.
Farfetch, an Ssense competitor, is also building out its version of the store of the future, starting with Browns East, the U.K.-based retailer the company acquired in 2016. Likewise, it’s looking at the future of physical retail as one that runs off of an operating system, with the majority of technology implementations happening in a way that’s invisible to the customer. It’s intended to make the in-store shopping experience painless, by learning customer’s browsing habits in-store to offer recommendations, stocking specific items ahead of a visit and orchestrating personal stylist appointments. Rather than open its own stores, for now, Farfetch is posturing its Store of the Future system as a service for designer brands to use in their own boutiques.
“It’s become an arms race to see who can make digital luxury the most appealing,” said Tamar Koifman, head of marketing at the agency Digital Luxury Group.
With its new store space, Ssense is also democratizing the personal stylist. Other retailers, like Net-a-Porter and Farfetch, reserve personal stylist perks for their VIP members who spend more than other customers throughout the year. All Ssense customers have to do is make an appointment online (and, until any other locations open, be in or visiting Montreal).
“The appointment model reflects how customers shop today, moving fluidly between online and physical retail shopping,” said Nikhil.
For Ssense, it also now has a physical hub for mining customer data. Fitting requests provide an influx of information around what customers are interested in which trends, styles, categories, brands and designers, as well as products’ sell-through rate. That offers a new feedback loop that is usually limited to newer-age business models along the lines of Stitch Fix or Rent the Runway.