On Tuesday, Rent the Runway’s new Manhattan store opened to the public, a move that doubled down on the online fashion rental platform’s dedication to brick-and-mortar.
The 5,000 square foot space in Flatiron, a short walk from Fifth Avenue, includes an iPad introduction to how the company’s clothing rental system works (and a check-in field for grabbing new customer emails), easy access for online pick-ups and returns, a curated selection of Rent the Runway’s offerings — both formal attire and everyday wear — and a space dedicated to stylist appointments, complete with a mood board and champagne. On digital screens in the store, shoppers can view a selection of photos uploaded by Rent the Runway users, as well as check out inventory that’s available online, not in the store.
With more space, fitting rooms, and bells and whistles than its previous 1,700-square-foot Manhattan location and its seven other U.S. stores, Rent the Runway’s new store is being pegged by the company as its first flagship location.
“We consider it a flagship because of its size and the tech that we built around it,” said Maureen Sullivan, president of Rent the Runway. “It’s our ideal store — our best in class in our most important market.”
Rent the Runway’s flagship is opening at a time when the retail market is seemingly cooling on the concept. In its 2016-2017 flagship report “Main Streets Around the World,” global real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield noted that, in Manhattan’s key real estate market of Fifth Avenue, demand from retailers looking for flagship space has slowed. The flagship, which can be considered a marketing strategy as well as a retail strategy, typically takes shape as a sprawling retail destination occupying several floors of high-demand real estate and housing tons of product that, in some cases, can’t be found elsewhere. Online, those offerings become less special.
As a result, the definition and makeup of retail flagships is changing — another sign of the digital times.
“Flagship stores are typically marked by two things — size and key location,” said Karen Bellantoni, vice chairman of retail leasing firm RKF. “In the past, retailers opened them to sell a lot of product. Now, as more people shop online, they’re incorporating more experiences. That’s what the new definition is today.”
Newly opened flagships point to big stores that go beyond product. Coach recently opened a 20,000 square-foot flagship store on Fifth Avenue called the Coach House, in which customers can customize Coach Rogue leather bags in-store at the Made to Order Rogue table, as well as get on-demand personalized leather products at the Coach House Workshop. Andre Cohen, Coach’s president of marketing, said the goal of the store was to “build a real New York home for Coach that would pull in locals and tourists.” Other attractions in-store include two sculptures—one, a dinosaur made of handbags, and the other, a piece designed by a local Brooklyn artist.
Adidas also recently opened a flagship on Fifth Avenue. It occupies 45,000 square feet, plus it features brand experiences like customized apparel stations, “athlete lounges,” a juicery and a localized section dedicated to New York.
In terms of flagships, reinvention means figuring out what the store offers to customers and how it fits into retailers’ overall strategies. If an experience is offered, it has to be something that clicks with the brand.
“The flagship is a way for a brand to articulate what it’s really about,” said Phil Granof, CMO of mobile retail platform NewStore. “It’s fair to ask what a flagship means in a digital world. But basically, whatever experience you have in the store has to be really closely connected to your brand—otherwise, you have this weird half-effort.”
Beyond in-store experiences and activations, like in-house juiceries and customizable apparel, retailers can look to their flagships as testing grounds for new technologies. Sullivan of Rent the Runway said the behind-the-scenes tech provided to store associates to improve the customer experience sets the new flagship apart from other locations. As the company continues to work with the in-store database, it can eventually roll it out to all associates.
“The flagship’s wow factor is only as great as the technology that can scale,” said Sullivan. “Any interaction customers have with associates in the stores turns into better recommendations for them down the line, no matter where they rent. It’s a payoff for spending time in store.”
Using flagships as an incubator for new technology and experiments could play well among consumers who embrace the notion of feeling part of something, said Granof, a trait particularly associate with millennials.
“You don’t hear consumers saying, ‘I want to go to a flagship today,’” he said. “What it is to a consumer is a cool version of a store. If the flagship is to have a new meaning, it’s about experiments, where new things are happening.”