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TECHNOLOGY

STORY: A Start-Up Shape-Shifting the Retail Store

Can a store that changes its theme every few weeks pave the way for a more interactive retail experience?

You know that local Best Buy store in your area? It hasn't changed significantly in ten years. Sure, they cannibalized their music section, since we've all gone digital. But there's still the familiar "race track" design that leads you through the computer section, back to the televisions, and around to the movies. The "experience" went sour years ago.

Things are a bit different at STORY. The 2000-square-foot retail space in New York completely transmogrifies every few weeks. On July 18, the store launched a MADE in America theme. In each section, makers from disparate regions around the US flaunt their wares. There's even a hand-painted summer vacation road-map on display to guide you around the store.

"This is a paradigm shift," says founder Rachel Shechtman, who told me she started the retail space after launching an experimental exhibit in 2011. "I think that physical retail spaces will become more about community and entertainment, and less solely focused on consumption."

Diving Right In

The STORY idea addresses a few important pain points for consumers, especially natives of the digital age (e.g., those who have grown up with the Internet).

One is that we're incredibly bored by the typical store. STORY taps into an antipathy for tedium. In the weeks leading up to September 1, when the store will reinvent itself again, several makers will get a chance to reveal their brand. (There's a denim line launch on August 9; on August 19, there's a pitch night for budding entrepreneurs.) You never know quite what to expect. Kids can even sign up to run their own lemonade stand.

Getting Hands On

We also all need something to do. We're fidgety. I like how STORY uses an interactive table where you can move objects around. In the next few weeks, a chef will teach people how to make BBQ sauce. I see this trend of activities developing even further.

There's a hint of this concept at Apple and Microsoft stores, where you can sit down with an expert and talk shop. This interaction in a retail space often leads to interaction with wallets and purses. It's a try-before-you-buy mentality.

STORY appeals to people with ever-shorter attention spans--thanks to the Internet, of course--and those who have no time to return a product. If we can get our hands on something and become convinced of its value, we'll buy it.

Knowing Your Customers

Shechtman has yet another retailing trick, though. Most of the retail giants have experimented with customer tracking, some not so successfully. But STORY uses a heat-mapping technology from Prism Sky Labs to watch how customers move through the store, how long they stay at each display, and how much time they spend overall. In many ways, it's like Google Analytics, a tool for analyzing websites, but for a physical store.

Even the interactive table is more than just an activity station. STORY also gets a report on how customers use the table--they know which tasks most people perform.

I wonder if the STORY concept could be applied to other industries: restaurants, pubs, bookstores. Other types of retailers should pay attention to this trend. Between that level of customer tracking, the changing themes, and the "give them stuff to do" mentality, STORY is a good example of how to attract attention. It's also an example of how a start-up with 15 employees could shine a light on a staid, unchanging industry.

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Last updated: Aug 2, 2013

JOHN BRANDON | Columnist

John Brandon is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine covering technology. He writes the Tech Report column for Inc.com.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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