The Future of Retail Spaces Is In Human Connection

The Future of Retail Spaces Is In Human Connection

Ross Bailey envisions us shopping in the agora. In Ancient Greece, city-states had a public meeting place called the agora. Citizens met here to be informed, discussing politics or the news of the day. Soon, the agora—loosely translated to gathering place or marketplace—became a spot where people could sell goods to others waiting around and talking to each other. Fruit and vegetables, Bailey says, and then, not long after, treasures and knick knacks found around the world. 

Bailey links the practices of the agora to how his grandmother shopped in the United Kingdom. Every week, he said, she went to her butcher who knew exactly what cut of meat her family wanted. If she didn’t show up one week, the butcher would drop it off for her. “If you're a small specialty store you understood the customer. When you think about most retail today, what we're trying to do is really what existed before. But we're using technology to help us scale that. We're using data to help us understand the customer.” 

The agora became a retail space while still being the place where people met to get the information they needed. Bailey says, with a smile, that perhaps this is what the future of retail spaces will be like. 

Appear Here’s beginnings

Bailey is the founder and CEO of Appear Here, an online marketplace where brands can book retail spaces much like they would a hotel room. Founded in 2013, Appear Here is often compared to Airbnb because at the core of both businesses is a user-friendly space booking system.

Appear Here works exclusively off of the idea that temporary doesn’t mean forgettable. Bailey’s team has worked with some of the world’s biggest brands, like Google and Nike. They were the vessel for Kanye West’s worldwide The Life of Pablo pop-ups in 2016 and the London Underground Old Street station takeover for Netflix’s fourth season of Black Mirror. Bailey’s company gives brands, artists, and burgeoning entrepreneurs the ability to take empty storefronts and transform them into experiences for customers. These spaces, while retail-focused in nature, serve as a way for people to come together under the mutual love for a product, an artist, or an experience, and cultivate a sense of togetherness and belonging. 

Bailey was on Forbes Europe’s 30 Under 30 list for retail and ecommerce in 2016 but the path to success in this industry wasn’t so linear. The London, UK native left school at 16. In 2012, he launched a Diamond Jubilee and Olympics shop after asking to temporarily borrow a space from a landlord. What became the catalyst for Appear Here was when people asked Bailey how he did it, and if he could help them. Bailey drew a critical eye early on with Appear Here with some critics wondering if he was naive because of his age and relative inexperience to the industry. But, when asked about this perception, Bailey asserts there are positives in coming to this work less strategically. “What I did is—other than being a customer myself and launching my own store and that sort of being the springboard for this idea—[is] I spent a lot of time and research on what was going on in the industry,” he says. 

Re-thinking retail spaces

Bailey notes a conflict in the retail space conversation: Because some believe less people are going into brick-and-mortar stores to shop, lease length times are going down. But, separate to this data is the fact that people are craving experiences while buying, which often means they are often in a brick-and-mortar space. “Retail isn’t dead but the way we find space, the way that we create that retail, is broken. [We are taking] someone's latent capacity, and going, if we put this online, if you give people access, if we give flexibility, then you can widen the pool of potential people that can then make use of that same space.” Additionally, stores aren’t simply where we buy products, a fundamental assumption that sidesteps the cultural importance of these spaces, too. They are where we eat, drink coffee, and meet one another. Stores create and foster community and belonging, Bailey says. 

When we think of temporary retail spaces, the word pop-up shop appears as its synonym. But Bailey believes that pop-up shops as short-hand for temporary retail spaces needs to go away. It creates a disillusioned binary; that things need to be one way or another, like short-term versus long-term. Pop-ups, rather than being thought of as a replacement for stores, should be framed in a way that highlights their flexibility and how retail can adapt, too. They become incubator spaces for brands or foreign ventures to launch in spaces that have very little long-term risk.

“A few years ago, we were [thinking about] online vs. offline retail. I feel that now it’s pop-up shop vs. long-term retail,” he says. Bailey uses Louis Vuitton as an example. Headed up by Off White and streetwear king, Virgil Abloh, the brand launched visually stunning pop-ups for its fall collection. “[Louis Vuitton] isn’t talking about launching many more physical flagships,” Bailey says. “Some of the biggest brands are talking about decreasing stores by opening more pop-up shops. I think the same way that it's not online vs. offline. In my mind, retail would become flexible. It would become a blank canvas and there would be no parameters.”

Community-focused commerce

It is becoming increasingly prudent to lean into this flexibility wave in retail.

Bailey says that in 1990, 92 percent of leases were ten to 20 years in length, which is an enormous financial burden on businesses. But, ten years from now, maybe, people will pay as they go.

Lease lengths may still be a few years long, but the thought of carrying a lease through expedited changes (both culturally and commercially) won’t add an extra heavy burden on store owners. It’s something that applies to both the one-off brick and mortars and the big brands with multiple stores around the world. “I think you'll see an end to stores going into bankruptcy because of lease obligations. I think you're going to see completely different ideas and diversity in our high streets. You know and it's already happening. In London, Paris, and New York, we're now launching more stores than any broker.” 

There is a real benefit in coming back to the idea of retail spaces as special ways we get to interact with each other as people. To think of shopping and buying as inherently about community.

The future of retail, while primarily still online and leaning more into automation, won’t be without that human element. It’s crucial.

“I think that stores are about belonging and gathering places, discovering. They're ultimately about human interaction,” Bailey says.

“The idea that somehow we're not going to want to do what we did for the last 3000 years—that we’re not going to want to talk to people, we're really gonna want to look at screens—it might be a contrarian view but that wouldn't be what I'd bet against.”

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