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Insights

Amazon Fashion's Pop Up Shop Live sets out to influence the influencers

Amazon’s UK fashion presence is far from consolidated. Was Amazon Fashion’s Pop Up Shop Live – its first European foray into physical retail – a successful step in bridging this gap? SHIFT Magazine visited the store on its opening day to find out.

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Amazon Fashion's Pop Up Shop Live sets out to influence the influencers

Amazon is an ecommerce powerhouse, but it’s not as omnipotent as fans and critics of the brand often make out.

Its vice-like grip on the electronic, homeware and publishing sectors is plain to see, but for all its dependable plus points – particularly for its loyal Prime customers – Amazon hasn’t quite capitalised on the fashion market.

The company is clearly aware of this, and to help address the issue this week, it threw open the doors to its one-week-only, high-profile Amazon Fashion Pop Up Shop Live, following a refit of Carousel: Next Door, a 3,300 sq ft event space at 37 Baker St.

That’s Amazon Fashion with a capital F – something this pop-up did everything to emphasise, short of italicising and underlining the word. That said, it did surround the brand name with flashing neon lights, and it’s now being marketed to such a degree that you’d think AmazonFashion.co.uk was a separate website (it isn’t – curiously, this redirects to Amazon.co.uk, not even the fashion department of Amazon.co.uk).

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London isn’t the company’s first location for a fashion pop-up, though it’s the first one in Europe, and the biggest Amazon has done to date. New York City’s Flatiron Plaza hosted the brand for three days earlier this month, and the British outing utilised many of the tech tricks first presented by its transatlantic teammate, as well as a similar strategy for product partnerships.

The omnichannel fashion market is wide open – something we discovered in our Retail Experience Score’s 2018 Fashion Analysis – so it’s perhaps no surprise that Amazon saw the perfect opportunity to throw itself into the market with a physical presence, albeit fleetingly. But would five days of fashion pay dividends?

To measure this pop-up’s success here in the UK, it’s important to first understand how the company set out its stall in the heart of the capital.

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How Amazon Fashion’s Pop Up Shop Live works

The adapted space – chosen for its high footfall, being on one of the City of Westminster’s busiest streets – offered men’s and women’s clothing, alongside accessories such as watches. The line-up comprised big-name brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Moschino, Pepe Jeans and Libertine-Libertine, as well as Amazon’s own labels.

The store also featured Amazon Fire tablets and interactive “Smile” codes – effectively branded QR codes – to demonstrate the boundlessness between online and in-store purchasing, underlining its omnichannel intentions. Customers could scan clothing codes with the Amazon Shopping app, then order it for home delivery at a time that suited them.

Each item could also be bought in the store itself, but shoppers were encouraged to use the tech provided (or the phones they bring with them), especially because a person’s size might not have been in stock. If it was, they could try it on in the changing rooms provided, and either buy it there or go the traditional Amazon purchase route.

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To appeal to the widest audience – and potentially garner repeat visits during the five-day experience – Amazon Fashion created a changing stock line-up for the store itself, as well as an evening event that built even more relationships once store hours end:

  • Tuesday, the day we visited, showcased autumn/winter trends, and hosted London’s own Pepe Jeans and its denim customisation machine. Afterwards, Charlotte de Carle played a DJ set.
  • Wednesday kept the same clothing theme before giving way to a beauty panel discussion hosted by Jessica Diner, Vogue’s beauty and lifestyle director.
  • Thursday saw the store’s direction shift to fitness, sports and wellbeing, complemented by yoga sessions from Ella Mills, founder of Deliciously Ella. A juice bar – not dissimilar to the one offered in LA’s Nordstrom Local – also featured, while expert dieticians were on hand to give people healthy lifestyle tips.
  • Friday and Saturday reflected the weekend vibe with party and streetwear-focused clothing. Meanwhile, makeover and hair appointments were available; a live acoustic set from Tom Grennan on Friday was followed by another from NAO on Saturday evening.

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So far, so good. But was it worth the journey?

How did it work in reality?

We arrived on Tuesday afternoon at around 1:30pm, and despite it being past the lunch-hour rush, the place was certainly abuzz. Admittedly, half of the people in there were staff – temps, we discovered, but ones who were clued-up and very helpful nonetheless – while others included a mix of documenters like us and intrigued shoppers.

The selection of clothing – an autumn/winter range – was far from exhaustive, but what was there was painstakingly curated to create sections of complementary clothing, allowing shoppers to envisage a full look or outfit by just browsing the racks. It was clear from the off that Amazon Fashion was keen to underline its authority on the fashion front, not least by proving that the company itself orchestrates its style partnerships, as opposed to companies simply using its platform like any other Amazon third-party seller.

A clear key selling point for the hired guns in store was clarifying the many brands and items that were unique to Amazon Fashion, which were mixed in with headline brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Moschino and Pepe Jeans. Within minutes, one member of staff pointed out a pair of shoes that were only sold by Amazon Fashion.

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Most items featured in several different sizes but weren’t available in high volumes; usually, it seemed to be just one item per size. This was because Amazon’s omnichannel ethic was being channelled through Smile codes, encouraging people to get them on their own terms.

Admittedly, we were a little bit indifferent to the idea of these glorified QR codes before entering the store – they never really caught on all those years ago, and still feel like a chore to use now. Yet as an integrated part of the Amazon Shopping app, the Smile codes worked incredibly well; the product page popped up instantly over a mobile data connection.

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The tablets, on the other hand, seemed to be more there for show than anything else. Placed a little too high for even my 6’2” frame, they were also awkwardly angled upwards and simply showed the Amazon Shopping page. They will be most likely used by staff to help people find similar ranges and pieces on site, but for the casual browser, they seemed pointless – particularly given the promotion of self-led shopping through the app.

Combined with the often-stark lighting arrangements, the Fire tablets were also difficult to read, though the set-up and layout of the store seemed to be at the mercy of the Carousel space. Fittings were functional at best, and while the largely white décor placed a high emphasis on the clothing, we’d put money on Amazon having a much more personal touch with interior design if it was a permanent store.

The daily bonus on Tuesday – a Pepe Jeans printing machine – was a nice touch, and remarkably clever at that. We saw it at work too, though it was far from the KSP we’d expect from the first day of a huge brand’s PR push. It undoubtedly strengthened its partnership with Pepe Jeans, though, which is perhaps more important in the grand scheme of things.

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Finally, the window offered an opportunity for fans, followers and friendly faces to get their photo taken against the ever-recognisable Amazon Smile logo, which was plenty of fun for all involved – and a fantastic way to get the Amazon logo behind any influencers expected at the store that day.

Will Amazon Fashion have a place on the high street?

To put it bluntly: no. Certainly not in this format, but we don’t think that was ever the intention. Despite Amazon Fashion Europe VP Susan Saidemann’s coy “never say never” comment to Vogue, it’s clear that this exercise only needs a week to fulfil its purpose.

In the weeks before it opened, Amazon’s pop-up store had already impressed the press. Alongside Vogue, it was covered by London’s own Evening Standard, specialist publications like Retail Gazette, FashionUnited and Retail Focus, as well as nationals like the Guardian. And here we are, telling you about it ourselves.

But Amazon Fashion isn’t trying to grab the a piece of the high-street market – it’s trying to grab the attention of influencers, be they traditional press or the newer faces of authority that now shape the thoughts and feelings of millions through digital channels. The company has done a brilliant job of it, too, even if a lot of the things it learns from the experience won’t be discovered for weeks or months after the experiment.

In the time we were visiting the store, we didn’t see a single purchase being made. What we did see was an influencer filming a segment outside the store, two more socialites being photographed in the curated set in the window, and a few others taking notes.

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Amazon Fashion’s concept simply wants people to remember that it exists. Next time a customer orders a last-minute, face-saving birthday present on Prime, or picks up a DVD for £6 after spotting it in a shop for £8, it wants them to remember they can also get their favourite designer’s latest threads in the size they want, delivered the next day in the same package.

As such, it’s hard not to say the store was a huge success. Our visit to the store was very much a pleasant one, as it championed the benefits of omnichannel, the plus points of the Amazon model, and presumably entertained plenty of people both day and night with its themes and events.

What’s next for Amazon in the UK?

While a permanent high-street store doesn’t seem likely, Amazon continues to do Britain huge favours, most notably with the creation of 1,000 roles in Manchester, Cambridge and Edinburgh. These won’t be in bricks-and-mortar retail; jobs are being created in software development, machine learning, online advertising, personalised shopping, Alexa development, cloud computing and drone deliveries.

If that’s not a strong indicator of Amazon’s true direction in the years to come, we don’t know what is. However, this may have been the last time Amazon appears on the British high street for a long time, if ever again.

However, you shouldn’t be surprised if “AmazonFashion.co.uk” stops redirecting to Amazon.co.uk and becomes a store page in its own right soon – Pop Up Shop Live doesn’t feel like the culmination of momentum, but rather a move to get the ball rolling in the first place.

Insights

Zara Westfield: Pushing the boundaries, or putting up barriers?

Technology is being increasingly used in wonderful ways by retail giants, yet despite Zara’s admirable efforts to raise the bar, we found there to be a difference between promise and execution.

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Zara Westfield: Pushing the boundaries, or putting up barriers?

On paper, Zara’s new store at Westfield Stratford City looks better than any other retail experience that the shopping centre has to offer.

Following a five-month period of testing in a nearby pop-up store, Zara took the best elements of its staging environment and dropped them straight into its 50,000 sq ft, two-storey flagship, opening its doors in May 2018.

Some sections of the press breathlessly spoke of its new approach, describing it as the “store of tomorrow” and applauding its “super-duper high tech” fixtures. Rightly so, too – at the time, it seemed to be one of the few retailers that championed true omnichannel commerce with such a visible physical store, prioritising both online and offline customers. A sky-high bar was set.

But when you set a high bar, it’s harder to clear it every time you’re asked to. During SHIFT Magazine’s visit in late September 2018, great expectations weren’t quite met – while Zara undoubtedly took great strides forward to satisfy customer demand, a lack of finesse meant that some of its great ideas were poor in execution.

Promises, promises

First things first: we were blown away by Zara’s concept store from earlier in the year. It was small but perfectly formed, featuring a wide array of clever features. While a couple came across as slightly gimmicky, it still built towards a newer, more exciting experience and offered:

  • A click-and-collect-centric outlook, with a new area dedicated to online order collection.
  • A facility to buy items online while in store, alongside support for returns and exchanges.
  • Shop assistants with mobile devices to customise orders, allowing customers to choose whether they want same-day or next-day delivery to suit their needs.
  • A smart mirror-based “product recommendation system”, where customers can scan RFID-tagged clothing to see an image of a model wearing the item, which makes recommendations of other items that work well with the chosen goods.

So far, so good – it followed the precedent set by incredible peers such as Nordstrom Local and it worked, too. When Zara finally opened the doors of its indoor megastore in May, it seemed to be a case of more of the same – and then some. As Retail Focus outlined:

  • It is the first full Zara store in the world with an area dedicated to online orders, alongside menswear, womenswear and children’s lines.
  • The new section has two automated online order collection points, with a carefully constructed concealed area that can handle 2,400 orders simultaneously.
  • This system uses a QR and PIN-based scanning system to recognise orders that customers get after placing them, and the pick-up points command a robotic arm to collect orders, package them optimally, and deliver them in seconds.
  • There is a self-checkout area that automatically identifies clothing being bought, and customers can pay on it with cards or mobile phones.

So far, so fantastic. But how did it work in practice?

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Brand new ideas, same brand feel

On our approach to the store, the new Zara looked comfortingly familiar. With its big glass windows, understated displays and neutral colour palette, it was clear the new, tech-led direction wouldn’t infringe on the brand’s visual values. But having been sucked in by the mid-year PR push, we struggled to see how it was visibly different, to such a degree that after five minutes, we found ourselves pulling out our phones to get visual cues in order to better spot the high-profile, hi-tech promises of the flagship store that were seemingly nowhere to be seen.

It turned out that everything we wanted was on the second floor – paralleling the odd decision by Decathlon to put the more engaging, unique and interactive experiences out of immediate sight. The only thing that set Zara’s lower floor apart from other branches was a static video wall behind the counters – though it was so inactive that that it took us a few seconds to realise it wasn’t a backlit printed board.

Up the escalators we went, and a minute or two later we identified our target area, excited at the prospect of trying things out for ourselves.

Not the fairest of them all

Reflective surfaces were plentiful in Zara, but we couldn’t find the magic mirror we’d heard so much about. After doing the very British thing of watching customers near mirrors with the hope that one would explode into life, we gave up and asked a friendly staff member, who pointed us in its direction.

At first, it didn’t seem to be interactive at all. After very close examination, we saw the faint phrase “MAY I SEE HOW THIS OUTFIT LOOKS ON?” under the glass. We were more than happy to find out, so picked up a piece of clothing off the rack. The tech didn’t respond. We waited patiently for the mirror to identify it.

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The Zara employee returned with a wry smile on his face, told us there was a trick to it and, taking our tester sweater, tried it out for himself – practically wiping the mirror with it – but still nothing. “It’s a bit touch and go,” he added, a little red-faced but nonetheless dedicated to the demo. After swapping it for something else, the mirror chugged into life, in around the same amount of time it’d have taken to put a jumper on ourselves.

It threw up an image of a model, wearing a different-coloured version of the item he was holding, in a pose that didn’t reflect a typical mirror pose, and at a size and height that didn’t reflect our own stance. It effectively acted as an advertisement; a window directly into the website, which we could’ve accessed there and then from our own phones.

We didn’t understand what this added – what benefit does a typically shaped model offer us, when we could just try it on and look in a mirror ourselves? What benefit does it offer the customer, who may have seen this exact image before going to the store to check the product out?

What’s more, it didn’t offer complementary recommendations to us, but this wasn’t exactly surprising. It was a mirror; you can’t exactly touch it to learn more about products, unless you’re willing to hire a person on permanent cleaning duty.

On paper, the mirror is a clever, unique idea – using one fixture for two potentially helpful purposes – but there’s nothing it can offer that a touchscreen, similar to those at McDonald’s, could not do quicker, easier and cheaper. These more popular types of screens are optimised for product showcases, very quick to respond, and in a dormant state can be better primed by Zara to showcase lookbooks, enticing its customers to easily order clothing in store.

Swerving self-serving

Another double-whammy case of science friction came with the single self-service till in the building. Pushed into the corner and barely promoted, it was nonetheless an exciting prospect – we’d heard a lot about how it automatically detected your basket contents. Ours had one jumper in it; the till immediately told us we had four. Could we cancel the erroneous trio? Not without staff intervention.

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We abandoned our cart and got a couple of different T-shirts to try out instead. The second time, it worked a treat – until we tried to pay for them. As with any in-store product, each one was tagged for security, and we were told that it was time to remove the tags ourselves. We weren’t exactly comfortable with the process in itself – after all, a ham-handed customer could potentially damage their clothing if they must yank the tag out themselves.

But this minor matter aside, the instructions on how to remove them weren’t particularly clear, giving a very small window (following a countdown) to pull the tag off. It didn’t work for us on either attempt – we’re still not sure why – and it forced us to go and see someone to remove them, entirely defeating the purpose of a process that’s meant to be quick and easy. It was particularly frustrating to see that we on the nearby standard checkouts, each one had individually processed two or three purchases each by the time we failed to walk away with ours.

Not quite the ambassador’s reception

It became clear that our cynicism wasn’t limited to just us, as we found out after walking to the front of the store to have a member of staff remove our pair of security tags. “It happens all the time – not just today,” said the very helpful, but somewhat deflated, employee. “It doesn’t quite work, and quite a few people have asked us to do this,” she said, adding that the wrong RFID tags were often on the clothing – another reason for employees to intervene at the self-checkout.

One of the more jarring elements of our visit was the frustration with which Zara’s in-store staff spoke of, and interacted with, the new technology. While the click-and-collect technology was clearly popular, as evidenced by the number of people in this all-new zone (even if we couldn’t see its incredible abilities at work), the additional features seemed forced and only gave the hard-working staff more work to do.

Zara should be proud of its team members, as they were nothing short of excellent with us – but if it doesn’t regularly consult with staff about concerns with features in store, it could become a job dissatisfaction issue, and the technology may continue to create unimpressive experiences like ours.

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PR gimmicks, or KSPs in waiting?

More can be done to make people realise that Zara is a real market leader. Facilities like the fundamentally forward-thinking self-checkout till will be overlooked or avoided by customers until the security and RFID kinks are ironed out, especially given the company’s great staff on traditional checkouts, as well as the store’s click-and-collect zone. Zara certainly doesn’t need a temperamental magic mirror when simple touchscreens can and will do a much better job.

More should be done to highlight its more effective in-store innovations. One thing that was truly surprising was how the incredible system of packing and processing wasn’t publicly visible – who doesn’t like a behind-the-scenes look at how something that clever works? While we didn’t use the C&C facility ourselves, the service, and the area that surrounded it, was understandably popular.

There may be a few reasons that its inner workings aren’t laid out for all to see: it could negatively impact on Zara’s shop aesthetic; the packing line may be too infrequently used for it to be a visual draw; it may be an assembly line that’s far from attractive to look at; it could simply be too difficult to make it visible; maybe it’s far from the store itself. Yet the mirror was installed as a talking point. Why not stick a window in to give a glimpse of the robots doing the hard work on your behalf?

Still equipped for the future

The Zara store in Westfield did a lot of things very well, marrying the traditional experience of its many stores with a fresh, clever outlook. Its future-proofing business approach continues to offer a hell of a lot, at a time when a lack of adaptability or uniqueness has claimed scalps as large as House of Fraser, Toys R Us, Maplin and Poundworld.

Our own research found as much: in SHIFT’s Retail Experience Score – 2018 Fashion Analysis, Zara placed in a credible joint 13th (tied with New Look and Wallis). Its focus on C&C and ease of returns should only see it catapult up the table in the coming months, presuming this strategy will be rolled out on a wider scale.

But one fact remains: while it’s brave to push new ideas, these must work properly before they’re rolled out. It’s a more respectable move to pull unrefined tech from stores until they are perfected, and offer tangible benefits to consumers that avoid creating some of the issues we experienced in store.

While Zara’s approach at Westfield Stratford City was clearly responding to demand – and avoiding the problems that are actively hurting competitors on the high street – it needs to listen to staff and customer feedback then respond in kind, or it could make a name for itself as a company creating new and creative ways to frustrate customers. But luckily, this is Zara, and we don’t expect anything less than constant, positive innovation.