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Inclusive exclusivity is the new retail experience

Opinion

Published by:

7 September 2020

Author: George Gottl

Image: We are hidden in plain sight by Bodega, Los Angeles

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With physical retail experiences curtailed by the pandemic, brands are driving desire through secretive stores that target only those in the know

In a world where some of the wealthiest people dress in t-shirts and jeans, it’s fair to say that traditional paradigms of luxury, status and exclusivity have been transformed. Social status and wealth aren’t only expressed through what we wear and how we look, but more so through the experiences we have access to.

This trend has been accelerated by the coronavirus and in response, brands are re-thinking the ways they conjure exclusivity and hype, leading to the rise of ‘inclusive exclusivity’. That is, brand, product and retail experiences that are open to all but hidden away from public view and social media so that only those in the know can find them.

In this new era of exclusivity, there is no membership fee, no dress code and no red cord. Instead, the cultural currency is knowledge and access, discovered by word-of-mouth. The trend has been pioneered by high-end fashion retailers such as L’Éclaireur in Paris – the city’s first and most secretive fashion concept space hidden behind a plain door with no external signage. In the middle of the space is a large bar area, offering an elevated, cordial retail experience for those who find their way in.

Menswear store Departamento in LA’s Arts District has no signage or shopfront. Instead, customers have to discover the entrance by walking through a coffee shop and down a nondescript corridor. Inside is a much-hyped oasis of men’s fashion and style. More akin to your friend’s apartment than a traditional shop is streetwear brand Bodega’s LA store. Similarly hidden away, it’s situated behind a fruit packing warehouse in the Produce District, which opens out to an airy yet curios-filled retail space.

L’Éclaireur Sévigné, Paris
‘It doesn’t have to be physical space either – Miu Miu secretly launched a fragrance in a video game’

Interestingly, while access sits at the heart of these stores – they are open to anyone and everyone – the idea of being a space that customers have to actively seek out adds a new layer to brand desirability. Instead of conforming to traditional retail models of high volume, high footfall and high visibility, their subtle restriction creates a loyal community of people who feel more like members than customers – a hallmark of the inclusive exclusivity trend.

High street retailers can follow suit by creating additional spaces within their stores – or temporary experiences – that are open to all but only their best customers might be told about. Contrary to retail norms, ‘best customers’ here may not just be the ones who spend the most but the ones who contribute the most back to the store and wider brand community.

It doesn’t have to be a physical space either. Last year Miu Miu launched its latest fragrance, Miu Miu Twist, in a video game. It was a specific location, albeit a virtual one, where anyone in the world could visit but again, you had to be in the know of where and how to find it.

Indeed, the phygital manifestation of this trend is even more important now in light of Covid-19 and emerging consumer mindsets that are more cautious when it comes to spending and consuming. And while we have seen this trend emerge in high-end, high-spend fashion stores, it’s an approach that any retailer can and should adopt. The key is to remember that knowledge and access, not wealth, are the new cultural currency and consumers are craving access to experiences that surprise and entertain them, in turn bringing them closer to your brand.

George Gottl is chief creative officer at UXUS, an independent multidisciplinary design agency specialising in strategic design solutions for retail, architecture and hospitality design.

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