It’s only natural, in a world becoming more and more reliant on technology, for doomsayers to forecast the death of brick-and-mortar retail. But while e-commerce is no doubt rising in popularity, it’s reductive to discount the tactile experience of seeing a garment in person, of trying it on, and of trading thoughts with a seasoned sales executive. Michael Stanley, the senior director of real estate at Houston-based female fashion retailer Francesca’s, knows this, but he also asserts that an “omni-channel” approach is integral to surviving in the current technological climate.
“E-commerce is here to stay and will continue to grow, due to the simple fact that it satisfies the need for instant gratification when customers push the ‘Buy Now’ button on the screen,” he says. “But, it will never replace the ability to touch and feel something. The retailer of the future is going to have to have a presence both online and in brick and mortar—with both working together seamlessly.”
Still, how those in retail construct and design their brick-and-mortar outlets needs to be reconsidered, and Stanley says the industry is “witnessing a much-needed right-sizing,” given the “oversaturation” of retail real estate. Basically, as malls transform into convention centers and call centers and retail space recedes, stores are becoming smaller and more efficient. There may be fewer of them, but they are now more experiential.
In accordance with this, in addition to building upward of 60 new locations per year, Stanley and Francesca’s are making efforts to revamp their existing locations—with the help of their preferred national general contractor: Tony Torano, with Torcom, based out of Phoenix. He says he and his team fully remodel upward of 90 boutiques a year, introducing new colors, fixtures, and storefronts. The storefronts are an especially vital part of the work, designed with different materials so that no two are exactly alike. This helps each store cultivate the aesthetic and feel of a locally owned boutique, which the chain as a whole emulates via its unique sense of character and attention to customer service.
Color is another important aspect of Francesca’s redesigns. Older boutiques had darker tones and fixtures, which, Stanley says, “in retrospect, created a cave-like environment that wasn’t very inviting.” Redesigned stores have lighter, brighter paint schemes and fixtures that “put the focus on the merchandise while illuminating the entire boutique,” Stanley says.
He and his team routinely study the latest trends, allowing Francesca’s flooring, visual displays, accents, and fixtures to evolve with time and shifts in culture. The team is also considering shifts in technology, and to that end, a major component of the latest Francesca’s remodels is an upgrade to each store’s POS system, to promote speed at checkout and gather valuable data from customers.
Additionally, in the same manner that physical media has been kept afloat by special- and limited-edition releases, Francesca’s offers a slate of broad and limited-time offerings to entice shoppers into its boutiques. The buyers will order only a very limited quantity of particular garments, for example, which sharpens shoppers’ sense of urgency. “Unlike our peers that might have 10, 15, or 20 of the same item, we’ll only do around five,” Stanley explains. “And once they’re gone, they’re gone.”
Fresh product is coming into the boutiques every day, he adds, and a customer’s desire to own a rare or limited-run garment keeps them coming back to the physical boutiques. However, this mode of fast fashion, which is also gaining traction among Francesca’s contemporaries, comes with its own risks. “It’s a double-edged sword,” Stanley says. “You can beat the market by being right on in terms of trends and appeal. But, if you miss the mark, you’re left with product no one wants.”
As Francesca’s continues to right-size, it also continues to evolve. For instance, Stanley cites a potential new line of locations, dubbed “LAB boutiques,” that will have a much larger footprint than Francesca’s 1,350-square-foot average. Stanley forecasts that these new boutiques could span 3,000–5,000 square feet, allowing them to highlight different facets of the business, including home goods, cosmetics, and others.
Stanley hopes to open the inaugural LAB boutique in 2019, but he’s quick to note that its design could always change. That’s the nature of business these days, after all; as cultures change, so do industries. The right-sizing continues.