Shopping in Soho is full of mysteries. Like blanket or unusually large scarf?
Heaped on a table in a Wooster Street store is a pile of chunky knit cream-colored merino wool. The stitches are unusually large — each one is the size of a caterpillar not terribly worried about its waistline. It looks as though were the wool unfolded, it might reveal itself as a blanket. But then again, maybe a scarf?
Ali Kriegsman, one of the co-founders of Bulletin, the shop we're standing in, identifies it as a blanket, albeit a big one.
Kriegsman is also trying to solve a mystery — that of brick and mortar retail.
"You cannot just open a store, put stuff in it, wash your hands and make money," she said. "That’s not just going to happen ever again."
Bulletin has another location in Williamsburg, which Kriegsman said has been a big success. But Soho has been a harder nut to crack.
"The No. 1 thing that people are trying to figure out with retail is foot traffic," she said. "And while we’ve nailed that in one of our spaces, it’s still something we’re figuring out in the other."
As brands struggle to stay profitable in traditional stores, a new kind of startup is sprouting up. And that's where Kriegsman comes in. Bulletin isn't just a store. It's a co-retailer, one of a host of new services launching in upscale shopping districts like New York and London, offering businesses the chance to share space in a store. Co-retailing allows business owners to price their own goods, design their own displays and even train sales staff. Many services, like Kriegsman's, also offer marketing and PR and host events to bring in customers. Which may explain an unusual wall Kriegsman and her co-founder Alana Branston installed at the back of the store they’ve rented.
Across from the dressing rooms is a wall covered in milky-white fake fur — great for selfies. The entire store is Instagram ready. But the designers who pay Bulletin between $300 and $2,000 a month don’t just want to be social media stars. They also want to sell. Kriegsman picks up a pink cardboard box. Inside is one of the store’s most popular items. A shower cap — price tag, $43.
"It has antibacterial coating, it dries very quickly," she said. "So it’s this fashionable shower cap that almost looks like this cool turban that you could wear out on the street with no judgment. Actually, people would think you look really awesome."
Nearby sits a basket of teddy bears.
“So, here’s the thing about the bears," Kriegsman said.
The bears are made of tweed. They have small pointy noses and their arms are crossed. They look kind of disappointed in you. No one wants a judgmental teddy bear, and they're not selling well. Not everything can be a best-seller. But that's the point. Big retailers like Barneys and Bloomingdale's tend to be risk averse. But co-retailing allows businesses to research what consumers want, on a small scale.
"So even those didn’t move and they seem out of place, it was still a learning experience for them," Kriegsman said about the brand.
Toward the front of the store, laid out on a white shelf, are pieces by local jewelry designer Emiko Shinozaki. Today she’s dropping off some delicate gold earrings shaped like honeycomb. She said growing up, Barneys was the pinnacle of beautiful things, but as a designer working with a large, national chain can feel restrictive.
“You can't just be like, 'Oh, I'm going to try this — I'm going to try this chain — I'll just put it out there. We'll see what happens. It's not like that," she said.
Shinozaki likes the freedom and flexibility co-retailing offers.
“I like messing around. I like experimenting. I like being able to do art," she said. "I'm not in the business just to manufacture.”
But how do you get consumers into stores to buy your art? It used to be there was no alternative to bad dressing room lights, not to mention the long lines to get into one. So retailers could get away with offering discounts to get shoppers into stores.
"The idea is, 'Hey, you’re getting 25 percent off — stop complaining," said Ravi Dhar, director of the Center for Customer Insights at Yale School of Management.
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But now he says times have changed. And even when co-retail spaces like Bulletin offer events with free rose, it can be tough. Online shopping offers free shipping and returns.
“It’s like having a little store inside my home. And that’s really hard to compete with," he said.
Then, there's the cost.
"I think it's an expensive idea," said retail consultant Syama Meagher.
Traditional department stores buy goods. Co-retailers pay to display their goods, and there's no guarantee they'll sell.
"At the end of the day, the inventory they have in these stores is a liability," Meagher said.
Also tough: using the fancy Soho address provided by a co-retail space to try to impress a national chain.
“They know that there are these co-retailing spaces and they know that it costs money to be a part of them," Meagher said. "It doesn't necessarily mean that another retail store has actually endorsed you and spent money to buy your product."
"I completely understand the background of a Barneys being like, 'Oh, well, you know you pay to be in that store.' I get it," said handbag designer Mia Wright-Ross as she unpacked her first shipment of handmade leather bags at Finer Fields, another co-retail space in Soho. "But also, I paid to be in the store because people like you don't come see people like me," she said, musing about the difficulty of young brands attracting the attention of buyers from large chains.
For now Wright-Ross said, she's focused on getting seen by other eyes — those belonging to customers.
"Right now, my goal is to learn more and more about the customer that I'm trying to reach," she said. "I know I can't do that alone in my bedroom answering emails."