European retail: The greatest hits

“Jesus freaks out in the street
Handing tickets out for God
Turning back she just laughs
The boulevard is not that bad”

– Bernie Taupin

European metropolitan retail, at its best, is simply a statement, and having looked more closely last month at Milan and London retail, I can say that is has never been more evident than in the central business districts of these great cities.

During this year’s retail study tour with our global partners at Ebeltoft Group, it was also apparent that these cities provide the cathedral-like physical environments necessary to house such retail statements.

From the tri-level gastronomic magical mystery tour of Eataly in Milano, to the Willy Wonka factory, otherwise known as Starbucks’ Milano Roastery, to the Apple store entrance with its fountain of water heralding you to the Church of Retail, retailers in these cities use vertical  space to dominate and envelop the senses.

The very buildings they operate in are the first experience to take in. Often ex-banks, stock market buildings (Starbucks), ex-theatres (Eataly), they are magnificent buildings and many of hundreds of years old, rising above their contemporary surroundings in dramatic fashion.

Eataly’s three-level emporium.

They make concession to online retailing with overt online signage, click-and-collect depots, where online purchases are able to be returned, less overall stock on show, with iPads in shop to display the broader range (Zara) and some digital showmanship pieces in shops, such as robotics, which custom engrave products in the Kiko cosmetics chain, and 3D body scanners in AW Labs.

Still, I am reliably informed that Milan’s La Rinascentre department store turns over an average of $30,000 per sqm – another example that global tourist department stores are ok.

Teaching and educating customers is a big focus, as can be seen at Eataly, Starbucks’ Milano Roastery, Carrefour’s Market Gourmet, which also offers laundry, tailoring, shoe repairs and even pet minding – broadening the appeal and visit motivation, and telco Huawei’s ‘city life shop’, which offers free courses in photography and computer programming.

Here, the retailer encourages and even indulges you in your passion, and in doing so, exercises their uniqueness above and beyond product and range.

Other retailers invite customers to just hang out, such as Apple, whose store entrance operates as a multifunctional place, where people can sit, use free WiFi, listen to live music and attend concerts and film screenings. Even Carrefour has respite, relaxation and sociability in mind, with its Express Urban life co-working spaces and in-store lounges.

Apple’s entrance invites customers to just hang out.

Meanwhile, the Moleskin stationery shop has a café, and RED (Read, Eat and Dream) bookstores have Italian restaurants, all showing that a loose marriage of categories is getting even looser.


Here are some of the key takeaways from my visit:

  • Nothing beats a kick-ass flagship strategy, but do it in a building that dominates spatially and in overall size and significance. Online doesn’t enter the conversation in these environments. Theatre, use of space and depth does.
  • Online is a necessary conduit to the retail customer experience – encourage click and collect and online returns, the most practical example of seamless or frictionless retail. Above all, use online to bring consumers into the physical epicentre. This is fast becoming a hygiene factor for retail rather than a desirable, nice to have.
  • There is no such thing as over-indulging your customer these days , and certainly education, classes and entertaining customers goes a longer way than just product and price positioning.
  • Playing across categories is becoming more common and most obvious in the desired customer “dwelling environments”. No hard and fast rules, just adaptation and innovation rules. Your customer will be the judge and jury.

Brian Walker is founder and CEO of Retail Doctor Group, a retail advisory and consultancy group and the Australian elected partner  member of the global retail expert’s alliance Ebeltoft Group.

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