Image Source The Met

Sometimes we need to look back to inform how we move forward. Taking a step back is exactly what our department stores need to do if they are to survive in the bitter battle for sales on the High Street.

The irony is that when the great retailer, R.H. Macy opened his first department stores in 1858 on 14th Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, he was known for his creative merchandising. He was the first to shake-up department store shopping with many new products.  He introduced the Idaho baked potato and coloured bath towels into his stores, and was the first retailer to hold a liquor license and a flower show.

As well as being one of the first retailers to promote women in his stores, Macy was the pioneer of a one-price system in which the same item was sold to all customers at one price, and quoted specific prices for goods in newspaper ads. This is not dissimilar to the price promises that John Lewis still does today.

But it was the charismatic Harry Selfridge of Selfridge’s in London who really celebrated the shopping experience. It was he who turned shopping into the lifestyle choice that is has become today. Mr Selfridge was way ahead of his rivals in so many ways – he was the first retailer to introduce proper window displays, bring women’s cosmetics from France to sell in his store – although scandalous at the time. As well as this, he was first to bring the Bleriot aeroplane, which crossed the Channel into his store.

As the store’s website says:  ”Harry Selfridge was the first in the U.K. to allow customers to touch and interact directly with the store’s products and the first to sell a broad mix of inexpensive and extremely luxurious items under one roof.” It goes on: “Effectively, he wanted for every customer to feel welcome at his store and stay and be there as long as they liked in an environment that was captivating, servicing needs and safe. He was also the only one to relentlessly use his store as a theatre, an exhibition space and a playground to delight customers with unexpected experiences. Real theatre was born.”

Not surprisingly, Selfridges became a hugely popular lifestyle choice for London’s chic, a place to be seen and to meet others. That’s what department stores need to be today—experimental and experiential places where customers want to be entertained and have fun.

Hotels and museums are also waking up to potential they have within their space to offer their customers new treats ranging from exhibitions to live shows; and some are already giving department stores a run for their money.

As a recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out: “Millennials, especially, want hipper, more happening lobbies and restaurants and better technology in rooms’’. Hotels are no longer just for overnight stays or the quick squeeze. They are places to hang out, work, relax as well as receiving tiptop service. One only has to look to The Ace Hotel, Soho House, The Hoxton or Leman Locke to see this demand reflected in London.

In the US, the new Pendry’s Hotels group is making waves with niche hotels offering souped up services. This includes the old-fashioned bell service, concierges and 24-hour room service, along with being funkier and hipper in design than traditional luxury brands.

In San Diego, the recently opened Penury’s will have a nightclub and a beer hall while the one in Baltimore, which opened this month will feature a specialist whisky bar; something for everyone is the flavour of the day.

Museums are also going through something of a reinvention. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the MetLiveArts programme is featuring a brilliantly novel concept – the Museum Workout. It’s a collaboration between the contemporary American dance company Monica Bill Barnes & Company, and writer/illustrator, Maira Kalman and takes the audience through a physical, interactive journey through the Met. It’s a clever idea; the public is invited in to take part in the journey before the museum opens to the public and it’s a melange of the senses. While Kalman selects the art work visited along the tour, the Workout soundtrack mixes her recorded voice with Disco and Motown hits.

This mixing of senses is not just for the Met’s high art. Even auto dealerships are learning they have to reach out to provide their customers with better services and build brand loyalty. BMW has started a valet service to pick up a customer’s car for service at the home, office or at the airport while their customers travel. The cars are returned to them when the repairs are complete. This is rather like local garages used to do years ago to their best customers. As I said starting out, going back to the past takes you to the future.