What are third places, and why are some retail brands so eager to build them?

What is a Third Place?

A third place, as defined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg, is a place located somewhere between home and work, where people come to bond, alleviate stress, and seek comfort either alone or in the company of others. Oldenburg explains that third places must be accessible rather than exclusive for all demographics; they must give off a comfortable and welcoming ambiance; and they must help people escape the mundane, accomplish a task, or inspire a sense of community.

Third places have changed along with the societies they serve. From the European coffee houses where French Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau would meet over a drink, to pubs like the one where the Inklings met to discuss their literary works, to the American diners and malt shops of the 1950’s where teenagers would make eyes over milkshakes and listen to the latest records.

Today’s third places look much different, and if history is any indication, they will continue to change and evolve.

With consumers seeking more places to meet, eat, greet, interact, and bond, brands have capitalized on the idea of the “third place” by opening imaginative branded spaces that blur the lines between storefront, lounge, and sidewalk café.

If you’re wondering if you could do the same for your business, here are five lessons we’ve learned from studying the branded third places doing it best.

Dwell on it.

Third places allow customers to come and go at their own pace, often offering refreshments, entertainment or information, and opportunities to learn about something new within the space. By opening spaces like this up to communities, regardless of customer status, brands can build a reputation for caring about the well-being of their customers beyond their transactional relationships.

What better example of that mentality than a bank, where relationships are defined by transactions? At Capital One 360 Cafe, you can enjoy delicious coffee, cozy seating, and free WiFi, while you meet with other people, get some work done or just enjoy some quiet time.

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By building a space that emphasizes their relationship with the community over their relationship to our wallets, Capital One has an opportunity to respect the independence and intelligence of its audience, while living up to its promise to Do the Right Thing by using their resources to contribute something meaningful to the communities they serve.

Make it exclusive.

By offering rare products, services, and even events, customers are incentivized to visit and share their experiences with others, creating brand loyalty as a byproduct of creating memorable moments.

American Girl, the consummate example of that strategy, accomplishes it by offering physical location exclusives, such as hairstyles, outfits, and accessories, that brand loyalists can’t find anywhere else. They’ve transformed the idea of hyper-customization from a logistical detail into an event, creating a space for making memories that can’t be found anywhere else.

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Visitors can enjoy girl time with their dolls, have a spa day together, and take a seat in the cafe (with branded menu items, of course), making it not just a branded space, but a destination. By blurring the lines between what’s seen in catalogs and magazines, and what’s acted out in real life, children get to experience the stories they’ve been playing out in their imaginations.

Fuel the self-serve discovery machine.

In a connected world where anyone can find anything they want at any time of day, some consider it a status symbol when they find great products flying under the radar. For example, customers looking to experience the wonder of discovering new, high-quality beauty products they’ve somehow never heard of have turned to subscription boxes like Birchbox, which delivers a curated selection of beauty product samples to your door every month.

Now they’ve opened their first-ever retail destination in Soho, a sanctuary for self-care where women shrug off the gridlock and the grind and get together over fancy cocktails to primp and pluck. Bachelorette parties, spa days, and solo “me time” are all encouraged, and customers can enjoy a fully digitized experience to book services, explore product information and try on new looks.

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This third place is a standout not only because it encourages dwell time and discovery, but because it fosters a relationship between subscriber, customer, and brand, all focused on helping women show off their best selves.

Marry tradition and modernity.

Third places that marry traditional experience with modern amenities play to customers’ desire for service with soul. Shaving ecommerce retailer Harry’s has perfected the modern man’s desire to connect with like minds at its barbershop location, where customers can expect consistent cuts and community-oriented service.

Harry’s has built an interesting third place in New York, a third place that revives the traditions of a classic barbershop, where regulars and newcomers alike can get together, learn from the city’s best barbers, and discover new products to take home and try out.

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Cuts are relatively affordable, and returning customers can enjoy speedy service every time thanks to an iPad app called Cut Archive that retains customer preferences, past cuts, and memos about the customer’s life.

By keeping their customers’ style, preferences, and products in sync across their online store, their barber shop, and at home, Harry’s is building an ecosystem of branded touch points that build the kind of trust over the long term that goes even further above and beyond what you’d expect from the kind of classic barbershop that’s been cutting the neighborhood’s hair for decades.

Let them linger.

Some of the smartest branded third places are built to keep customers curious, comfortable, and content even through mealtimes that would distract shoppers and lure them outside of their walls.

IKEA may not have as many locations as other furniture stores, but they make up for that by providing visitors with a space that’s inviting and innovative, where they can grab a 50 cent hot dog or one-dollar soft-serve cone on any given Saturday, browse products, and imagine them in their own homes.

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In addition to being a living showroom featuring rooms that customers can “play house” in by touching and feeling the products, IKEA also features a European-style cafeteria that serves Swedish favorites. In some cases, people drive for hours just to come to IKEA, and leaving the store to find lunch is the last thing they want to have to do. Other times, families come to IKEA simply for its cheap breakfasts and, often times, leave with a new piece of furniture.

Its cafeteria ambiance and “try before you buy” model have helped IKEA become the go-to third place of choice when customers want a quick bite and a long stroll around its store. More often than not, customers who don’t intend to fill their carts do – and return time and time again for an experience that makes them feel at home.

What’s In It For The Brand?

What’s unique about these third places is that they avoid making hard sales. These spaces exist to establish a physical identity that customers can enjoy and experience on an emotional level, focusing on meeting human needs to make their brand experience more enjoyable.

They might not get customers out of these efforts directly, but they’ll get to show the human side of their work, even in industries that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with community. Further, branded third spaces provide an opportunity to encourage connection to their brand and foster conversations about experiences.

By giving the people behind the brand an opportunity to build something that members of a community can enjoy together, they’re setting the stage for more authentic connections within the community. Even if it doesn’t lead to a sale every time, you can imagine the pride and goodwill building up within their walls will come back to reward them many times over.