Unshackled by older legacy brands like department stores, smaller boutique and distinct style brick and mortar retail brands are driving innovation through design, merchandising and experiences to win customer hearts while creating whole new retail categories.

Just on the heels of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, shoppers across the country are being deluged with commercials, deals and specials, leaving no doubt that the holiday retail season is now officially on. The focus on seasonal sales is understandable, given that many retailers rely on the month’s volume to garner nearly 20 percent of their annual sales, according to the National Retail Federation. It’s during this peak season that retail brands put on their best face for consumers to drive foot traffic through the store’s doors. In fact, brick and mortar in particular must do even more during this high season than online brands given that Cyber Monday is carving out a bigger and bigger piece of the overall retail pie.

So, what is it that brick-and-mortar stores are doing to turn heads and win hearts? In our last retail experience entry, we discussed how department stores, once the titan of retail, were using good design, creative merchandizing and innovative experiences to resurrect a dying breed. But shifting large, legacy stores is no easy task with change coming slowly in measured steps. While there is a shifting dynamic in the department store approach, the real innovators in retail experience are smaller upstarts that are recreating the customer experience from the ground up. Whether it’s pop-up shops capitalizing on the element of surprise or building in sensorial elements from the ground up, the new movers and shakers have completely upended the retail environment, and no one does it better than the fashion industry.

Fashion’s Test Sites

According to Fashionista Magazine “The business of fashion has been challenged all across the board, as everyone from luxury brands to department stores have had to pivot to keep up with changing consumer habits.” In New York’s Meatpacking District, funky, trend-setting boutiques have been driven out as rents skyrocket thanks to the arrival of mass market stores like Sephora and the Apple store. While this chic district has always been considered de rigueur for fashion watchers, new arrivals were watering down the district’s cache, just as foot traffic was picking up with the opening of the Whitney Museum this summer.

Bal Harbor, Miami, FL

Bal Harbor, Miami, FL

In this shifting backdrop, Intermix, a retailer known for championing exciting emerging designers, not only remained, but opened a dynamic 1,190-square-foot “creative lab” next door to its district store. There are also plans for it to launch three additional boutiques across the U.S. in the coming months, but it’s not an expansion in the literal sense of the world. The additional boutiques will also remain small, curated spaces. According to president Jyothi Rao in Fashionista, “We’ve made this expansion portion of it feel quite intimate. We are going to be communicating more about each of the designers, their inspirations and their stories because most people who will be shopping in that neighborhood may never have heard of them yet.”

Filmore District, San Fransisco, CA

Filmore District, San Fransisco, CA

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Buckhead, Atlanta, GA

Palo Alto, CA

Palo Alto, CA

While many fashion retailers are looking at how to compete with the big boys, Intermix’s smaller footprint is actually one of their cleverest advantages. The small size of their shops allows the boutique to create a tone and feeling specific to each shop’s geographic area and clientele. Known as a home for fashion “disruptors,” Intermix uses a targeted merchandising strategy to further a custom, one-of-a-kind feel. In fact, the brand’s Madison Avenue and Columbus Avenue boutiques sit just a stone’s throw apart on opposing ends of Central Park, yet feature entirely different stock, shop layouts, window displays and staff members. Even the mannequins are different, making each boutique feel one-of-a-kind, very unlike mammoth fashion retailers’ economies of scale approach.

Columbus Ave, New York City

Columbus Ave, New York City

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Madison Ave, New York City

Prince St, Soho, New York City

Prince St, Soho, New York City

With their latest venture in the creative lab, Intermix again uses its small size to its advantage, creating an entirely new store from top-to-bottom every quarter. Rao says, “The entire environment is designed to be taken apart literally overnight, so we can make that into almost a gallery, salon kind of space within an hour.” The space can be turned as an event space for fashion happenings or gatherings to highlight one of its designers. Rao continues, “We already have a calendar of things that we want to do — probably even more than we have the capacity to do. Whatever we put out there we want to execute it in an indelibly exciting and quality way.” And although it’s locally curated, some of their best pieces from all of their shops are available on their website, making them a local neighborhood gem with an omni-channel presence.

Large Scale Bohemian

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On the opposite end of the size spectrum is Anthropologie’s latest offering: a 30,000-square foot concept store that is a divine delight for all of the senses. While not small and curated like Intermix, Anthroplogie is not your local mall’s department store either. Unlike most mass-appeal department stores, Anthropologie stays true to its boho roots, offering a rich tactile and visual experience based squarely in its upscale thrift-store chic appeal. The new Anthropologie doesn’t want to attract to a broader swath of customers with its larger footprint, but rather, create an environment offering an enhanced version of its curated, distinctive goods to its particular brand of lifestyle devotees.

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According to the Business of Fashion (BOF), “Located in a former Barnes & Noble, the space — three times the size of a typical Anthropologie — includes a dedicated shoe salon featuring 350 styles from more than 50 brands, ranging from Rachel Comey to Loeffler Randall, a beauty nook with more than 800 products and tools from more than 90 brands, including Sunday Riley and Eve Lom, as well as 12 full-scale build-outs of living spaces. There’s also a ‘design centre,’ where shoppers can flick through fabric swatches for custom furniture, peruse wallpaper sample books and receive a consultation from a “home stylist.” It’s a bohemian carnival that incorporates pop-up, experiential and salon concepts all under one rich velvet tent.

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It’s not that the department store concept is somehow anathema to modern retail. In fact, David W McCreight, chief executive of the Anthropologie Group sings the praises of the original department store concept, but not necessarily its modern mass market grandchildren. “In many ways, this turns back to the heritage of the great, original department stores,” a destination spot where people ooooh and aaaah over distinctive wares that they have never seen before. This visual feast full of luxurious and unique items creates an environment that envelopes shoppers and makes them want to linger longer and stroll among the lovely items for 30 minutes or more.

As you head out for your holiday shopping adventures, let us know what you see that is a novel take on the shopping concept. Use #holidayretail and join the conversation.