Making the Most of Historic and Local Architecture in Atmospheric Retail Design, Pt. 2

Two guys walk into a bar.

One of them decides it’d make a great retail clothing shop.

For an old bar, this place cleans-up pretty well.

Back in 1825, a New Yorker thought the land would make a great place for his townhome. Some years later, another fella came along and made it into the Tribeca Tavern.

By the same impressive feat of logic, why wouldn’t someone turn an old bar into a clothing shop?

And that’s exactly what J.Crew did – in collaboration with designers Partners – at 235 West Broadway, in New York City. The menswear-only store was a first for them. When it comes to the apparel market, women are the dominating demographic, and the number of stores solely devoted to menswear is a small and diminishing number.

How could they make a boutique store for men? How could J.Crew make their mark?

The answer came by selling something most stores don’t: the experience of shopping.

Sure, you can pick up the trendiest duds fresh off the pages of the GQ seasonal spread here. What else do they have? How about a couple new vinyl records to spin on the turntable? They’ve got ‘em. A nice, leather-bound, out-of-print, or first-edition book to proudly display on your shelf? They’ve got that, too (What seems like inadvertently and haphazardly-placed books actually comprises the in-house STRAND bookstore). And what was that? You’ve got more money to than you know what do with? Why not lighten your wallet by scooping-up a couple vintage Rolex or Omega wristwatches? They’re right alongside the vintage tie bar collection.

Shy of a bucket of wings and a leather recliner, it’s got about anything and everything the well-dressed American male could ask for. The merchandise – demonstrably – they’ve got.

The merchandise doesn’t make this store, however. Here, it isn’t about what you can buy, it’s about how you buy it.

Here they serve style…on the rocks.

Don’t walk in looking for the familiar modular shelving units and hanging racks. You won’t find them. Neck ties are draped over the brass rail of the original bar. Cardigan sweaters hang off the lip of the townhome fireplace’s stone mantel. Their only “conventional” display of clothing (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) is the use of an antique armoire to display button-down shirts.

Removing the racks is part of the atmospheric approach J.Crew has taken to demolish a presentational, “look-but-don’t-touch” approach to shopping. Want to try on a hat? Grab one off the old-school hat rack. Those neat-looking suitcases they’ve got stacked-up to display the suede boots? They’re for sale, too.

“For display purposes only” isn’t something you’ll hear often, here. This approach to visual display is a bonus for the store as well, using one piece of merchandise to sell another piece. When one item sells, it makes room for another, leaving an enormous potential for flexible, creative visual merchandising. If they made quick enough of a rotation with their items, you might even begin to wonder if you could ever visit the same store, twice. You may have to wander around a smidge to find where the jeans are, and well, you may even stumble across something else you like.

I’ll admit, it’s a smart approach.

Think about it: a picture-perfect pile of neatly-folded sweaters doesn’t make a customer feel compelled to buy them. If anything, he’ll feel badly about mussing-up the merchandise and won’t even want to touch them. But if you drape that sweater over an old coat rack, alongside some vintage hats? Chances are – even if only to satisfy curiosity – he’ll pick it up, move a few things around, and probably find something he likes enough to try on. If you have to always look past one item to see another, or brush one to pick another up, you’re becoming acquainted with twice as much of their catalog than a normal shopper would be.

“For Display Purposes Only?” Not here.

From the moment you spot the red and blue, neon “Liquor Store” signage from down the street, you’ve become part of the experience. Come closer and take a peek through the vintage storefront windows. Heck, step inside, tread those worn old plank floorboards, and see it for yourself. This company has managed to turn something as commonplace as shopping for clothes into a memorable, exciting experience. After all, who gets excited about “Errands?”

I know the next time I’m in New York City, I’ll be making a stop there.

What can we learn from the minds behind the J.Crew Men’s Shop?

1.) Would you like ties with that? A customer looking at a rack of shirts is only going to be looking at – and consequently, for – shirts. If there are multiple offerings (even complimentary to the featured item) the customer is potentially up-selling himself, considering complementary and supplemental options to the primary one.

2.) Know the dress code. You wouldn’t wear a tuxedo on a first date. Neither should you make your storefront look like the line queue for an amusement park ride. If you’re moving a business into an older, historical district, utilize the strengths of the existing architecture and history inherent. It not only is an easy way to make nice with your new neighbors, but moreover, how to show pride in becoming a member of the surrounding community.

3.) Touch, don’t look. A hands-on approach to merchandise makes the customer more comfortable handling, trying on, and ultimately, buying something. How is someone going to know how soft and comfortable that cashmere sweater is without first picking it up? Closing the physical proximity between customer and merchandise creates an instant, personal relationship between them. Stores aren’t in the business of displaying things; they’re in the business of selling things.

Other lessons to be learned? No, you can’t still belly up to the bar and expect a barkeep to pour you out a shot, and yes, if you pick up a pool cue off the wall, you probably will get in a fight…though it’ll be with the police officer escorting you off of the premises.

You do either of those, you’re left to your own devices. Stick to the aforementioned advice, and your business will be as smart as your fashion sense.

Want to read more on the subject? Check out last week’s post on historic and local architecture!

What do you think of J.Crew’s store style? Do you agree that a hands-on experience creates a stronger relationship between customers and merchandise?

Image credit to J.Crew.

Eric Labanauskas

Eric is a data entry specialist and contributing writer for the QLP Blog Squad. He is a city boy with a country heart, with an appetite for anything chicken-fried. He has studied as an apprentice at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, performed across the country as Buddy Holly in "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," and can tie a bow tie by himself without the aid of a mirror. 1950's rock 'n roll is his soundtrack, especially while on road-trips with his lovely girlfriend. Suffice it to say, he is also the owner of some good cocktail party stories from his many experiences. You can also connect with Eric on Google+.


  1. amy

    I’d love to visit this store, even though I’m not a guy! It’s such a cool concept that I’m surprised hasn’t caught on very much. Stores in the mall with “unique” entrances (Hollister comes to mind first) always catch my eye while the Gap rarely does. And I shop at the latter more often, ironic.

    I also agree with your line, “a picture-perfect pile of neatly-folded sweaters doesn’t make a customer feel compelled to buy them. If anything, he’ll feel badly about mussing-up the merchandise and won’t even want to touch them.” I couldn’t agree more. I either will pick up a shirt to look at it if it’s already unfolded or I spend 3 minutes trying to fold it back up again (retail guilt never goes away- LOL).

    Another excellent post, Eric!

    • Eric

      Thanks, Amy!

      Hollister has me at the “I’m at the mall, but not in the mall” concept, and loses me after I find myself inhaling the vaporized gallon of cologne they’ve floating in the air, squinting to see pricetags in a space that makes a nightclub look well-lit, and asking if Shelley has any Ibuprofen with her to combat the subwoofer-heavy, pseudo-club music they’re bumping-out to. Their visual approach is much like communism: great in theory, terrible in execution.

      The stores that’re too bare, too open, too clean? Weird me out. Big time. Don’t go in ’em. Don’t shop at ’em. Not my scene.

      And nope, “retail guilt” never goes away. I used to work at a J.Crew, ironically…there was no keeping that table of cashmere sweaters folded nicely come the holiday shopper season. Ever. Glad to know I’m not alone, there!

  2. david k waltz

    I remember visiting New England, and in a lot of the smaller towns residential homes have been converted to shops and restaurants. It definitely provides a much different ambiance, which can work well depending on the type of customer being sought.

    Something to look for the next time I’m in NY. Thanks!

    • Eric

      They’re also clever at getting you in the door, David.

      Try as I may, the items they’ve got at their Liquor Store location are, pretty much, exclusive to that location. Mostly because a lot of the non-stock items are actual, vintage pieces that are one-of-a-kind. The vintage watches with the updated, nylon straps really caught my eye. I doubt I’d be able to take a Rolex home, but a 1960’s-era Timex may work.

      Let me know how you like it if you get to check it out!

  3. Rachel

    Great post, Eric! This store looks amazing. I love the ties displayed in the glasses above the liquor bottles! What a great, inventive idea. And I definitely agree with your point that a store can become such a more inviting and interesting place if the business owners use the local architecture to their advantage. I wish more stores did this–though I can understand the hesitancy to spend money and energy on decor. Still, I think it would pay off in the long run for many retail businesses.

    • Eric

      Thanks, Rachel!

      After – like most twenty-something Americans – having “served my time” in the retail industry, I can tell you, flat-out, I highly doubt I’d have enjoyed customers taking a hands-on approach to all the merchandise.

      I worked at an outlet mall. Needs are different, there. Then again, I do like the idea of selling one-off items. That way, you can just sell the damn shirt off the mannequin and not have to worry about folks asking what size it is after the shelves have run dry.

      Thankfully, I worked mostly for the visual department. Speaking of, and for the record, folks: women’s display mannequins are usually an XS on top, 4 on the bottom, and men’s are a size Medium or 40R on Top, with a 34″ waist on the bottom.

  4. Mandy Kilinskis

    Great post, Eric!

    The pictures of that show look amazing. And the fact that they’ve added in merchandise like first edition books and vintage Rolexs? That’s incredible. Talk about your one-stop ultimate indulgence shop.

    More stand-alone stores that move into historic buildings should try and do similar. As you suggested, you would probably never go into the same store twice, giving consumers additional reasons to take multiple trips back and discover new items as they explore the space.

    As Rachel discussed above, it wouldn’t work for the big-box Office Depot, Target, or Walmart (though it would’ve made my Target years more interesting), but it definitely can work for the smaller retail chains or independent stores. More stores like this would be a welcome change.

    • Eric

      Seriously, Mandy! If ever the day comes where I’m asking myself, “Man, what am I gonna do with all these extra hundred-dollar bills?” well, I’m stopping here to remedy my problem.

      You hit the nail on the head. I’m a huge sucker for one-off, limited-production, one-of-a-kind items. If they’re vintage (and probably built a heck of a lot better than most things are, now), all the moreso a sucker. But there’s nothing less interesting for me than a store that keeps the same items in the same place and always, always carries the same things. The unpredictability here makes shopping more interesting from the get-go.

      I’ve never quite been to a boutique grocery store, but there are grocery stores downtown (namely, the Dominick’s off of Fullerton by DePaul) that are so comically small and narrow it makes the shopping experience hell. I mean, a second floor? In a grocery store? WTF?!?!

      If only good ‘ol Chuck Taylor would make a store like this, well, you’d be in seventh heaven!

      • Mandy Kilinskis

        I’ve seen that Dominick’s, but I’ve never actually gone inside of it. That sounds like a terrible use of space…but if it’s still there, I guess it’s working for them. I, on the other hand, would walk the extra mile to the grocery store all on one level.

        Ohmygoodness. If a store like that actually existed, I would become so broke so fast. And it would be so worth it. Oh, a girl can dream. 🙂

  5. Jen

    This store looks awesome Eric! I would love to visit it someday. Even though I’m not a man, I still enjoy a good clothing store. I always find myself drawn to vintage stores. There is a clothing store called Dry Goods, that was designed to look like an old general store with the big bar like counter, porcelain tile floors and dark wood tables, cabinets and trim. It’s not nearly as awesome as the Liquor Store, but cool none-the-less.

    Great post!

    • Eric

      Well, Hey, Jen, I’m not at all ashamed to say I’ve found myself pretty impressed by Anthropologie whenever Shelley’s dragged me along to do her shopping. Man in a woman’s store. Doesn’t matter to me.

      They’ve got this hand-made, arts-and-crafts vibe going, and their store displays and visuals are always, always presentations you’ll never find anywhere else (unlike their sister company Urban Outfitters, who seems to be exploring how many different ways you can make things out of old plywood and metal pipes).

      It’s got a certain charm to it, and even things like handwritten paper pricetags attached with a piece of string add a really cool, retro touch. Sometimes it’s nice to check out and not have some poor cashier fuss with the UPC scanner.

      Glad ya enjoyed it!

  6. Joseph Giorgi

    I don’t do a whole lot of shopping, but a place that offers the kind of “experience” you describe here is probably worth checking out. If I ever get around to visiting the Big Apple, I’ll have to stop in and have a look.

    I love your “Touch, Don’t Look” takeaway. Definitely the right way to go about displaying the products. I had never really thought of a “picture-perfect pile of neatly-folded sweaters” as being less inviting than sweaters just hanging around next to the other items, but that’s probably a solid point. When customers can interact more with their options, they’ll be much more apt to make a purchase.

    Another thought-provoking post, Eric. Great stuff!

    • Eric

      Thank ya, sir! It’s got a good vibe going, even if only judging that on the basis of pictures alone. Most retail clothing shops I don’t feel comfortable lingering around in, feeling my aimless wandering will make me a gazelle for the sales associate lions in the retail Serengeti. If I’m not actively engaged with the product and there’s no interaction, it probably does appear that I need to be sold something. I’d say this store sells itself, and my curiosity would be more than enough to keep me interested.

  7. Jill Tooley

    I loved this post, Eric. I’ve never been to New York, but I hope to make my way there someday. When that happens, I’m going to check out J.Crew to see all of these wonderful things for myself! Clothes shopping is typically a horrifying experience for me, but I think I could cope in surroundings like that. It would relax me.

    It’s funny, but I somehow latched on to one specific thing you mentioned here: Strand Bookstore. All I have to say is: OMFG! That place looks like heaven to me. I could probably spend days in there and still not see everything worth seeing! They have a really cool history page on their site that’s absolutely fascinating to me. 2.5 million books? An entire room full of rarities? I’m SO there. (And I thought Half Price Books had a ton of stuff!) Thanks a lot…now I have to convince my husband to go to NY with me for a visit soon! 😉

    • Eric

      Well, #$%^. I’m an enabler. Of literacy. I’ll live with it. 🙂

      Who knows what they’re charging to buy them, but hell, next time I’m in NYC and the weather’s crummy, Strand’ll be my go-to spot. 2.5M books?!?! I don’t think it’d be too hard to find something good to read and pass the time with. Makes J.Crew’s selection seem like a counter display. Sheesh!

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