Eating Your Way Out of Apparel Stagnation

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Eating Your Way Out of Apparel Stagnation

By Jordan Speer - 08/07/2017
Ralph's Coffee & Bar brings the Ralph Lauren customer experience into dining.

Last month as I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, I alit on a tweet that made me stop in my tracks: a photo of the most delicious-looking ice cream sundae I have ever seen. A clear glass pedestal bowl overflowed with vanilla ice cream and strawberries, topped with chocolate sauce, a sugar cookie and a sprig of mint. I saw the photo before I saw its source: this decadent treat was courtesy of @RalphLauren. Text: The strawberry sundae at Ralph’s Coffee & Bar. #Wimbledon #NationalIceCreamDay.

If you read Apparel’s annual Top 50 Report published last month, perhaps you noticed that what otherwise has been a perennial name on that list was missing from the rankings this year. Ralph Lauren has been struggling for the past couple of years, and in May announced decreases in comp-store sales for the ninth straight quarter in a row. As the company seeks to reverse this trend, it is cutting costs and making changes: the company appointed former P&G exec Patrice Louvet as CEO last month, hoping his industry-outsider status will bring a fresh eye to the business; it also announced plans earlier this year to shutter more than 50 stores, including its Fifth Avenue Polo flagship in New York City.

That flagship is the location of the first of its Ralph’s Coffee & Bar locations, which opened in 2014. There are now four, in Chicago, London and in New York City, respectively, and although it is shuttering its Fifth Avenue location, it is exploring growth for that piece of the business.

Ralph’s Coffee may seem like a stretch for the iconic lifestyle brand, but it offers a chance for apparel companies to capture that ever-elusive retail brass ring: the connected customer experience.

Combining retail with eat-ail is nothing new. I have long-ago memories of the soda fountain at the old Thalhimers Department Store in Richmond, Va., and Apparel’s publisher Susan assures me that the now-defunct Tapps Department Store here in Columbia, S.C., had the best corn muffins in town.

But today’s breed of eatery smacks of something a bit richer. It’s not just a side hustle; it’s a brand extension. Take a look at the décor and design of Ralph’s Coffee and you’ll see that they are entirely in keeping with the brand’s vibe, as is the menu.

This year, while researching for the Top 50 Report, I noticed that this sort of eat-ail seems to be gaining ground with apparel retailers. Tommy Bahama (Oxford) has been in on this game for a while, and now has 16 restaurants that offer diners the experience of feeling like they’ve never left the beach. (It also has its own brand of rum.) Urban Outfitters has been extending its brand via victuals as well with a variety of coffee bars and cafés in a number of its retail locations built to fit the vibe of each. (Additionally, Terrain, its home and garden store, hosts a farmto-table garden café, and a few years back the company acquired the Vetri Family pizza chain.) Lululemon, too, is extending the health experience with cafés that offer nutritional bites, such as the new Neat Café in its London Regent Street store. It also opened HUB seventeen, a community gathering space below its New York City Flatiron location designed to foster connection through collaboration, dinners and other unique programs.

The list goes on, well beyond the ranks of the Top 50 and the borders of the United States. There are cafés at Burberry and Gucci, Bulgari and Chanel.

So, what gives? Really, it’s no mystery. Given the Millennial demand for experience, the rapid rise in online shopping and the attendant decline in foot traffic, apparel retailers are looking for new ways to forge an emotional connection with the consumer, in person — to draw her into the store, and to keep her there.

This trend brings to my mind the German concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, “total artwork,” which brought together many disciplines — paintings, music, architecture, theatre, dance — in one place at one time, to immerse multiple senses at once.

Think of this as Gesamtverkauf: total retail. Extending an apparel brand into food may seem odd at first, but then again, what builds connection better than meeting a friend for coffee and dessert? If you can help create those good feelings, consumers will associate them with your brand.

That sounds like having your cake and eating it too.

Jordan K. Speer is editor in chief of Apparel.

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