Friday, June 22, 2018

No Holds Barred: the great shopping upheaval

by Blair Sabol

It seemed like a bad omen to me; 30 Prada executives were staying in my small New York City hotel, and one morning they all looked like they were “sitting shiva” in the lobby ... dressed in black, huddled together bent over their cell phones with grim faces.  They were in town for a “presentation,” but rumor has been that Prada is in serious trouble. Prada?  The New York uniform of black on black, in trouble?  Their presence in the elevator was also deadly.  Scowling, no eye contact, with fingers desperately scrolling through their cell phones. 

As if that vibe wasn’t bad enough, every day I was practically assaulted by people cell phone swiping and not looking where they were going.  This has now become a serious street hazard according to all my New York friends.  It is a dangerous epidemic; never mind terrorism! Even in the park I was hit from behind by a lab on a long leash while the ear-budded owner obliviously yelled into his phone!

Madison Avenue continues to look decimated as more stores close.  The traffic is beyond snarled with all the FedEx and UPS trucks dumping the massive online deliveries at all those apartment houses and office buildings.  I kept wondering how all the city apartments were now accommodating the new door-to-door packages with such small mailrooms.  Every building now needs a “shipping and receiving” floor.  I saw so many Chewy and Amazon boxes avalanching into the street.
Everyone keeps telling me times are changing daily. Keep up! But keep up with what?  Even the NY Attorney General was brought up on the same kinky sex charges as the Attorney General in the current Showtime TV hit “Billions.” Life imitating art?  Is it art or one big reality show?  Certainly the President and the news are the hottest daily series.  Though the Royal Wedding of Harry and Meaghan was better than an awards show or red carpet fashion event — will Meaghan end up going the Bravo Housewife route?  Never mind “Princess of the People,” how about “Housewife of the People.”  It could happen.  Everything is up for grabs!  Prada is failing and Zara is sailing.

Even Barney’s windows (known for inspiration and revelation) seemed odd with artist Rick Owens’ huge black sculpture of what looked like a giant turd — entitled “Subhuman.”  I didn’t have the time or interest to go in the store to discover his philosophy on the 3rd floor.
Subhuman Inhuman Superhuman?
Meanwhile the Metropolitan Gala and its “Heavenly Bodies” came and went. Opening day I was uptown and saw barricades everywhere but nobody I asked knew why they were there.  Finally a street cop explained, “It’s that Met crap?”  Met Crap?  Build a barricade and the New York City fashion crowd will come ... or will they?  They mostly circled the Carlyle hoping for a glimpse of Rihanna “reimagining the Pope” in her own profane style of silver blinged boobs, micro mini skirt and giant Pope hat.

I couldn’t get over that the Vatican would be involved in all this — but a pair of the former Pope’s red leather loafers became the hit of the show ... and they weren’t Prada or even Gucci!
The word is that the current Met costume show is the last for Vogue editor Anna Wintour.  I hope so as she should leave on a really “high” note — maybe singing “Nearer my God to Thee.”  There are long lines to see the show, but not like before.  Many of the viewers are serious Christians, and that I get — but the usual museum goers I know are not that crazy to check this one out.

And by the way, the gala itself seemed old and stale.  Why wasn’t Stormy Daniels climbing those museum stairs?  Apparently Madonna was there (overdressed like a hotel maid (another bad omen) and she actually sang — but not “Like a Virgin.”
Call me superficial, but I always judge a culture or a city by their “merch” — ahhhh, shopping! But New York City (like every other city) doesn’t have “the goods” like it used to.  And though everyone is raving about the convenience and power of click and send online shopping, we all miss the social interaction and excitement of cruising a great shop or department store.  Maybe that is why Museums and Broadway are now bigger than ever — for a mere $30 for a museum or $200-$2,000 for a Broadway show — you can get to see and feel “an experience.”

Lately, there have been cries for “the store is dead, long live the store.” Gucci’s newest store in Soho is offering “a world of discovery” with “cast members” serving as guides and sales help. There are screening rooms of music and videos of merchandise.  It’s called “Experiential Retail” — stores now have to be Vegas and bring a “spectacle” to get us away from Amazon and all the “dot com” vendors.  Oh no — get ready for more in-store café’s, art installations, bookshops — maybe even pole dancing!!  I’m already too exhausted! Send in the Clowns.
More popular than Hermès, Tony Dragon’s Grille — the food truck with the line around the corner.
There were only two actual shopping “events” I felt worthy in New York. Tony Dragon’s Grille, a food truck on the corner of 62nd and Madison, had its own lines outside an empty Hermes store. For hours, people stood for apparently the best homemade hand rolled heros and salmon and chicken gyros. Tony Dragon’s Grille was THE Madison Avenue shopping blockbuster.  Their banner says “forever fresh — real ingredients for real people.”  Clearly this food truck, voted number one in the city, has more authenticity and fans than all the luxury stores surrounding it!
Part of the lunch crowd ...
And the menu.
One Saturday I fell into another store favorite on Upper Madison Avenue — kids and parents were falling out of “Little Eric” (1118 Madison Ave). While it comes across as a kids’ shoe store, it also caters to adults and has become a major neighborhood staple and treasure.  Apparently on the weekend it is like an amusement park with clusters of kids and shopping parents.  The only time I could get in without the noise was at 10 AM on a Monday.  They offered the greatest suede driving moccasin I have ever seen for $195 in every color.  Better than Tod’s $379 or Loro Piana’s for $900! I had to get the turquoise (and I should buy them in every color)!   The comfort was great, but more importantly was the conversation with the store owner Michael Pasinkoff and fabulous shoe fitter extraordinaire Jean Dumas — the schmooze of a good shop is everything!
Little Eric’s Shoe-fitter extraordinaire Jean Dumas and owner Michael Pasinkoff.
Little Eric’s suede driving moccasins in every color.
Jean displaying the popular men’s suede sneaker.
Michael is second-generation owner and the store is 30 years old.  “We are Mom and Pop brick and mortar, and are a thriving American small business.  We strive to keep up on all styles for kids, and now adults as well.  We are a part of the Upper East Side Community and we are never leaving.  We’ve seen ‘em come and we see ‘em go.  We are part of the neighborhood history.”

And so they are ... offering cutting edge kids sneakers and dress shoes and now adult walking boots, sneakers, and of course Italian suede loafers for everyone.  “Little Eric” (not named for anyone in the Pasinkoff family) isn’t little in inventory, and the circus store scene on the weekends is enough “experiential retail” for me.
The “circus” before the doors open.
On the other hand, Allbirds is a two-year-old major fashion trend of a shoe — made from knit wool and castor bean oil.  The two styles (lounger and runner) are unisex and everything is around $95 (kids styles are $49-$85).  This is a Silicon Valley chic story since one of the originators is a young San Franciscan entrepreneur and the whole venture capitalist biz has a philosophy of green and clean and simple.  The shoes have been described as “the right amount of nothing.” Meaning comfy and no socks required. I found out about them last November (when they exploded on the scene upstaging Crocs, Birkenstocks, and now Nike’s) from my editors; Jeff Hirsch walks for miles a day taking NYSD pictures and prefers their marshmallow sole and lightness to all the clunkiness of a regular running shoe.
People “flocking" to Allbirds — 68 Prince St.
David Patrick Columbia swears they cured his plantar fasciitis and hasn’t taken them off! And now, my 95-year-old mother wears them, along with everyone I know.  My biggest criticism is lack of colors (except the laces) and I also resent buying shoes online.  You can’t try them on and returning anything is a bitch!  Also Allbirds “customer service” is quirky and they have an “attitude” online (and even when I phoned them).  It’s called “too cool for the room.”  They weren’t all that helpful — but hey — there’s two styles and four colors.  What’s the problem? I guess I had a problem.
Allbirds Shoe Bar.
Customer in an Allbirds tizzy.
Allbirds interior
Allbirds shoe fitting area.
New York City has one of the only Allbirds stores at 68 Prince Street and so I had to go.  It was total gridlock on a Monday afternoon.  A well-designed shoebox of a store — a shoe bar and a display and that’s it.  Everything was sold out for the throngs who were there.  And the 3 person sales team were kind but in overdrive!

Recently I heard Allbirds and Shake Shack had teamed up for “an experience” at the Shake Shack store in Madison Square Park.  Shoppers and eaters could order limited edition Allbirds and a special Shake Shack “tree runner” burger with fries.  No doubt this was another hell realm where everything is sold out in ten minutes.  Now this was supposed to be an Allbirds and Shake Shack “mission” announcement of “standing for something more — prioritizing quality ingredients, premium materials and supporting small businesses.”  Oh puhleeease, stop the holistic rap, stock up on your inventory, get more store help with less “online” attitude, and since when are Shake Shack’s shakes really nutritious?  They are delicious, but come on!
Allbirds Store Manager Dario Niveo arranging colorful laces.
Big store feature, not online, colorful laces!
Baby Allbirds, $45.
Summer colors (sold out!).
Allbirds beautifully styled “green” packaging.
Allbirds cute “green” inserts.
Aside from in store “experiences” there is something going on with online shopping that is noteworthy.  Social media like Facebook and YouTube have made “stars” out of people now called “influencers.”  I am not talking about teenage girls demonstrating their eyeliner and lip-gloss techniques in their underwear.  It’s people like transvestite Jeffree Star, the highest paid online beauty influencer, who have changed the beauty advertising business.

There is a tremendous retail value nowadays in video live streaming.  It's not just views of fashion shows — but certain sites have people connecting with each other and there is none of the solo emptiness of ordering on Amazon.  There is a social element in the streaming approach where people can not only connect and learn from the “influencer,” but from each other as well.

Enter Lisa Robertson — a 20-year “shop jock” veteran of QVC.  In fact, she was such a star on QVC that four years ago when she left and Joan Rivers (another major QVC sales attraction) died soon after; the network took a serious drop and actually hasn’t really come back to its former popularity (much like the rest of retail). 
Stunning Lisa Robertson in her “Vlogazine” studio/living room.
Lisa’s expertise of selling was so famous that people often said she really could sell anyone the Brooklyn Bridge!  Her popularity came from her obvious beauty and on-camera form of intimacy and humor. 

This past year I found her on Facebook selling her own line (lisarobertson.com) and I was mesmerized by her Sunday night “chats” and her daily product lineups.  Though she might be considered an “influencer,” her actual platform is more personal and unique. She calls her site a “Vlogazine” ... part video, part blog, and the rest is merchandise.  She brought her 175,000 (probably more) QVC fan base with her.  Perhaps she did end up starting her own “Style Network” with everything from Bloody Mary Mix ($35), to a set of fun colored Mason jars ($19), to 18-carat gold emerald and opal drop earrings ($7500), to bouquets of fake ranunculus, ($49), to Italian Sparkling butterfly earrings ($39), to cashmere shawls ($89) – even baby quilts ($65) and teething rings ($26).
Robertson’s best selling fake flowers.
Her eye is pretty vast, but as much as her actual curating skill are all her followers who are part of Lisa’s “shopping experience.”  They all write in daily — conversing with her and each other — and call themselves “The Tribe.”  I wouldn’t say Lisa is a cult ... yet! She is more of a style club open to everyone.  Now, she is even offering a cruise to the Caribbean in 2019 for a limited number and it is already almost sold out!
Full disclosure: I have bought great things from Lisa — a moderately priced amethyst ring, four bunches of her great fake tulips, a Boho shirt, and a great pink camouflage embroidered tote.  When the tote went up online, I was getting my mammogram done. I had to stop the tech mid-scan to place my order (most of Lisa’s items are “flash sales” and everything sells out in minutes — so it is that super high adrenalin rush of “the score”).  Suddenly the breast tech wanted one as well and we both pounded our thumbs as fast as we could on our cellphones and got them! Imagine, I got a “twofer breast exam — I passed the mammo, and got a tote to boot!

Because I think Lisa is unique in today’s tricky world of retail, I decided to visit her in person in her home/studio/video center/semi-storage deluxe unit — a gorgeous home outside of Philadelphia.
Some of my “Full Disclosure” LR Collection: Amethyst ring, Woven Italian Bracelet, and Embroidered Camo tote.
Her living room is her video center and her basement is her office.  It is clean, and everything she sells, she uses and wears.  The woman walks the talk.  She still had some of her Christmas décor up since home décor is really her biggest feature.  Trees, lights, wreaths, garlands and candles.

Though Lisa has been brilliant at selling and curating her “brand,” it is actually a four-person “dream team” that helps to bring her to that next level.  They all came from QVC and they are the best in what they do and all of them are 24/7 committed.  In fact, I think her “customer service” is the best I have ever experienced online or off.  Specifically, a one-man band named Nancy Swisher — another 22-year QVC veteran who makes sure all items are processed and returns are handled immediately ... with personal follow up! 

What store ever does THAT?  Lisa calls her the “Chief of Stuff” and she is often with Lisa on her chat presentations.  Nancy has become Lisa’s “Ed McMahon” and a “star” in her own right.  I realized that the two of them along with Lisa’s assistant Katey stay up all night selecting items, photographing each one and writing the descriptions.  There is a warehouse manager, as well as David Markstein, who was QVC’s heavyweight lead jewelry buyer, who now heads the jewelry division for Lisa. It is a lean and mean machine, but it has to be since they are up against the online monsters.
LR’s “Chief of Stuff” Nancy Swisher in front of “video studio living room."
Lucky for Lisa, she has the energy and knowhow and terrific personality (she was Miss Tennessee in 1989 and knows “the camera angles” very well) to pull it all off online and in person.  This is her second year of business and she seems to be thriving and driving hard.  She has that Martha Stewart “can-do-it-all” approach without Martha’s cool high-handed attitude.  She is not a style cop or a judge.  She is more like a sister who wants to show you some great things she just found.  “I really love to help people and to serve. I don’t see myself as a pitch gal since I really love the thrill of the hunt. I live for a shopping adventure and The Find so I really just want to share — God knows not everyone has to buy or even like any of it.”

I asked her about shopping being considered superficial and escapist.  “I think it’s far more emotional than that.  I was brought up by a Mom and Dad who weren’t rich by any means, but my Mom wouldn’t leave the house without her eyeliner and lipstick.  As a family we all tried to look nice and decorate our house as a sign of self esteem; when I look at beautiful things it affects my soul.”
LR’s "Chief of Stuff” Nancy Swisher — the best customer service in retail.
I think Lisa takes the idea of “influencer” to the next level, and lucky for her she has the DNA to pull it off.  Plus her hair and makeup is flawless — and she does that all by herself ... daily! That’s what it takes to be a competitive video retailer nowadays.

With all this cultural and shopping upheaval going on I think the final word about the tough times in retail came recently from 80-year-old Jane Fonda; When asked how her sex life was going, she answered “I closed up shop down there.  I’m outta business.  It's time I move on to other things.”

Indeed ... shouldn’t we all be moving on!