For Better Blended Retail, Purpose Needs To Outshine Tech

14 05-2018
For Better Blended Retail, Purpose Needs To Outshine Tech

Retail columnist Winston Wright looks at The Phluid Project’s purposeful, community-oriented approach to retail at its gender-free NYC store

NOTE: This column has a particular perspective to it, so I’m introducing and collaborating with an amazing colleague, Jane Lauterback. Jane is founding Principal at The Purposeworks, a New York City-based consultancy focused on in the business of purpose. Jane and her team are committed to the creed of purpose as the foundation, inspiration and empowerment for better: better individuals, better teams and better organizations. So, there’s no one ‘better’ to collaborate with on this column than Jane.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been ‘Ranting & Raving about Retail’ and talking about what’s ahead: that which everybody in the circle of consumer commerce, really, believes will be differentiators between success and failure. Retail today is at the intersection of legacy store brands with their longing to stay culturally relevant and the currency of online native, one-click, social media-adept sellers. But I’ve come to recognize that this isn’t an intersection.

A real intersection subjects one to oncoming traffic from three directions—left, right, head on—and the word ‘intersection’ just feels predictively, potentially violent. These traffic navigations need to be more deliberately thoughtful… more blended. Gentle, inclusive, thorough. A meeting, a confluence. No more gridlock.

The trepidation of being T-boned or the horror of a head-on could be alleviated if traffic flow changed from probably pugnacious to feasibly fused. Open up the road so the path is clear. Recognize what’s really in front, around and even behind you.

In the congested labyrinth of retail, there are critical congestion considerations:

  • Fast moving cultural messages
  • Who needs to be reached? Who’s not being served?
  • Create “product” and “experiences” that do serve that community
  • Let your disruption be conversational—not disruption for disruption’s sake
  • Combining legacy with currency

What do you do? You do what any good creative analyst would do.

Get a picture of the problem, study it and go to the laboratory and experiment. You combine ingredients. Carefully. You do the chemistry. You take a measure of this, and a portion of that, and add a catalyst to ignite or otherwise accelerate the ingredients into a new thing. Like what’s done in the kitchen or the lab.

You take some blue, some red, a little white and a little black, mortar and pestle it, put it in the chiller of, in this case, grace, and make the perfect purple. So, the potentially perilous word ‘intersection’ gets reframed and morphs to the gentler, yet still formidable, ‘blend.’

This epiphany about blend rather than intersection comes from a recent introduction to The Phluid Project, a new retail experience—no, a new retail community experiment in New York’s NoHo neighborhood.

And spending some time recently with Phluid’s brain and soul, Rob Smith, reinforces the notion that experimentation to an appreciable end, iterated in retail, can work. What makes this experiment work is that it’s grounded in purpose. It’s an antidote to our current environment (here and around the world) which is rife with extremism, fragility and tension-filled zeitgeist. Experimentation and purpose allow for unity, excellence and the ingenuity of invention. It’s what organically mobilizes and encourages optimism. It’s knowing that somehow when we all rally for the greater good, we know we can figure out the tough stuff.

Rob defines Phluid as, “The first gender-free store.” And his point of view is that this is a place for “self-expression and creative sharing where strangers, allies, friends—people—can unapologetically be themselves. With a value statement mantra of ‘Acceptance, Balance, Integrity Intention, Openness,’ Phluid is a place where you can be safe in who you are. You can be authentically yourself without judgment. Phluid is about being comfortable being an individual moving through the gender spectrum freely.”

The Phluid Project really isn’t about the Internet of Things nor wholly about retail and its brick-and-mortar legacy as much as it’s a blend of the two. It’s about a business grounded in purpose. Purpose is the previously mentioned catalyst that’s been used in the chemistry of The Phluid Project.

One could argue that the ‘purpose’ of any retail initiative or experience path is revenue, awareness, development and all that. That can be done, and measured, with a social campaign or display ad on somebody’s website. But there are some choices that have to be made before one runs out and buys a pre-roll or sponsors a Facebook feed slot. Not the case in this case.

Phluid’s purpose is Openness and Acceptance. It offers a place where there lives a laboratory to experiment with the ability, and the possibility, to be who you are and to further experiment with self-nourishment and growth. This is a new venture that scale not because of its rigor on business metrics but on its reason for being that goes beyond the financial outcomes.

Phluid is a considered decision. Rob’s made a choice; it’s a brave choice. He’s chosen to build his business around purposeful intent. That intent is a business that creates a community of open heart, open mind, open palette for you to experiment your own you-ness, genderless in total, complete and pure neutrality. How important, really, is the paper we’re wrapped in? And, if it is important, why can’t it be printed or colored or crafted by the communicator without fear of rejection from the “consumer”?

Normally when you hear ‘gender neutral,’ it’s sharp edged… LGBTQ rights and “I am what I am and what I am needs no excuses.” Often it comes with a critical tone either in defense of where it’s right or opposition of why it’s wrong. Phluid doesn’t take a side. Phluid stands with education. Education that teaches a wider view of ‘normalism’ in the sense that there is no more normalism. Education could be considered a differentiator in retail. But for The Phluid Project, education is about offering unencumbered choices.

Honestly, it’s a little awkward to define a concept that is so clearly about “no definition.” The physical space in and of itself isn’t over designed. It could have been, I suppose. It could have gone down the slick, glass, visually “very cool” path. It’s relatively simple on a clean white palette of fixtures, well stocked with branded, private branded and designer product. There are conversation spaces, exhibit and craft places that—in a traditional sense—move a guest through the store with inquisitive engagement. It’s probably not going to win accolades as a cutting edge, brilliant ‘store design,’ but it really doesn’t matter based on what’s going on here. Once you’re in there, understanding what’s going on, the rest of it is of little consequence. It’s about what you begin to feel. About what you begin to experience as a result of the experiment. Phluid is not neon. It’s an obliging, truly democratic purple. A purple for everyone and anyone.

And with that polite purple, Phluid makes a broader, deeper and more important statement about neutrality. Phluid is a national (for sure) and global statement about centrism right here in New York on the corner of Broadway and Great Jones Street. It’s like its neighborhood: somewhere between the East Village, NoHo and NYU. Clear, solid, meaningful. Central.

What this ‘store,’ concept and point of view clearly represent and reinforce is that extremism has to be a thing of the past; acceptance and openness and neutrality on the gender spectrum as well as the global spectrum have to become, not part and parcel, but the whole of retail today, of business today, of the world today and for every day forward.

There are roughly 12,000 corners—3,000 intersections—in Manhattan. Over 500 miles of road. The Phluid Project, in its little space on one of 12,000 corners in this city, its two tenths of 1% of the single length of total pavement here, has changed the color of the stripe down the middle of the asphalt from cautious yellow to collective, purposeful purple.

Everyone here needs to drive or rideshare on that road. The rest of the country, the rest of the world, needs to follow its lead and traverse this intersection.

Winston Wright is a brand consultant in New York City. He has a professional passion for branding and brand communications, particularly how brands show themselves directly to the consumer. With a depth of experience in retail, having worked for Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy’s, over the past 20 years he has worked on “bringing brands to life” globally for Apple, Nokia and Jawbone. Most recently, he was on the Brand Consumer Marketing team at AOL.

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