L'Occitane's new Fifth Avenue store has a bike through Provence backdrop perfect for Instagram.

L’Occitane en Provence is opening a concept store on Manhattan’s bustling Fifth Avenue this week that is calibrated to get its hands on new customers — literally.

One of the focal areas in the 1,870-square-foot store, located at 555 Fifth Avenue, is a virtual reality experience. Consumers “soar” in a simulated hot air balloon ride over the Provence landscape while receiving a soothing hand massage and a soft spritz of L’Occitane’s lavender scent.

This is only the second concept store opened by the luxury skin care, body care and fragrance company. The only other is in Paris on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, which is a collaboration with French pastry chef Pierre Hermé. While it is a vehicle to road test ideas, the company expects the store, which is four to five times the average footprint, will be among the top producers within the 200-plus boutiques in the U.S. (The brand has more than 3,000 locations globally.) A major goal is to retain existing customers, as well as capture new shoppers with unique twists.

The store, in a heavily foot trafficked swatch of Fifth Avenue, replaces locations in Times Square and Rockefeller Center and takes learnings from the Flatiron boutique opened two years ago. “We thought Flatiron was perfect,” Paul Blackburn, vice president concept design, construction and merchandising for L’Occitane North America. “That said, retail is evolving at a faster pace than ever and we designed a store here that can keep up with that challenge. We’ve always wanted a big presence in Midtown,” he said, adding the “fluid” real estate market opened up an opportunity. L’Occitane still has tremendous opportunities to extend its exposure in America, Blackburn said. Casual observations of the Flatiron concept versus Fifth Avenue reveal a shift from a heavy digital presence to a blend of technology and the human factor.

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To stay current, the store was designed to be flexible enough completely change at least four times a year. Most units in the retailer’s portfolio adhere to traditional retail tenets where the store is “set,” in that although windows change and the front table is adapted to new launches, the remainder of the store stays stagnant. What’s different with this concept format is it doesn’t run “on a traditional retail calendar,” Blackburn said. “We’re not changing every four or five weeks, but when we do change, we are changing most of the store. The notion of leaving a store alone for five years is gone. You have to push the envelope, be agile and disruptive.”

The entire store can be redesigned to keep it fresh. 

The store is decked out as an escape from the summer swelter or, in the case of this year, the drenching rain. The focus in the center aisle of the store is on Verbena and the new Aqua Réotier skin-care campaign. “This whole space will totally change based on launches or philanthropic stories we want to tell,” Blackburn said. Holiday will be the push starting in October.

A showstopper in the store is an Instagrammable area set up with a backdrop of a village in Provence and vibrant yellow bicycles. Photos using the hashtag #loccitane555 are fed to a monitor near the backdrop. This area will also change from time to time. Conventional wisdom would suggest the photo-ready spot would attract younger shoppers. “But if you look at the feed it is all ages,” he said.

At a time when the beauty industry faces siphoning of sales from online competitors, L’Occitane is investing in reasons to bring them into stores. “The Pedal through Provence is one,” said Blackburn, who helped design the store along with international artistic director Daniel Contorni, “the rain shower sink is another.” This is the first U.S. site to use the rain shower, launched in Toronto’s Yorkdale Centre last year. “The rain shower really captured the imagination of the consumer, so we thought what better than to bring it here,” Blackburn said.

The layout feature L’Occitane’s hero products such as hand creams, body creams and shower oils to the right entrance of the store. “These are what we know are the best products as far as recruiting new customers,” Blackburn said. “It is the best of L’Occitane and where you start.” That flows into fine fragrances, skin care, men’s, hair care and hand care. The skin-care consultation counter is nearby offering complimentary mini facials and the VR experience. The checkout area is inspired by French hotel guest desks. Tired shoppers can get a pick me up from free Calissons du Roy Rene that are passed around.

Other features include free Wi-Fi, the addition of lifestyle merchandise such the Rifle Paper Co. and S’Well bottles that are color coordinated with products, (these offers will change with the overhaul of the store), engraving on all items and a recycling area for any products in conjunction with TerraCycle. Shoppers bringing in any full-size empty get a 10 percent discount. Interestingly, L’Occitane can also use the recycling bin as market research to see what other products its base uses.

The store is mostly composed of recycled and environmentally minded materials. Some elements of the concept, such as the VR, could appear across the company’s portfolio. “If the concepts work, they can be rolled out to our fleet, if they don’t, we tried and can try again. This is a playground to test and try new things.”

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