The backstory behind Story, New York’s innovative West Chelsea boutique, has quite a cast of characters. And that’s exactly how founder Rachel Shechtman likes it.
Profitable in its first year and now four years strong, the Tenth Avenue ever-changing store has become a destination for high-powered fashion executives and yet-to-be-discovered small business owners alike. Never mind the 2,000 shoppers that visit the single shop on a typical Saturday. If you were to meet Shechtman at a party, her introductory line might simply be, “I have a concept store called Story. We have the point of view of a magazine, we change every three to eight weeks like a gallery and we sell things like a store.”
Since Story’s unveiling, Shechtman’s roster of brand partners inside the 1,600 square feet of selling space include Target, GE, Lexus, Yahoo, Intel, Procter & Gamble, Home Depot, Condé Nast and Pepsi, among others. There have been Q&As with Bobbi Brown, Norma Kamali and Yves Béhar, as well as cooking, mixology, yoga and Pilates classes, tallying 400-plus in-store events. Pitch Night, an open-call for small businesses, has rocketed so many brands that Shechtman is in talks to partner with a major-league company to substantially scale up the project.
Target chief executive officer Brian Cornell, J. Crew’s Millard “Mickey” Drexler, Lands’ End’s Federica Marchionni, Macy’s Terry J. Lundgren, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Intel’s ceo Brian Krzanich, HSN’s Mindy Grossman and more are among the numerous influencers who have all made their way to the store for one reason or another. Shechtman estimates that 10 percent of Story’s visitors are from other businesses scouting new ideas for products, technologies, strategies and display fixtures. Martha Stewart is a fan, as is Whoopi Goldberg, so much so she has served as a Pitch Night judge and more than 12 Story-found entrepreneurs have been featured on “The View.” Goldberg said, “I love Story, because it’s innovative. I’ve never seen anything like it. The story changes every few weeks and it’s never dull, never boring.”
But as is the case with many of the high-profile people that Shechtman befriends, Stewart and Goldberg have no formal ties to her company.
Target’s Cornell told WWD, “Rachel has an incredible ability to connect people with brands in a way that’s meaningful and highly experiential. Our partnership last holiday season allowed us to bring forward some of the incredible stories behind the brands that Target carries every day, and to see how consumers respond to finding our offerings in an unexpected setting. It was an experiment, and that’s something Target thrives on — pushing our brand into new territories so we can test, learn and ultimately better serve our guests.”
Shechtman explained her philosophy this way: “There are men, women and kids, who are five to 95 — New York City bus drivers, hedge fund managers, lawyers, doctors and a 16-year-old who is fulfilling a purchase order out of his bedroom, or a girl who flew from Montreal to pitch mittens. You can always buy something in the store that’s $5 or $10 or $700. It’s really democratic in its appeal,” she said. “They’re just people and people like discovering things. We treat everybody the same, and they become part of our community.”
That approach is paying off. Every three to eight weeks, Story takes on a new theme — the American Express Open-supported “Home for the Holidays” is the current one and features more than 320 brands, a good number of them that most shoppers might not know at first sight. Sponsorship for a single story is $400,000 compared to $150,000 when the store first opened. In addition, American Express Open has become the first company to sign up for an annual partnership. Starting at $750,000, one-year partnerships secure sponsorship of a story, provide an ongoing element in each story and access to strategic partners. Having spent 10 years working full-time as a consultant for Toms Shoes, the CFDA and other clients, Shechtman still consults with select companies through monthly retainer fees. Not long ago, 40 Chanel executives met with Shechtman in her store. Ten percent of her company’s volume now is driven by consulting fees.
Aside from selling more than 6,000 books last holiday season, 50 percent of Story’s shoppers during that key selling period frequented the store two times or more. Keeping customers coming back and building a community is a key part of Story’s success. “From a consumer perspective, it’s always about contact, community and commerce,” she said. “We’re always working with small businesses — more than 2,700 to date,” often giving those brands instant exposure to industry power players.
“When we had our soft opening on Dec. 1, 2011, everyone was saying brick-and-mortar retail was dead. If you think about it, there’s been 20 years of nonstop digital and technical innovation. There are all these new business models online — crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, subscription retail. Everyone is saying it’s dead but no one is thinking about it differently.” Shechtman said. “So if we’re the same people living online that live off-line why can’t we take new principles and behaviors that live in the digital world and put them in the physical world?”
Aside from using Lightspeed for POS and Prism Skylabs to analyze the store’s heat-mapping and people-counting, Story also uses Perch-enabled displays, which offer shoppers a digital reaction at the point of contact. For example, as soon as a product is touched or removed, a screenlike image appears on the table or display for further interaction. Perch also tracks when shoppers approach a display and interact with products, and uses cloud-based analytics to measure shopping behavior. Touching a product makes shoppers about 50 percent more likely to buy it, according to the Journal of Consumer Research.
Energized about discovering new companies, Shechtman said she was the first to sell Beth Macri’s jewelry, Ringly smart technology rings and the Swiss-made activity-tracking Withings Activite watch.
Shechtman’s own a-ha moment happened in the spring of 2011 with Toms Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie, one of the clients she worked with full-time as a consultant. Driving from a meeting at Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash., offices, Mycoskie told her, “‘Enough with this someday s–t! You’ve been talking about this for years. Now is the time to just shut up and do it,” Shechtman recalled.
Mycoskie told WWD, “First off, from a personal standpoint, she is such a go-getter who takes a vision and really executes it until it is at the level she wants it to be. Story’s success really comes from the ingenuity of the concept.”
Her decision to sign a 10-year lease at 144 Tenth Avenue at 19th Street also showed a certain amount of foresight, since the neighborhood’s popularity has surged in the past few years. With a bird’s eye view of The High Line, Story pulls in tourists and locals alike. During a recent Tuesday afternoon visit, a steady stream of shoppers filtered through the front door before being greeted by a staffer who explained the store’s concept. Some stayed for more than an hour, examining some of the 320 brands including Nate Berkus for Target, Graf & Lantz bags, Kahri’s Karl Lagerfeld dolls, Canada Goose’s hooded parka and Zany Toys’ red plastic “No” button. The average retail price for an item from the Home for the Holidays story is $30. “What makes us different from an agency that does experiential marketing and pop-up shops, it’s A, our brand; B, our community, and C, my personal name so I have skin in the game. It’s like an insurance policy to some degree,” Shechtman said.
While Shechtman would potentially open more stores, she has been approached about opening stores-in-store, which would be “interesting” with the right partner, she said. Considering the prospect of scaling up Pitch Night to a broader scale, Shechtman said, “If we have had this much success with no publicity, imagine if we made it a priority and our focus? Look, Amazon[.com] launched Handmade. I think small is the new big. It’s a new era. My generation wanted the It bag and the cool shirt that somebody else had. Now we’re at a point where people are really about individuality and expressing themselves. To me, that’s exciting. There’s a fundamental reality that big brands are not hanging out with Beth Macri in a café while she makes a necklace. It’s about, ‘How can we take a person who made a prototype in their bedroom and put them in front of Mindy Grossman?'”
Like several of her sponsorships, last year’s with Target started in an organic way. “You can tell when people are coming from a company. They drive up in an SUV, there’s a group of them and they tend to linger. I asked my team to figure out which company they were from,” she said. “I was debating approaching them, because I was in my Lululemon yoga pants with no makeup on. So I went up to one of them and said, ‘Hi, I’m Rachel, the founder of Story.’ He said, ‘I’m Brian.’ I said, ‘What do you do at Target?’ and he said, ‘I’m in Minneapolis.’ I asked, ‘But what do you do there?’ And he said they were all part of the executive group.”
After telling Brian from Minneapolis that others had been asking when she would work with Target, she said she’d responded at the time, “When Target is ready to do something new and different, and once I’ve done enough stories to know what I’m doing.” It was only after Cornell gave her a business card and suggested she e-mail an idea that she decided to pitch him on the spot, telling him, “I think you should let me go to Minneapolis, find my favorite brands that are sold at Target and bring them Home for the Holidays at Story to merchandise with other brands that we love and small businesses.” Eight weeks later their partnership bowed at Story, with such products as Faribault for Target scarves, blankets and accessories, and Toms for Target journals, apparel and candles. Shechtman remains in touch with Cornell although no future plans are on the horizon just yet.
Over the years, there have been such themes as the recent “Donald Story!,” which was dedicated to the work and limited-edition products by the illustrator Donald Robertson from a kiss-covered Diet Coke bottle to coffee mugs, Rolexes and surfboards to a custom Donald emoji T-shirt bar, that was produced by Bow & Drape. Another theme, Her Story with The Dressbar at Dressbarn, featured storytelling from Spanx’s Sara Blakely, HSN’s Mindy Grossman, Cherry Bombe’s Kerry Diamond, Martha Stewart and 36 other women interspersed with some of their favorite finds such as Brooklyn Slate natural cheese boards, Minimoc’s moccasins for babies and Finell’s handbags. Another one of the store’s incarnations, “Made in America,” was equally far-flung with options, featuring Flint and Tinder underwear, Andrea Bocchio’s baubles and the e-commerce site Brika’s first brick-and-mortar outpost. At the Intel-backed Style.Tech story, shoppers could find Withings Smart Body Analyzer, Sensora’s Bluetooth-enabled heart rate-tracking sports bra and iFetch, an automated ball-throwing device among other cutting-edge designs. To showcase the talent found through the Lexus Design Award, Story set up a Creativity story that focused on such innovative items as Nanoleaf’s sculptural LED Bulb and Iris’ pendant light that looks like an iridescent soap bubble. For its Crafted For Lexus section, the company spotlighted forward-thinking Japanese designers whose creations included Morihata binchotan facial soap and Tembea tote bags.
Along the way Shechtman has racked up such accolades as giving a TED talk in 2013, inclusion among Fortune’s 40 Under 40 and winning last year’s Rising Star award for retail from Fashion Group International. In her ever-connected world of contacts, Shechtman met Behar (with whom she has developed a jewelry line) and Stefan Sagmeister, who designed the store’s logo, through a TED conference about 10 years ago. Sagmeister later agreed to a lunch meeting but initially declined to do the logo. Ideas-driven as she is, she suggested the graphic designer — who was concerned about funding a film he was working on — use Kickstarter, which was relatively new at the time. Three days before his $45,000 campaign was ending and still short $32,000, Shechtman offered to plunk down $20,000 on her American Express card, telling his movie producer, “That doesn’t just give you $20,000, that gives you your marketing campaign, called, ‘We’re over halfway there.’… People want to contribute to something they can impact the outcome of. And I have skin in the game so once you get there you can do my branding.”
Sagmeister said, “There seem to be very few new ideas in retail, so if someone like Rachel actually creates something fresh, we all rejoice. As Brian Eno once said, ‘One way to go down a truly new direction is to do something so labor-intensive that nobody else bothers.’ In design, drawing 10 by 10 black squares with a 6H pencil would qualify; in retail, coming up with a concept that requires a new interior and new suppliers every four months who would compete in that same category. Rachel is crazy.”
Giving start-ups and little-known brands their big breaks is what Shechtman finds most gratifying. At Story, small signs detail the back stories behind some of the brands that are sold to give shoppers a sense of discovery. “There may be someone who sells 40 units, which isn’t game-changing. But if they get a purchase order from a large retailer — that’s a whole other story,” she said. “There’s a cashmere sock vendor that we have worked with who sold more here than they did with Neiman Marcus,” she noted, declining to identify the resource.
All in all, Shechtman concluded, “If my full-time job could be sitting at a table all day just being the idea girl where someone could ask, ‘Do you have an idea for this?’ That would be great.”