Albin Johansson speaking at WWD's inaugural Tokyo summit in partnership with Lumine.

Is retail dead?

That was the question asked by Albin Johansson, cofounder and chief executive officer of Axel Arigato, the Swedish streetwear brand with a focus on sneakers and athletic-influenced clothing and accessories that was launched three and a half years ago.

Johansson began by discussing how companies and platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat have changed the face of retail, but he also warned against placing too much focus on digital initiatives while neglecting the customer experience.

“Among shoppers, there are the ones that are seeking things, but there are also the ones that are seeking energy. The brands that can deliver this energy will most likely see that developed into curiosity and into consumption,” Johansson said. “And it’s this process that makes the price tag totally irrelevant. It’s this process that makes people queue for hours for upcoming drops of products.”

Axel Arigato maintains this energy by offering its customers a drop of the week, which Johansson said was inspired by multibrand stores. These kinds of retailers operate differently from monobrand shops, many of which still organize their collections around seasons.

Even when Axel Arigato launched with just Johansson and his business partner, it was never a brand that targeted only customers in Sweden, or even Europe.

“There is no reason for just being local. It’s so easy being global, and it’s almost as easy to send a product to another part of the world as it is to a neighboring city. It doesn’t take any longer, and with couriers like FedEx and UPS, they’ll even do the job for you,” he said.

And even though it started with only e-commerce and still has a strong digital presence, Johansson said the firm is not trying to be a tech company. All it really wants to do, he said, is to stay relevant to its consumers.

“People tend to search for the answer to a problem outside their own world, but the answer to that question is usually inside. We should not try to be something that we’re not,” he said.

In order to remain relevant, Axel Arigato offers its customers an experience, whether they are shopping online or in one of its stores in Stockholm or London. E-commerce customers get a unique experience through the beautifully designed website and high quality packaging that is meant to last. For example, every pair of shoes comes with a set of chopsticks — a nod to the brand’s Japanese inspiration — and the shoeboxes are designed to be kept and reused.

“For us coming from online and now going into physical retail, when a visitor clicks on the purchase button, that’s not where the journey or the experience ends, that’s actually where it starts for us,” Johansson said. “[And] even though we are an online brand and that’s how we started, we’ve always said that physical retail was going to be super important for us.”

Axel Arigato opened its first store in September 2016, after being in business for just two years. While the step was always a part of Johansson’s plans for the brand, it was not merely a financial decision.

“We had sales online, so going off-line was not only about sales, it was about inviting people to the Axel Arigato universe, showing people what the DNA of the brand is,” Johansson said. “So our stores act as much as showrooms as they do selling spaces and event spaces. We have events pretty much every week going on in each store.”

This kind of store experience is what Johansson believes is at the heart of physical retail as it stands today. It’s not about simply making and selling commodities, he said. It’s about inspiring customers and creating energy. This, in turn, leads to sales and drives retail businesses forward.

“I don’t think there is a death of retail. Vice versa, I think retail is more living than ever,” Johansson said. “What the death is, is among brands and companies that haven’t adjusted themselves to the current landscape. But not only to the current landscape, they’re not prepared for what is going to happen tomorrow.”

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