Thank you, come again, now get out

Edited from the New York Times. Wasn’t the mall the ultimate in egalitarianism? And even something approximating user-friendliness? So here’s a “trend” to create mystery and exclusivity in order to drive the right customer to increased loyalty.

In malls across the country, the floor-to-ceiling glass storefront – a tradition of transparency in retailing that dates back at least 100 years – is beginning to give way to elaborate walls that make it impossible to see inside.

The outside of Ruehl No. 925, a new chain from Abercrombie & Fitch, is a brick facade that mimics the front of a townhouse. The exterior of its corporate sibling, a clothing store called Hollister, resembles a beach shack, its windows covered by wooden shutters. And the entrance to Martin & Osa, a new retailer from American Eagle Outfitters, is a long wooden wall with a thin strip of dark blue glass.

As retail companies race to open new chains that serve ever-smaller slices of the population – Abercrombie & Fitch has four different stores, each for approximately a decade of life – they are using storefronts cloaked in wood and brick to ward off those who do not belong inside (and whose presence might diminish the shopping experience of those who do).

Retail executives say that by drawing the curtain over their storefronts, they can stand out in mall corridors crowded with glass-encased competitors. The modern mall, said Michele Martin, the head women’s clothing designer at Martin & Osa, “is too transparent, too naked. It’s just a sea of clothing.”

Intrigued by a store they cannot see into, consumers walk in to solve the mystery and stay to shop, executives said.

“It has this cool apartment vibe,” said Ms. Palotta. “Instead of being in Bergen County in the middle of New Jersey, we are on a street in New York, and that is where we want to be anyway – living in New York City.”

Then came the glass-shattering Abercrombie & Fitch. In 2000, the chain began experimenting with an opaque exterior when it introduced Hollister, a clothing store geared toward high school students.

The outside of the store evokes a California surf shack whose residents have shuttered the windows and hidden the front door to keep out the riffraff.

Or, as Tom Lennox, the director of communication at Abercrombie & Fitch put it: “You can feel yourself on the beach with the sunlight shining through.” (The sunlight being, in this case, the fluorescent mall lights.)

Hollister proved an immediate success, so Abercrombie & Fitch extended the darkened storefront to its namesake stores, placing heavy wooden shades over the existing glass windows.

Finally, there was Ruehl, by far the starkest-looking storefront in the American mall: a brick wall, rising up behind cast-iron gates and guarded at all times by an employee – or, a “model,” as Abercrombie aptly calls its young workers.

Andrew McQuilkin, vice president of design at FRCH Design Worldwide, which designs stores for dozens of retailers from Target to Tiffany’s, said the Abercrombie storefronts amount to a barrier.

“They are sending a message early in the conversation that says you belong or you don’t belong.”

All of which Abercrombie & Fitch freely admits. “We are not targeting middle-aged men,” said Mr. Lennox, the communications director. “To have them flee the store, that is fine with us.”


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