PSFK sat down with Bulletin co-founder and CEO Alana Branston to discuss how the company makes it easier for brands to rent space and track their in-store sales

Despite the fact that we now have interactive dressing rooms, smart mirrors and virtual racks in stores today, when it comes to procuring the actual four walls within which these cutting edge innovations are housed, the retail real estate game today looks close to the way it did 50 years ago. No matter whether a brand is super established or venture-backed, the barrier to entry for companies to move into a retail space is incredibly high—so high in fact that many decide to remain in the pure-play online space or sell through demand-fulfillment giants like Amazon.  

But what if you could facilitate a drawbridge for these brands? Enter Bulletin—often called the ‘WeWork of retail’—is doing just that by enabling online brands to rent sections of its physical stores on a month-to-month basis.

Currently operating in New York’s SoHo and Williamsburg neighborhoods, Bulletin lets brands decide which of their products get sold, the pricing and how they’re displayed. Its female team celebrates women with every inch of its stores, through its design, shopping experience, product selection and programming. Each item it sells was dreamed up by a female entrepreneur, and every event it hosts is meant to inspire and bring women together. Its stores feature products from female-led brands that, until now, have only sold on the Internet. The coolest part? Bulletin gives 10% of all store profits to Planned Parenthood of NYC.

PSFK sat down with co-founder and CEO Alana Branston to discuss how Bulletin is able to create stores with timely, reactive content, making it easier for brands to rent space and track their in-store sales.

PSFK: What are the biggest shifts and trends you see in retail today?

Alana: The subscription model makes a lot of sense for making retail more sustainable and manageable given the retail environment right now. Treating retail like a marketing channel that you, as a brand, can tap into as easily as a Facebook ad or some other kind of digital marketing is super important.

Traditional brick-and-mortar retail as it exists right now is this very cumbersome, outdated, long process to go through. You're signing leases, you're building stores, you're hiring staff. It's very difficult for a brand, whether they're venture-backed or super established to quickly get into a space. So the subscription model or a pop-up model or whatever it is makes it easier for brands to quickly get access to a physical space to get their products out there. It's really important to lower that barrier to entry as much as possible.

From the consumer side, we’re definitely seeing a lot of different trends. The biggest, overarching thing that we're always hearing about is the focus on experience with the retail seasons. Given the Internet and Amazon and the way that consumer shopping patterns have changed, you need to build a store, and create your retail presence with all of that in mind. You can no longer get away with just building a store for people to come in to buy stuff. It needs to be about experience, about community, or about this special moment that you're creating in that space that gives your customer a reason to go in, more than just, “I need to purchase a product.”

What are the important trends that you're seeing shaping the future of physical stores?

You see the really smart brands using the store do things you haven't really seen before. Community is a big thing for a lot of direct-to-consumer startups, and you're seeing a lot of them come up with really smart ways to build that into their store experience.

Companies like Outdoor Voices does a great job of this. It has a beautiful store. It's shoppable, of course, and has all their products in there, but they host MeetUps in there all the time for everything from dog walking to jogging, and things that matter to their community. I think using the store as more than just a place to buy a product and more of a place where the community can gather so you can really build up that presence is super important.

Now that the physical and the digital worlds of retail are blending together, how do you think that brands should be utilizing technology to improve shopping experiences?

To speak from our experience, we haven't focused too much on any crazy in-store technology yet. We just have a standard POS system and security and all of that. What we have focused on on the technology side is what I was talking about earlier, which is reducing the friction for getting brands in the space.

We work with 150 brands right now. All of these brands can onboard their product onto our platform. They can check their sales. They can check their inventory. They can manage their offline or in-store business using this platform. That technology changes the store in a few different ways. One, it allows us to work with brands that traditionally wouldn't be in a physical store to begin with.

For brands, it allows them to really use this offline channel the same way that they would use their online channel. It's something that they can manage pretty easily. They can test new products very quickly—the same way you would with a Shopify platform, for example.

For us, that technology that reduces the friction and the barrier to entry can really change even the products you're seeing in the stores or the types of brands that you're interacting with. It's not just reserved anymore for bigger, more established brands.

How do you approach the programming of your retail stores with a constant overhaul of different brands to ensure you keep the space feeling fresh and exciting?

The nature of the way we structured the store helps us do this. It's not like a traditional brand where you’re like, “OK, we only do apparel and we just put out new stuff every season.” We curate our stores around editorial concepts. That's another thing that technology really helps us with. For us to onboard a new brand only takes about five days from the time they apply to the time they get their product in the store, which is much, much faster than most retail spaces.

Being able to get new brands in the store and make it as simple of a process for them as possible, and get their product on the floor very quickly, is huge. We give our brands the freedom to test out different products. If there's a new product that they want to test in the space, they can do that pretty quickly by adding that product to the platform and sending it to us.

The store we just opened, for example, is called Bulletin Mini Mall. It's a fun, nostalgic '90s-themed mall with lots of fun products. Some of them have that nostalgic vibe. Some of them are fun female-oriented products. Because we work around fun editorial concepts, we have more freedom to switch up the products that work in the stores. For the customer, they walk in and experience a beautifully-designed store around a fun, quirky theme where the products are always changing. They interact with the products in a way that's more similar to Instagram. They visit the store more for that experience, rather than because they think, “I know that I need a new shirt, so I'm going to the store for that.”

How are you utilizing IoT tech and AI-powered analytics to capture your customer behaviors and activity, and then translate that into insights?

We're able to capture a ton of data. We have three stores now and we have our online marketplace. We have hundreds of different products going through all the different stores at any given time. For us, we've been able to get really data-driven around what kind of product works best for us and what kind of price point works best for us. Then we're able to recruit brands based on that data. If we know that a certain type of a product and a certain price point is really working in our Nolita space, for example, when we go and recruit or evaluate new brands to go into that space we can use that data to make sure we're always optimizing the product selection in those stores.

What are your thoughts on how retail stores should be community spaces and focus on experiences that bring people together around the halo of different brands?

Again, because of Amazon and e-commerce, and how easy it is to sell your product online now, it gives brands the freedom to use their stores for these other types of experiences. Like communities, the big thing that you're trying to tap into is your brand. You can make the store all about that. You now have the freedom to do that.

For a lot of these brands that have built up this amazing online presence, all of their customers have only been able to interact with them via their Instagram Stories or a little e-commerce site that you can only see on a laptop.

The physical store then becomes this amazing opportunity to say, “Let's use this as a space to get our communities together to celebrate whatever's important to us as a brand.”

In some ways, it reminds me of throwing a party for your customer. You get to decide what music's playing, what the store smells like, what it looks like and what kind of activities or experiences are happening in there.

For brands that have really nailed what their community cares about and what they're all about as a brand, this physical space becomes an opportunity for them to show what that looks like.

On that note, when you talk about enhancing the shopper experience and making it feel more personalized, 75% of U.S. and U.K. customers are more likely to purchase from a retailer that knows them by name or remembers their purchase history. How is Bulletin designing log-in experiences within its physical stores that trigger tailored services?

We aren't really at that point yet where we curate a super personalized experience for each person that's coming in. That said, we've gotten very specific about what our customer cares about. That has evolved a lot, even over the past six months.

We know that our customer is very interested in female empowerment. They're very politically active. They're very progressive. We've built our store experiences around that.

Every Thursday night, in all of our stores, you can come in and write to your rep about the issues that are important to you. We host a lot of different activities and panels around these topics.

For us, while it's not that they can walk in and we know their names exactly and everything they've ever bought, we've built up a strong community and we're getting better and better about understanding what they care about. Therefore we can provide experiences in the store that makes them feel like, “This brand knows what I care about and I'm coming back here for that.”

How are you redesigning the consumer's point-of-sale experience in your physical stores?

Right now, we're known for our stores because we started with that, which is definitely unique, at least nowadays. We use the online marketplace and e-commerce, but most of our customers are discovering us in our stores. They're coming for that experience, but they are also able to go and find everything that's in the store on our online marketplace.

If they have this amazing experience in-store, they then have these other channels that they can go to, to continue to shop with us. I would say the core of our business—everything from the retail experience to where the products live to where our community is gathering—really revolves around our physical story.

What criteria do you look for when you're seeking a brand partnership?

A lot of the brands that come to us are referrals. They know some of the brands that already sell in our stores. The first thing that is important is just having a good understanding of what types of products perform well in our stores. We look at price point. We look at the types of products. We have a really good sense now of what products our customer is interested in.

We love to work with brands where they have a strong online following. People that have built up either a big e-commerce presence or Instagram presence, where it really makes sense for them to have access to a physical space where they can drive their digital audience.

Pretty much all the brands that sell with us are also run by women, which is interesting. The first few stores we did were called Bulletin Broads. That was all female-run brands and product, for and about women. That's something we continue to do—creating new brands as a place where female entrepreneurs can easily sell their product and make money.

What are the biggest things you've learned about the industry since you started out?

I had a retail background, but I did not have a real estate background, so I think that's been the biggest learning curve for me.

It's been interesting to see the types of deals that we're able to get on the real estate side. I do see landlords becoming more flexible and open to shorter-term agreements, like pop-ups, but that flexibility hasn't always been there.

Because of the state of brick-and-mortar retail right now, everyone's trying to figure out what is going to happen. I still can’t believe how archaic the whole process still is. If you want to do a pop-up or even a longer-term lease, it’s like finding an apartment in New York City.  It's a slow process involving a lot of brokers and legal stuff. I never realized how difficult it was to actually get into a space. Knowing that now makes our business model make even more sense.

I'm glad that what we're doing is making it easy for brands to sell in a physical space. We make it easier for them.

Could you give us a hint of what's on the horizon for Bulletin in 2018 and beyond?

We'll be opening a store in LA in 2018. We have a lot of brands that we work with and out there. It should be really exciting for us. Then, we'll continue to expand in New York.

The strategy for us is to build stores around editorial concepts, which is something that we'll continue to do because it's worked so well for us. We just launched the Bulletin Mini Mall in Flatiron, which has been great. We're now starting to come up with other stories that we are looking to tell.

What would be fun to show in a store? And what kind experiences does a store's customer want? We are really building those editorial concepts around that.

The other thing that has been interesting to see is the types of brands that work with us. Even in the past three months or so, a lot of the brands that are applying to sell in our stores aren't traditional brands. A lot of them just sell their products on Instagram. Some of them have a really popular Instagram account and have decided to start creating products to basically monetize the audience that they have. For a lot of them, retail and creating product and selling product is still new.

It has not been the cut-and-dry, “You're a brand, you're established, you're ready to do physical retail.” Because of our platform and how easy we've made it to sell in a physical store, so many of these brands only exist on Instagram. Also, for the customer, they’re like, “Oh my God. My favorite Instagram profile is now creating all these fun products. I can actually go shop those products in person,” which hasn't really happened before.

The Future of Retail 2018 outlines how companies can transform their stores into experience centers that extend their supply chain and digital commerce platforms, creating mutual value with a focus on shopper experience. Members can download the report today or all readers can immerse themselves in the findings at our retail conference on Jan 17, 2018.

Despite the fact that we now have interactive dressing rooms, smart mirrors and virtual racks in stores today, when it comes to procuring the actual four walls within which these cutting edge innovations are housed, the retail real estate game today looks close to the way it did 50 years ago. No matter whether a brand is super established or venture-backed, the barrier to entry for companies to move into a retail space is incredibly high—so high in fact that many decide to remain in the pure-play online space or sell through demand-fulfillment giants like Amazon.