PSFK speaks to co-founder and CEO Tal Nathanel about how SHOWFIELDS, dubbed "the most interesting store in the world," aims to use retail space in a new way, prioritizing discovery and community over sales

Physical retail seems to be suffering, but it's not due to lack of space. Instead, retail leaders argue, it's due to lack of inspirational experiences and an old-fashioned real estate model that often makes it difficult for smaller brands to establish brick-and-mortar presences.

SHOWFIELDS combines the traditional department store concept with the rise of direct-to-consumer brands that have disrupted every category from dental care to fitness. In the newly opened, four-story space on New York's Bond Street, visitors will be guided through a series of  curated retail experiences; the first will focus on wellness and personal care, featuring Quip, Gravity Blankets, by CHLOE, and more. On another floor, a co-working space aims to build a sense of community into the SHOWFIELDS concept.

Ahead of an appearance at the Why Consumer-Centric Brands Win panel during New York Retail Innovation Week, Tal Nathanel, co-founder and CEO of SHOWFIELDS, spoke to PSFK about his vision for the future of brick and mortar retail and the importance of encouraging discovery, even if it doesn't lead to an on-the-spot transaction.

What are some retail industry and consumer trends you've noticed, and that you're responding to with or leveraging in SHOWFIELDS?

SHOWFIELDS responds to the fact that all multi-brand retail environments prioritize the hosting brand rather than the brands in the space. I found this strange because I think a lot of people (myself included) go to a department store to discover and experience the distinct brands.

With SHOWFIELDS, we asked whether we could ‘flip the formula’ and create a model that was entirely focused on the brands and their story. Another thing I noticed was that the ads in my Instagram feed had become more interesting than just about any store that I walked into. Why? Because they were always giving me something new. Our aim is to create an inspiring space for discovery, and one that introduces shoppers to the brands of tomorrow in an engaging setting.

What inspired the founding of SHOWFIELDS? Were there any unmet consumer needs or gaps you wanted to fill, or unique opportunities you wanted to take?

It’s funny you say gaps, because one of the things I first noticed when I came here was that there were way too many Gap stores and not enough people in them.

We understood one reason that all stores had started to look the same was that the process for opening a physical store, especially in New York, is nearly impossible. So on the one hand you had the consumer craving a new type of retail experience while the infrastructure around stores hadn’t changed, from the lease process to inventory management. Our thought was that we made ‘retail done right’ accessible for new and emerging brands you could meet the consumer need for new experiences and create a space for discovery.

As a pioneer of next-generation brick-and-mortar retail, what do you hope to enable your experience to accomplish, for your customers as well as for the brands you partner with?

We want to help brands physically meet exciting and new customers. And we want to make sure the customer has the perfect environment and all the information needed around a brand and product to reach the right a decision. If we do that, it does not matter where you buy.

I hope SHOWFIELDS helps brands connect with new consumers who are excited to discover and engage with their story. Our role as the host is to create an inspiring environment for these brand-to-consumer connections to happen. Our aim is to make sure that everyone who walks through our doors is empowered to learn about our brands.

We’ve embedded technology within the store that serves as a gateway to the stories behind every product, while also empowering our SHOWFIELDS’ hosts with knowledge about the range of brands in our space. We believe that if you’ve learned something that helps you make a decision, it doesn’t matter whether you transact in our space or somewhere else. Our job as the host is to make the introduction.

We increasingly hear about ‘retail as a service'—that the in-store experience needs to be less about transactions, and more about discovery and engagement. How does your model and location enable this?

Yes, we’re hearing more and more about ‘retail as a service,’ but the problem with this idea is that it makes retail a function of space. And I don’t see it that way. Because that would mean the service we’re providing to brands and the problem we’re solving for is ‘space.’ But if you look at all the vacant storefronts, the problem is not space! In an age where you can buy anything and everything online, physical retail is everything besides the space. It’s the service, the people, the ease of purchase, the content, the food and beverage programming, the sound, the scents…the list goes on.

Getting back to the question, when we think about ‘retail as a service,’ we think about how we can build a flagship store that gets it right and places the customer at the center of our experience, so the brands in our space can focus on the right way to tell their story.

Tell us about the brands you've partnered with. What do you look for in retailers you feature? What is the advantage of featuring emerging and DTC brands?

Photo: by CHLOE via Instagram

For our launch floor, we’ve partnered with a range of brands that are changing the conversation around wellness and empowering a new more personal understanding of what it means to care for ourselves. We look for brands that want to deliver an experience that can’t be found anywhere else; whether launching something new or immersing people in a product experience.

For example, both by CHLOE. and CITYROW are debuting new extensions of their brand in our space. We see the advantage of working with emerging brands as twofold: First, they understand the value of discovery and are willing to experiment but, more importantly, we believe newness is what the customer is looking for more than ever before, so by hosting these brands in our space we create reasons for shoppers to show up again and again.

You've chosen wellness as the theme for your first floor. Could you explain this choice?

One of the things I think we’re doing differently than marketplace models is that we’re curating each floor, recognizing that today’s consumer demands the same level of lifestyle curation they get from digital spaces in the physical world. We believe Wellness is one of the most interesting categories for digital-first brands, especially since people often want to touch a blanket, smell a scrub, or try a workout before they transact. We know brands like by CHLOE., Gravity Blankets, and quip all have individual brand stories to tell, but by curating them on a single floor we make it intuitive for the consumer to understand what’s happening in our space.

You also feature a co-working and community events space called The Loft on one of your upper floors. Why was this an important integration, was it a value-added service as part of your brand strategy?

More than a place to shop, we’re aiming to build a community that’s interested in new ideas, products, and concepts. So as the host, our aim is to give people a reason to show up and spend time with us. We believe that when people share a meal, a desk, or an experience they’re empowered to discover something they didn’t know about themselves or their world—so we want to be the place where New York comes together to do that.

What do you hope for visitors to your space at your NYRIW site tour to experience?

I hope to share my vision for SHOWFIELDS as a platform for emerging brands, businesses, and retailers to show up in physical spaces. I want to unpack what we mean when we say ‘the most interesting store in the world’ and how that ladders up to our mission to empower access to physical spaces and foster connections between brand and consumer.


For more, join SHOWFIELDS and ambassadors from other brands including Harry's and Function of Beauty for the panel Why Consumer-Centric Brands Win on January 15, tickets available now!