The Cultivation of Desire

By John McCormick  |  Posted 2002-12-16 Print this article Print

Prada wants to reinvent retailing. So its first Epicenter store features everything from antennas and chips embedded in clothing tags, to video displays hanging from the racks, to clear doors on fitting rooms that are supposed to fog up when you walk in.

The Cultivation of Desire

Simply put, Prada sells the desire for fashionable goods as much or more than the goods themselves.

This SoHo store is a lab for tapping into that desire. It is the first in a line of what Prada calls Epicenter—focal point—stores. What works will be deployed next in Beverly Hills, San Francisco and Tokyo.

For the SoHo launch, Prada brought in world-renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). The entire team consisted of 20 design firms, media companies and technology suppliers, about 500 people in all. Their mission: to conceive and build a 23,000-square-foot retail space that would do nothing less than reinvent fashion retailing.

After all, the purchase of a $500 scarf or a $3,000 dress is not just about the material or design. It's about the experience.

"Prada relies a lot on the value of its brand. And by having a store experience that is innovative and uses advanced technologies … it [positions] Prada as a leader in the whole retail experience category," says Bruce Eckfeldt, engagement manager for IconNicholson, a technology consulting company that handled the launch of the Epicenter store.

Indeed, what separates retail winners and losers doesn't always come down to price, or quality, or efficiencies, says Retail Forward's Stanek. In Prada's case, it comes down to creating a lust for style.

"Everyone can tell you're wearing Prada merchandise," Stanek says. "Therefore, you're saying something about yourself—you're saying that you're with it, that you know what the hot brands are. It also says, 'I've got money,' and for some people, that's very important."

Prada, to date, has excelled at tapping into consumer desires. While it has been in existence since 1913, it has achieved most of its notoriety in the past 20 years, since scion Miuccia Prada—a leftist who studied politics and once trained as a mime—introduced a line of women's clothing and accessories that made fashionistas gasp, even in its homeland of Italy. Miuccia's first big success—a small, metallic, triangular bag of black nylon—became a cult item in the 1980s. By 1998, there were more than 100 Prada stores. Sales nearly doubled from 1994 to 1996, and then nearly tripled from 1996 to 1998, reaching $798 million, as she cultivated markets from Europe to Asia to the United States.

But a few years ago, profits began to wane as the global economy stalled. Eckfeldt and others close to Prada said the company was looking for a way to "reinvigorate the brand" and came up with an idea to build a store loaded with the latest, coolest retail technologies.

"It was time to move to another space. To experiment," says Peter Dixon, the director of the retail practice at branding consultant Lippincott & Margulies.

Ms. Prada and CEO Patrizio Bertelli (her husband) decline invitations to talk about how the experiment is going. In the meantime, much of the equipment in the laboratory is not working or not being used as intended. A dozen visits by Baseline to the Epicenter prototype store in SoHo over the past two months, along with interviews with suppliers, contractors and store staff members, finds:

  • Dressing rooms are often out of commission. Even though they are what customers rave about most, the store's fitting rooms weren't operating on three out of Baseline's dozen visits in October and November. "Remember, it's experimental," says Martin of IDEO, which designed the closets.
  • Customers can't figure out how to operate them. Even when the dressing rooms are functioning, customers express frustration at figuring out how to work the in-stall screens—or even turn the glass wall opaque so that passersby on the retail floor can't see them.
  • Screens are not working. The video displays that hang on clothes racks are not always connected to the store's database about its merchandise. On a recent visit, one monitor simply displayed the words: "PC Anywhere has had a compatibility problem with your system."
  • Poorly chosen locations work against image-enhancing equipment such as "aura displays.'' The interactive atlas and the 23-panel "peep show" are located in front of a sewer line, which can be odorous. These systems, too, were sometimes down, during Baseline visits.
  • Customers have yet to see chip-based loyalty cards. These cards are keys to creating add-on sales in future visits. Deployment is behind schedule.
  • A complementary Web site has yet to be officially launched. If it were, shoppers would set up virtual closets of clothes they have bought or would like to buy. This, too, is behind schedule.
  • The showcase elevator remains "temperamental." The machine's single-piston design makes it hard to maintain. Tim Archambault, a project manager at OMA, says that the lift is out of service about twice a month and "there's always going to be something" since it is a prototype elevator.

Even the simplest of information systems—directions on how to use things—are missing. Which can spur embarrassment from, rather than desire for, Prada's wares.

Take the dressing-room doors. These are clear doors formed from two sheets of glass pressing against an opaque, liquid crystal center. They seem to magically fog over when a person enters.

The fog is produced by electrical reaction, after the customer presses a foot pedal. But there are no signs directing the attention of first-time users to look down at the floor and press the pedal. The result? Customers—assuming the glass is working—start to disrobe in full view of other patrons, sales associates say.


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