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Starbucks Roastery Milan
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Flagship Retail Stores: The Art Is In The Details

During the recently concluded Ebeltoft Group conference in Milan, I had the opportunity to hear from Franco Manna, President and Founder of Rossopomodoro, an international pizza chain that is also the exclusive pizza restaurant within Eataly globally. He focused on the five key ingredients that differentiates his pizza from other brands (specific sourcing of key ingredients like tomatoes, olive oil, flour, cheese, etc.) as well as the small details perfected by his pizza makers (three pieces of basil, hand stretched crust). As Franco stated, the art (and magic) lies in the details.

A barista crafts beverages at the Starbucks flagship in Milan, Italy. Photo Credit: McMillanDoolittle

I was reminded of this the very next day as we toured the latest in flagship retail offerings in the beautiful city of Milan. There are a number of retailers who are getting flagship retail right but also an even greater number who just miss. The art, is indeed, in the details.

For those getting it right, the combination of location, experience and interaction is a powerful one:

  • Starbucks Reserve Roastery is in a gorgeous old post office building right off the Duomo in central Milan. The outside promises something extraordinary and then Starbucks delivers. The Willy Wonka-esque environment focuses on the craft of coffee making, from the central roasting areas to a mini packaging plant. Their partnership with the Italian bakery Princi is on full display and the visual cues are breathtaking. So too, were the multiple points of customer interaction, from a coffee sampling demonstration to customers rapt attention to the barista’s artistry. They have also done a nice job of localizing to the Italian market. The partnership with Princi helps and they even have works of art from local artists at the entry. This is a win on many levels for Starbucks. Importantly, this is how they are entering the country, creating a first impression that will resonate with further shops.

A water feature at the Apple store in Milan, Italy draws customers into the store. Photo Credit: McMillanDoolittle

  • Apple proves once again that no one has perfected the art of basement retail as well as them. While certain elements of the Apple store formula have become a bit stale, the store is still extremely effective in focusing on the product and experience. The water feature in this location draws customers down into the retail experience, which has now stripped bare most of the traditional “non-selling” elements of a retail store. There are no cashier stations, bags, signage, etc. Instead, the focus is on showcasing the product and educating consumers on usage.  I suspect Apple may have gone too far in this regard—a little life needs to be breathed back in.

Apple’s flagship store in Milan, Italy focuses on showcasing products and educating consumers. Photo Credit: McMillanDoolittle

Flagship experiences can also disappoint, and it is often in missing the small (or large) details that create differentiation:

Huawei’s first flagship store in Milan, Italy, located in a new shopping center, lacks drama and flare. Photo Credit: McMillanDoolittle

  • Huawei opened its first global flagship in Milan to great fanfare. The store lacks the scale of an Apple store and misses the mark on elements large and small. The location is in a new shopping center but lacks drama and scale from the exterior. Inside, the store has some nice features like case customization but doesn’t dramatize the elements. And, in today’s day and age, the “no pictures” policy is seriously misguided, particularly for a brand that is focused on the quality of its camera feature! Photos (and direct comparisons of pictures from their phone to competition) should be a no brainer.

Case customization at Huawei in Milan, Italy. Photo Credit: McMillanDoolittle

Other Flagship stores visited included Woolrich, which showcased its heritage and product differences with a feature like the Extreme Weather Room. Very cool (literally) but not showcased and buried in back. Kiko, the low-priced Italian make-up brand, added a robotic laser customization feature in its store. But, it was buried in back and downplayed in the overall environment. This should have been up front and animated. If stores are going to make an investment, they need to maximize exposure.

The art, is indeed, in the details. Flagship retail can be a powerful investment for a brand. But, it must be done correctly.

This article first appeared in Forbes.

Neil Stern

Neil Stern is Partner Emeritus of McMillanDoolittle. During his career at McMillanDoolittle, Neil has developed strategies and new concepts for a diverse variety of clients across the retail industry. Neil currently serves as Chief Executive Officer for Good Food Holdings, which operates over 50 supermarkets on the West Coast of the United States under five different banners.

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