Shopping with Mr. H

How retailers are reimagining and refreshing their offerings to draw in customers.

Paul Rosta, Executive Editor

May is CPE’s annual retail issue, so I’ve been pondering how to size up an asset category that runs the gamut from the trophy mall to the neighborhood cleaners. The subway I ride to work passes beneath Manhattan’s theater district, and it struck me that there might be a lesson in—of all things—the Broadway musical.

I know this sounds far-fetched, but bear with me. Twenty years ago, the Broadway musical seemed to be sleepwalking. There were too many revivals of old warhorses, too many British imports, not enough innovation. An embarrassing low point came in 1995; instead of the usual four new musicals nominated for a Tony Award, only two were deemed worthy.

Maybe there’s a parallel here with the retail sector, which has encountered trouble on any number of fronts in recent years. Circuit City, Borders, Linens ‘n Things and other household names vanished during the recession. Development virtually disappeared for a while as owners scrambled to backfill space. Online retail has been a category killer for books, recorded music and consumer electronics. Many department stores continue to struggle.

Now back to the Broadway musical. Far from snoozing, it may well be in the midst of a second golden age. For the first time in recent memory, audiences can see something genuinely new. The most thrilling example, of course, is “Hamilton,” the show about the nation’s founders that is causing a sensation far beyond West 46th Street.

Innovators in the retail world are likewise working overtime, as Nancy Crotti’s report on experiential retail in this issue makes clear. Samsung 837, which recently opened in Manhattan’s trendy Meatpacking district, might be retail’s answer to “Hamilton.” It shrewdly combines customer service with attractions like virtual reality and a three-story theater highlighted by a dazzling video display. Meanwhile, department stores are striving to stay nimble. As it closes low-performing locations, Macy’s is trying out a slimmed-down, off-price store format. And maybe we haven’t seen the last of Circuit City, after all. Two entrepreneurs named Ronny Shmoel and Albert Liniado bought the branding rights and hope to open as many as 100 small-format stores by the end of 2017.

So the next time a retail brand, store format or specialty looks ready to head for the exit, you may want to think twice before writing it off for good. After all, perpetually reimagining and refreshing the familiar is a hallmark of retail as well as the Broadway musical. As “Hamilton” has shown us again, you never know when something old will find new life.