Macy’s just launched Story concept shops in 36 stores across the United States. The new “narrative-driven retail experience” occupies about 1,500 square feet in most stores. The move comes less than a year after Macy’s acquired the Story brand and made its founder, Rachel Shechtman, its brand experience officer. This is the latest step in Macy’s attempts to become more relevant and remarkable after years of declining market share and lackluster profitability.
Similar to the original Story boutique that opened in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood in 2011 , Story at Macy’s will focus on one merchandising theme at a time, and completely change every few months. The first installation is called “Color” and features some 400 curated products from brands like MAC Cosmetics, Crayola, and Levi’s Kids, as well as dozens of other small business partners. More than 300 color-themed community events are planned to help customer activation. In a press release Jeff Gennette, Macy’s, Inc. chairman and chief executive officer, commented that “the discovery-led, narrative experience of Story gives new customers a fresh reason to visit our stores and gives the current Macy’s customer even more reason to come back again and again throughout the year.”
In a Forbes post last year after the Story acquisition was announced I expressed two fundamental concerns about the new partnership. One was whether Shechtman and team were going have the room to truly innovate and to do so quickly. My fear was that Macy’s historically go-slow culture might stifle the necessary creativity and decisiveness. The fact that Story at Macy’s is a fully realized and well-executed concept that was brought to life in less than a year is encouraging. Credit should be given to Gennette for his willingness to experiment aggressively.
The second was less a concern, but more of a cautionary warning. Even if Story proved to be successful in its initial roll-out and gets scaled to most of the chain, it seems obvious that it will barely move the dial on financial performance or, more importantly, do much by itself to accelerate Macy’s move out of what I call the boring middle. Yet, as every journey must start with the first step, it is potentially an important piece of a broader renaissance that necessarily will take a lot of time and considerable investment.
A visit to the Story shop at Macy’s in Dallas’ Northpark Mall over the weekend reveals both the opportunity and the challenges. Story’s visuals are eye-catching and easily seen from the other side of the vast store, which is situated in one of America’s most productive malls. The merchandise presentation is eclectic and fun, albeit seemingly a bit random. Two associates stand ready to help, though I am the only potential customer on a Saturday afternoon. There are a lot of interesting impulse and gift items, but it’s hard to understand a cohesive value proposition that will drive meaningful incremental traffic given the frequently changing theme.
Most striking to this observer is how out of place Story seems—and how it calls attention to much of what is decidedly mediocre at a much better than average (in my experience) Macy’s location. Story’s bold design stands in stark contract to the rather stark and neutral visuals of adjacent departments. Most apparel and accessory sections throughout the store are swimming in a sea of sameness: rack after rack and tables stacked high with mostly uninspiring fashion, virtually every one topped with a promotional sign offering 25% to 50% off. While Story’s layout is relatively cozy and invites exploration and discovery, the rest of Macy’s main floor looks like just about every other moderate department store in just about every city I have been to in recent years, e.g. sprawling and unmemorable.
After visiting Story I was reminded of a time, many moons ago, when as a young management consultant getting paid far more than I was worth, I splurged on some large and rather expensive stereo speakers (note to Millennials: that was a thing at one point). As soon as I had my bright and shiny new toys wired to my old equipment, I quickly realized that what I already owned paled in comparison. It wasn’t long before I felt compelled to upgrade the whole damn system.
A version of this story appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.