Shop tactics: pennies for poetry

CAPTAINS of Industry is not so much a shop as a modern-day men's club - a place where men can have their suits, shirts and shoes made to measure while they shoot the breeze at the in-store cafe.

Owners Thom Grogan and James Roberts have pooled their fashion and hospitality experience to create a gentlemen's haven that is unique to Melbourne, tucked away on the second floor of Somerset Place.

The straight razors, strops and shaving cream that line the shelves add to the old-world appeal, while coffee is served at the cafe in keeping with the unhurried nature of the business. ''I wanted customers to see how the service industry actually works, as opposed to going into a shop, buying something and leaving,'' says Mr Grogan of the store, which opened last month.

Captains of Industry is one of a growing number of Melbourne stores turning to innovative design or service in an attempt to connect with increasingly discerning customers. The trend of ''experiential retail'' was outlined as a key recommendation in the mid-term report card of the City of Melbourne's six-year retail strategy, and describes ways in which retailers are moving beyond the transactional to deliver a more immersive experience.

''People want an emotional dividend from shopping now. It's not just the goods that you purchase, it's the environment that you're in and the way that you're treated by the staff,'' says Barrie Barton, consultant on the retail strategy review and founder of Melbourne cultural website threethousand.com.au.

A physical embodiment of the website, The Thousands Shop, opened in Curtin House recently and will stock a range of the products featured online, most of which are intrinsically linked to Melbourne.

The website's editorial team acts as both sales assistants and city guides. ''We see the shop as much as a conversation hub as a retail point,'' says Mr Barton.

Skincare company Aesop, one of Melbourne's biggest retail success stories, is well versed in experiential retail. No two Aesop stores are the same, and design is innovative - the interior of the Flinders Lane store is crafted almost entirely from cardboard boxes that once contained the products.

This month, poetry readings were held in Aesop's city stores to complement the poetry-themed gift packs that are being sold this Christmas. ''We're known for our engagement with the cultural landscape, and respect those who pursue any line of creative expression,'' says founder Denni Paphitis.

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Mary Poulakis, co-owner of Harrolds men's wear store and deputy chairwoman of the Melbourne Retail Advisory Board, says that experiential retail is becoming increasingly critical to retailers wanting to offer a point of difference.

During the spring racing carnival, Harrolds hosted a photographic exhibition on Bart Cummings, as well as a customer dinner with Cummings that was held in store.

''The experience that the consumer has and the education that they get about the product that they're considering is so much more important than making that transaction,'' says Ms Poulakis.

The director of the Australian Centre for Retail Studies at Monash University, Marni Ladd, agrees. ''Every city is over-optioned in terms of retail. Whilst there's growing supply, retailers need to differentiate themselves,'' she says.

Ms Ladd says that identifying who the clientele is and how they live is fundamental to establishing a rapport with customers. ''One size doesn't fit all, it fits none. It's about understanding the customer and doing everything you can to [meet] their needs beyond their expectations.''

-THE THOUSANDS SHOP

The hip Three Thousand website provides a space in which fans can talk to editorial staff about hot happenings in Melbourne - parties, sales, launches - and buy products endorsed by local arbiters of cool.

Level 6, Curtin House, 252 Swanston Street

- AESOP

This skincare company stands out with stores tailored to complement their environments (right), and appeals to customers' intellect with an all encompassing "mind, body, soul" approach to marketing.

Shop 1C, 284 Flinders Lane

- CAPTAINS of INDUSTRY

A men's outfitter for the younger generation. The in-store cafe allows customers to sip on a latte while their trousers are altered.

Level 1, 2 Somerset Place

- SOMEWHERE

The Melbourne offshoot of the Sydney Somedays store stocks chic, mostly Swedish clothing in a huge above-awning space. The shop includes a gallery where a roster of emerging local artists exhibit their works.

29/314 Little Collins Street

- NOTE to SELF

Max Olijnyk crafts custom jeans from Japanese ring-spun denim, and offers a made-to-measure service from his studio. The result: a unique pair of jeans.

info@notetoself.com.au