We live in a fascinating retail era. As the aftershocks from retail parks, Amazon and the ‘death of the high street’ reverberate, a recalibration of shops and their function seems to be taking place. From ‘Boxparks’ made of shipping containers to pop-up concession shops-within-shops, from lifestyle record/book/coffee stores to ad hoc hipster street stalls, there are untold experiments in getting people not just spending their money, but enjoying doing so.
The Creative Shopkeeper is Lucy Johnston’s guide to ‘setting up shop’ for aspiring independent retailers – but also serves as a compendium of the most compelling shopping experiences from cities the world over. Naturally we wanted to know more about her own interest in the subject, and whether she is secretly an aspiring shopkeeper herself.
In the age of digital ordering, what is the role of the shop?
This gets right to the heart of why I wanted to write the book. Of course, e-commerce is great for ease in straight-forward purchases. But what is so exciting is that e-commerce makes physical shops work harder to create really interesting, worthwhile experiences. Just like museums and galleries, we crave these experiences which digital platforms can’t offer us.
Do you have a favourite place for shops?
Well, obviously, I am going to say London first! The sheer volume of incredible indie retail talent is truly amazing at the moment. Thankfully, the property industry in London is increasingly realising that they need to make retail units more available, because these small independent businesses are the life-blood of cities.
I love Scandinavian cities like Copenhagen and Stockholm, and Sydney and Melbourne have some really exciting projects springing up, as do the regenerated industrial quarters of a number of US cities. But, really, wherever you look worldwide, there is always a wealth of independent stories and ideas nestled in amongst the noise.
There’s a great deal of repurposed old furniture these days, and even the word ‘shopkeeper’ is a little retro; is the retro trend a dominating thing?
That’s an interesting observation. With the title of the book, I wanted to stress the personal nature of independent retail. The best contemporary retail learns from and appreciates the craft, service and attention to detail of days gone by. In my view, that original concept of ‘meeting the shopkeeper’ is still ultimately what defines excellence in physical retail – that and getting actual physical products into people’s hands.
That’s why I deliberately didn’t feature much about high-tech shop experiences. This was about tactile, creative experience and appreciation of the art of presenting product in a real environment, not about screens. So I guess that focus comes through in the choice of shop examples across the chapters. The aesthetic is not usually deliberately ‘retro’, I don’t think, as much as simply emphasising authenticity and personality.
Given an empty shop unit, how much do you think it costs, at minimum, to make it beautiful?
It really doesn’t need to cost that much to create something beautiful or curious, busy or serene, if you’re savvy and are open to some experimentation. A lot of the concepts in the book were created on very ‘experimental’ budgets, shall we say! You absolutely need good lighting, a concept, and a visual language that punches above its weight in telling your story for you, but beyond that it’s all flexible. I think the most interesting concepts develop when the shopkeeper has thought about what else the space could be, other than a 9am–6pm shop.
Are there hard and fast rules about how to draw the shopper’s attention to certain things?
It’s so variable, but just remember, you are telling a specific story and are presenting a subconscious message through the way you display your wares. The eye scans and reads a shop environment in a similar way to which it would read a work of art, for example, so give that customer’s eye plenty to take in and a clear path to follow, to ensure it stays interested and the customer understands how to engage. That way everyone wins.
Do you hanker after the shopkeeper’s life yourself? If you DID open a little place, what would you sell, and what would be the defining part of the shop’s look?
The idea certainly really inspires me, and if I could lead a parallel life I would definitely open a shop in that world, and try my hand at it! But writing this book has made me really appreciate – even more than I did before – how much dedication is required to really hone the art of shopkeeping. You have to be all-in to really do it justice.
But you never know: one day I might give this all up and open a little speakeasy-style shop selling beautiful books, sculpture, house plants, and a selection of bottle-your-own table wines – with plenty of tastings, of course – where all the furniture and furnishings were also for sale, and constantly changing. For me it would be all about showcasing great creative talent, across a real clash of disciplines, all within a space that similarly clashed styles through its contemporary and vintage styling. There I go again with the retro thing! It’s obviously embedded in my subconscious approach to curation.
Finally, can you tell us a little about your involvement in the pop-up retail and gallery activations at Circus West Village at Battersea Power Station?
I have been working with the Battersea Power Station Development Company to curate and launch a new popup retail programme, as part of the phased opening of this iconic regeneration project. The project is dedicated to showcasing creative entrepreneurs and independent design brands, many of who have never staged their own shop or gallery project before, so it’s been a joy to work with them to bring their stories to life in the space.
This project has also coincided really nicely with the launch of The Creative Shopkeeper, so it presented a lovely opportunity to work with Thames & Hudson to stage their first ever popup concept too – The Reading Room – which I’ve just finished styling as I write this! They have such an incredible range of beautiful books, it’s wonderful to be able to showcase the catalogue in a creative setting like this. Very inspiring.