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Freehand Life

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The Moss Metamorphosis and Today’s Redefined Retail Scale

September 15, 2012

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Why should you care that Moss closed its famous New York City gallery store in February 2012?  The global media paid more attention to Borders’ slow shuttering across hundreds of giant bookstores.  The metamorphosis from Moss store to Moss Bureau, a design consultancy, is of equally big news in the design world.  Now approximately six months after Moss & Team moved to their Garment District office, let’s examine how the American Retail Scale has tipped again, and what it means to your buying experience.

Little did I know that my rabid photos from my June 2011 trip would now be treasured personal “antiques” of this former SoHo icon? The concept of turning a retail store into a museum gallery is brilliant! In its venerable 18 years, Moss almost single handedly created retail Environment Design when it wasn’t even a serious term.  There was no cool Apple store or widely accessible design when Moss opened in 1994.

The former actor-turned fashion entrepreneur brought art down from the stratosphere, while also elevating utilitarian product design before anyone dreamed of blending this thriving business formula. Due to the gallery’s own success, the ever-expanding square footage ended up costing $80,000 a month for just the Manhattan rent.

Perhaps it’s fitting then that Moss had been planning the Greene Street closure for three years.  As revolutionary as Moss was, he could not control the struggling global economy, ubiquitous competition, high operating costs, and his own recent Parkinson’s diagnosis.  Moss online still operates with the same sassy product descriptions.

These jostling macro factors turned my mind to draft another model to answer this question: if consumer spending drives 70% of the American economy, what does this mean for today’s Retail Scale?

The Good Old Days

A quasi-balance existed when the store in-store sales kept pace with operational costs (e.g. rent, wages, etc.).  The brick store’s competitive landscape wasn’t too fierce since the offerings had a niche and no one was using disruptive technology.  The brand presence likely comprised of a drywall store and a standard informational website.  The customer experience involved entering, browsing, perhaps purchasing with a bit of chatting with the small staff.

The Virtual Daze

In-store Sales: The modern reality has been decreased in-store sales due to the mainstream online lifestyle. Operational Costs: the overhead of a store’s rent, utilities, insurance, etc. spikes up when in-store sales dip. Several business models compete to blur the traditional customer experience and brand “presence” goes virtual.

  • Online Flash Sales: Fab and Touch of Modern operate on timed online sales from various businesses, creating a questionable sense of scarcity.
  • Web Store Platform: Sites like Ebay and Etsy enable hundreds of shop owners to setup their own online store, further decreasing the barrier to entry for about anyone with a PayPal account.
  • Social Media: Top Shop is an über online clothing store from London. London’s Fashion Week starting on September 16, 2012 marks the first time where viewers can view a live fashion show, simultaneously buy the outfit, tweet about it, vote for their favorite look via Facebook and view the behind the scene shots on Instagram.  No store or in-person attendance at exclusive shows required: just buy, share, and drive sales.
  • Pop-Up Shops: more local stores in my city have been closing their permanent address and moving to pop–up shop models lasting from 1 day to 2 weeks.  The “rent” is less, offers high flexibility, and low inventory commitments.  Perhaps this is one way to adapt in regional markets’ economy.
  • Exhibit Shows: niche retailers may choose to only sale at special trade shows or exhibits geared towards its niche makers.  The annual Dwell Conference is one example where about 23,000 housing & furnishing enthusiasts spent their time and money.

Just as Moss is moving into a design consultancy, the playing field is a blended virtual playing field.  We must wade through all the clutter of stuff and thoughtfully consider the full lifecycle of the products we buy, maintain, and dispose.  Just because it’s easier to buy online does not always mean that we should gorge in retail gluttony.  As business owners, getting to market is just the start.  Perhaps the secret sauce is for those retail owners who can remain nimble in their niche, within the ever-changing retail dance for the long haul.  A special nod goes to how Brooks Brothers endures as America’s oldest clothier (privately held): established in 1818.


Kabat, Jennifer.  “Murray’s Next Act”, Metropolis April 2012.
Retail Info Systems

Geeking Out @ NYC’s Material Library

February 7, 2012 1 Comment

Libraries = books, right?  The material library obliterates that equation.  Imagine rows of cutting edge plastic, glass, ceramics, metals, etc. for you to touch and brainstorm!  It’s a product designer’s dream for inspiration and innovation.

I geeked out when I had a chance to access the Material Connexion in New York City, the only North American location.  The library space from the lobby, meeting room, and material room are delightfully laid out, indexed, and coordinated.

Visitors can spend their time perusing over hundreds of “material swatches” and then contact the material manufacturer directly for more samples or information.  The Material Connexion also has an online database where users can search on the ~6,500 materials in their collection based on multiple criteria like heat resistance or renewability.

The biggest material trend seen at the library is green material, anything sustainable.  Hearing how a replacement for landfill-clogging Styrofoam had been created sparked excitement and hope .  Two engineering and product design guys baked a mixture of corn and fungus together to form tough, biodegradable foam.  They grow their innovation on an Upstate New York farm, which has packaging impacts around the world.  Check out Ecovative Design’s EcoCradle foam.

I next picked up what appeared to be a rock-like square. Lo and behold when that block stands up to the light! The material is actually translucent with streaks of light peering throughout, revealing my hand underneath.  Imagine if Milan museums or Nagoya nightclubs use this material for chic designs…

A rotating group of cross-industry professionals vote on accepting approximately 50 materials into Material Connexion a month.  The application possibilities are like a kid in a candy store.  I was stoked to pick up a polymer that retains smell for applications like a rose-smelling trash container.

Aside from NYC, I still envied all those people in Bangkok, Beijing, Cologne, Daegu, Istanbul, Milan and Seoul where other Material Connexion libraries operate.

Many traditional book libraries face budget cuts around the country given the digital reality.  Imagine if designers, teachers and parents took their budding inventors to local material libraries where kids could play and immerse themselves around innovative materials.  What would we build next?

How are those Legos and Lincoln Logs looking?