This article was originally published in the February 2018 Princeton Echo.

By Joshua Zinder and Donald Strum

Retail is no longer merely what’s sold at the counter. As a matter of fact, in some brick-and-mortar shops, there is no counter. If you’ve ever been to Arlee’s Raw Blends to get a juice blend, for example, you know that the store doesn’t funnel customers to a desk with a cash register on it; instead, associates will talk with you, help educate you about nutrition and choices, and ring you up anywhere in the shop.

That’s because Arlee’s, like many forward thinkers who embrace the brave new world of retail these days, understands that customers don’t just want “stuff” when they enter a business anymore. Customers want an experience. Dare we say, they want a story?

This desire is exactly what the two of us will be discussing with our fellow Princeton Merchants Association members on Tuesday, February 20, at the Nassau Inn, when we present ideas for improving the retail experience in town and even online. Princeton, with its many great stores, benefits from being a destination in itself; but there’s no denying that the nature of retail is changing, especially for small and independently owned businesses such as we have here in town.

Big-box retail and online shopping are the two most persistent issues that small retailers face in terms of competition. And retailers have started to figure out that trying to fight major online retailers or big-box outlets on price and availability doesn’t work.

Instead, the savviest retailers have tapped into customer experience. For example, think of going to a restaurant. Everyone knows you can look up a recipe and buy some ingredients and cook your own food. And even if you hate to cook and just want to go out for a burger, everyone knows you can get a simple burger at most eateries. So why go to a specific restaurant where you might have to wait to get seated, for the privilege of paying two or three times the cost of buying some ground beef and cooking a burger at home?

It’s because you’re not paying for the burger, you’re paying for the experience. You’re paying for the ambiance of the restaurant, the vibe, the service, the social interaction. The best restaurant owners know that you’re there only partly for the food … You’re also there for the experience.

Sharp retailers have caught on to this dynamic. Maybe the best example is a store in Chelsea, New York, called Story. This shop is the envy of any retailer for one simple reason — customers are always lined up outside waiting to get in. Why are people willing to stand in this queue? Because Story literally changes its story every so-many weeks. The entire space is regularly redesigned around a new theme, anything from the simple (Her Story) to the edgy (Disrupt). The decor changes, the atmosphere changes, but the appeal does not, for the same reason that museums host special exhibitions — to provide something new to discover.

Shoppers these days crave that kind of discovery. They love finding new things, love being part of a one-of-a-kind, even fleeting experience that not everyone will get to have. As a retailer, unless you can provide something new and unique, customers will simply go online to find the lowest price.

And customers also crave authenticity. This is especially true among millennial shoppers, who don’t seem at all interested in the kind of mass-market goods and gizmos that older generations might have taken to. That could mean authenticity in the products: say real antique jewelry with an updated image, like the pieces sold at H1912, or the home products designed by Michael Graves Design and sold through Target stores, that democratized design and provided “guests” with a sense of discovery and the feeling that they belonged to a club. Or authenticity can be felt in the place itself. The local deli Red Onion, for example, recently had a simple, cost-effective makeover designed by Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design that reinvigorated the setting, visually reinforcing its distinctive name.

Yes, money is tight for retailers struggling against the onslaught of big-box sales and online deals. But the good news is that finding your business’s unique voice (or story) doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. You’re best off hiring a professional design firm to help you: a good one will work within your budget to help you convey your unique personality.

And as for online presence? Don’t ignore that. If there’s one other lesson Princeton retailers can learn from Story — or, more locally, from the Princeton Record Exchange — it’s that you don’t need to sell merchandise online to make your website a compelling component of your business. These two businesses we mentioned don’t sell a thing online, but their websites go a long way towards crafting and continuing the personalities and presence of the stores themselves. And both stores are incredibly good at getting people in the door, thanks to some smart website work.

In short, Princeton’s many fine retail shops are in exactly the right place and in exactly the right position to tap into the special experience that visitors come here for.

Joshua Zinder is the principal of Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design. Donald Strum is the principal in charge of product, furniture, and graphic design for Michael Graves Architecture & Design.