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Innovation Economy

Some Web retailers hope showrooms lure buyers

Gemvara, an online jewelry retailer, is opening a temporary brick-and-mortar showroom on Newbury Street in Boston’s Back Bay.

Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe

Gemvara, an online jewelry retailer, is opening a temporary brick-and-mortar showroom on Newbury Street in Boston’s Back Bay.

Remember the 1999 vision of shopping’s future? We’d buy everything online, customized to our most exacting specifications, and have it all delivered to our doorstep, tax-free. E-tailers scoffed at the notion of renting storefronts, hiring clerks, and carrying shelves full of inventory that might quickly go out of style.

But if you stroll down Newbury Street and its side streets today, you can try on pants from Bonobos, a suit from Blank Label, or eyeglass frames from Warby Parker, Web retailers all. (New York-based Warby Parker is backed in part by Spark Capital, a venture capital firm on Newbury Street.) In November, online jewelry merchant Gemvara plans to open a temporary store amidst the art galleries and cafés; it will stay open until Valentine’s Day.

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What’s happening here?

Essentially, entrepreneurs who once thought they could attract customers with clever online ad campaigns are finding that retail locations can be a better way to snare a buyer’s attention. Also, it turns out, people like to touch and feel certain products, and they appreciate a little input from a salesperson. But most of the new players on Newbury are still trying to steer clear of stocking any cash-and-carry merchandise.

Gemvara chief executive Janet Holian joined the Boston start-up after serving as chief marketing officer of a very data-driven e-commerce company that has never had physical stores: Vistaprint, which sells printed products to small businesses. For her, the Newbury Street location is an experiment in whether offering people a chance to try on the company’s jewelry, all of which is custom-crafted, can speed up the purchase decision. On the Web, she says, “We know it takes the average person six visits to our website and 22 days to make their first purchase.”

Holian says Gemvara is designing the temporary space to be “an anti-jewelry store. It won’t be intimidating, and it won’t be high pressure. We won’t have salespeople standing behind counters.” Shoppers can configure jewelry using tablets and computers, and have their purchase shipped directly to them. But Holian says each customer who makes a purchase that way will also walk out with a complimentary pair of stud earrings, featuring the gem of their choice — primarily “so people will be seen walking down Newbury Street with Gemvara bags,” she says.

Fan Bi started Blank Label in 2010, after a brief stint at Babson College. Initially, he envisioned a website that would entice young men entering the workforce to order custom dress shirts, with an emphasis on reasonable prices. But despite offering the ability to choose contrasting cuff fabrics and add monograms, Bi’s site didn’t take off.

Blank Label began participating in trunk shows, private events that allow upscale and fashion-conscious men to try on apparel. “Those put us in front of our perfect guys,” Bi says, “but while they loved the clothes, we found they were turned off by the idea of having to go home, get onto the Web, and figure out how to order something.”

So earlier this year, the company opened a third-floor showroom on Gloucester Street with an ornamental fireplace, comfy chairs, and a coffee table arrayed with magazines, highball glasses, and a few bottles of top-shelf booze. A sales consultant takes measurements with an old-fashioned tape, but enters the orders on an iPad. Shirts, pants, and suits are made in Shanghai, and delivered to the showroom within two weeks. If a customer wants to order more, he can do that via Blank Label’s website. (Shirt prices range from $70 to $145.) The company already has a second showroom in Chicago, and plans to open one in Washington next spring.

Just around the corner, another apparel e-tailer, Karmaloop, opened a store in 2005. “We wanted a flagship store, because people would come to Boston, and they’d want to visit Karmaloop,” says CEO Greg Selkoe. “We wanted to have a physical manifestation, but we never thought of it as a huge moneymaker.” (The company’s headquarters fill the upper floors of the old Shreve, Crump & Low building on Boylston Street.)

But Selkoe says the store proved to be “1 percent of my revenue, but 10 percent of my problems.” He had to deal with employees who came in drunk, or didn’t replace light bulbs because the store’s ladder had disappeared. “You deal with a lot of new headaches,” he says. The store, which trafficked in T-shirts, sneakers, and baseball caps, closed in 2011. Selkoe says he wouldn’t rule out another physical store, but says he’d likely do it with a partner.

Boston-based Wayfair, an online seller of home goods, is one of the newest players to dip a digit into the waters of real-world retail. In August, Wayfair acquired Dwell Studio, a site that focuses on contemporary decor. But with Dwell came a showroom in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. CEO Niraj Shah says it offers Wayfair a chance to learn about “making our brand more of an immersive experience in a physical space.”

Could more locations be in store for Wayfair, which expects to surpass $1 billion in revenue this year? Shah says, “We’re considering what makes sense.”

In 2013, with so much of our attention welded to laptops, phones, and tablets, creating places to visit is likely an experiment more online retailers will try. “When you have aspirations to become a leader in your category, you need to get in front of more and more people,” says Shah. “Going offline is a way to explain the brand and the value proposition, and to get in front of people in a different way.”

Shopping’s future may be a challenging one for traditional stores. But these new kinds of showrooms could find a permanent place on promenades like Newbury Street.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.
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