With the initial COVID lockdown now two years behind us, e-commerce companies are making the leap from screens to the physical world.
Just this spring, at least three “online-only” retailers decided that Boston-area customers wanted to touch products before footing the bill. The shift could be spurred — at least, in part — by a willingness from Americans to keep spending, even while inflation and fears of a recession bogs down the economy.
Among the companies in question is Wayfair. In late May, the Boston-based furniture giant opened a location in Lynnfield for one of its five brands, AllModern. The store boasts a few “tech-enabled” features, including electronic tags with QR codes that route consumers back to the Wayfair website, where they can find measurements, product reviews, and similar items for sale.
“A large part of the market wants a physical touchpoint before buying, say, a couch,” said Karen McKibbin, Wayfair’s global head of physical retail. “The goal is to be top of mind for any and all home furnishings.”
The storefront at the MarketStreet open-air shopping center imitates a traditional furniture outlet, separated by “vignettes.” At the front is casual living: velvet couches, white chairs, and wooden coffee tables — all in line with AllModern’s mid-century Californian aesthetic. It winds around to dining and bedroom offerings, as well as a back wall lined with rugs and mirrors suitable for the entire home. Dotted around the space are cash-and-carry items customers often impulsively purchase in person, but ignore online: dishware, candles, and aromatherapy diffusers.
Wayfair’s physical retail team — a hodgepodge of former employees from the likes of Walmart and Restoration Hardware — have made the space comfortable. It has a signature scent (“tomatoes on the vine”) and an arrangement of entryway blocks painted in a seasonal hue (a sunshiny yellow named “pablo honey”). Walls of fabric swatches and rug cutouts surround the central design bar, which is staffed by style-savvy employees.
Despite the tangible elements, the AllModern location is made to conform to Wayfair’s online roots — not the other way around.
Only 8 percent of AllModern stock is displayed in store, and transactions are ultimately completed on shoppers’ personal devices or tablets carried by employees. Homeowners cannot walk out with a couch; they have to wait a few days for home delivery, just like online customers. And in person or online, prices are the same.
McKibbin said Wayfair is targeting all customers: those who wander into AllModern and those who arrive intentionally after browsing the website.
“We don’t care where people come from or why they’re here,” she added. “We don’t even care whether they actually end up buying in the store or at home later on.”
It’s not the first time Wayfair has tried their hand at this. In 2018, the company launched a series of pop-ups before opening its first 3,700-square-foot store in the Natick Mall in 2019. There, customers could don virtual reality headsets or use augmented reality to see how furniture would fit into a room. But the outlet closed a year and a half later in the midst of the pandemic.
Earlier this month, Wayfair froze corporate hiring after a dip in sales in 2021 and a slumping stock price. The company stock is down 69 percent from the start of 2022. Still, the retail team is barreling forward. Wayfair plans to open a Dedham AllModern location and a Joss & Main store in Burlington this fall. In 2023, it will launch a 150,000-square-foot furniture showroom in Chicago.
And inevitably, other retailers are falling in line.
The luxury mattress manufacturer Saatva recently opened a Newbury Street “viewing room.” At 4,531 square feet, it’s stocked with memory foam, adjustable foam, and latex mattresses, as well as upholstered bed frames and linen bedding.
CEO Ron Rudzin said the company capitalizes on the allure of urban areas to attract customers to Saatva stores, so they can shop and dine after testing a mattress. So far, he’s opened locations in six cities, including Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In Manhattan, the storefront exceeded $8.5 million in revenue in 2021.
“You have to be in great areas where people want to do more than shop for your mattress,” Rudzin added. “We’ve created a tight retail footprint in the best streets of the best towns in the country.”
Saatva hopes to open 70 locations nationwide within the next four years, including five by the end of 2022.
Just a few miles over in the Seaport, Framebridge adopted a similar model.
The startup frames customers’ photos, diplomas, jerseys, and more on an online platform. It allows users to choose the design elements — frames, mats, and engravings — and ship off the item, which is mailed back a week or so later. A few years ago, Framebrige began to open stores nationwide to provide the same framing expertise in person.
On Seaport’s Pier 4 Boulevard and in a Hingham location that opened in August, staffers size customers’ items and help them choose between a selection of colored frames. (The final payment is, again, completed through the Framebridge website.)
“We want to make framing easy and affordable,” said CEO Susan Tynan, a former Boston resident and Harvard Business School graduate. “For some people, easy means dropping it off at the store.”
The storefront’s walls are covered in framed Boston paraphernalia: a Red Sox jersey, 2013 marathon bib, Northeastern University diploma, and lobster painting, among other things.
“At heart, framing is an errand,” Tynan added. “It makes sense for us to show up everywhere people live.”