Coming soon to a mall near you: Wayfair?
Well, not exactly.
But the home-goods retailer’s decision to open its first-ever pop-up mall shops represents a bit of a watershed moment for online commerce. Many smaller Internet startups moved into the brick-and-mortar world in the past few years; Wayfair resisted the trend.
Now, the Boston-based company is ready to come out from behind the screen. Wayfair said Wednesday that it will open temporary stores in the Natick Mall and the Westfield Garden State Plaza in New Jersey for two months, starting Nov. 1. It’s an experiment — but one that could be a precursor for year-round stores to come.
No, you won’t be able to come in and grab a bookshelf or a night stand, or even a nice towel, at least not yet. These stores are just 400 square feet in size — smaller than some of the rooms where Wayfair’s items will end up. Wayfair will show off some furniture, alongside a limited pick of housewares and tabletop items, plus fabric swatches to help customers design their own sofas and love seats. Still, these shops will be staffed by a half-dozen people at any given time. They’ll answer design and product questions and work with customers to order online and ship to their homes directly from the warehouse. No cash registers. No inventory piling up. The only thing consumers can buy and carry out? Wayfair gift cards.
Wayfair vice president Bob Sherwin likens the pop-up stores to another old-school approach: direct-mail catalogs. Wayfair, he said, found its 2016 launch of the glossy publications to be a success, in terms of giving the company a new and effective way to engage with shoppers.
In many respects, Wayfair is late to this game. Warby Parker started out selling eyeglasses online, but now aims to open up to 100 stores by year’s end. Lingerie retailer Adore Me is planning for as many as 300 stores in the next five years, while Indochino already runs dozens of menswear showrooms. The list goes on: Bonobos, Untuckit, Glossier, Casper, to name a few.
Then there’s Amazon (there’s always Amazon). Amazon’s $13.7 billion Whole Foods acquisition underscores the importance the online giant places on physical storefronts. And it is just getting started. More bookstores and convenience stores are on their way, plus shops hawking well-reviewed items from the website.
As Wayfair develops a new kind of marketing muscle, some big questions remain. Can it use in-person encounters to help build a more loyal following? How well will its penchant for data-crunching translate in the real world?
For a company that received $5.7 billion in revenue in the 12-month period that ended June 30, this represents a small first step. But it’s an important one. Wayfair execs hope to learn from it as they contemplate a bolder brick-and-mortar strategy for the future.