Editor's view: A third space that feels like home

  • Opinion
  • June 15, 2017
  • Sarah Dunn
Editor's view: A third space that feels like home

While holidaying in the Pacific Islands, I once met an American backpacker who claimed to have eaten McDonald’s at every destination he’d ever visited. The subtle differences between the Maccas menu in, say, South Korea, where it’s possible to order a bulgogi burger; and in New Zealand, where unique menu items include a double-patty burger named ‘The Boss’, fascinated this budget gourmet.

Asked what the attraction was, he supposed it had something to do with the combination of familiarity and novelty. Plus, who could say no to a Big Mac?

While I can’t claim to be any kind of McDonald’s expert, I can relate. There’s a few global chains I’ll go out of my way to visit whenever I can – among them Muji, Uniqlo and Anthropologie.

It was post-modern science fiction writer William Gibson who first introduced me to Muji when he namedropped the Japanese multi-category retailer in a 2003 book called Pattern Recognition. He obviously continued to think about Muji’s peculiar appeal, later writing:

“It calls up a wonderful Japan that doesn’t really exist… a Japan of the mind, where even toenail-clippers and plastic coat-hangers possess a Zen purity: functional, minimal, reasonably priced. I would very much like to visit the Japan that Muji evokes. I would vacation there and attain a new serenity, smooth and translucent, in perfect counterpoint to natural fabrics and unbleached cardboard.”

Muji stores are at nearly 700 locations around the world, and each one is an impeccably merchandised oasis of stationery, homewares and basic clothing. The essential oils Muji uses to scent its stores create a wonderfully calming atmosphere that stands in counterpoint to the high streets outside. I visit Muji’s Japan as often as I can.

Uniqlo is another Japanese purveyor of accessibly-priced minimalism, this time focusing on fashion. It’s not nearly as on-trend as its fast-fashion competitors Zara and H&M, but every garment has had a lot of thought put into it – they all fit perfectly, wear well, and totally lack any kind of unnecessary design flourish.

It’s hard to tell whether there’s any concession to local markets at any of of Uniqlo’s 832 stores because its global range is so universally appropriate that there’s really no need. I’m fascinated by the universality of Uniqlo, and how it’s approached the challenge of designing appropriate clothing for every city-dweller worldwide with such effortless success.

Aesthetic-wise, American chain Anthropologie is the total opposite of Uniqlo and Muji. The 200-store chain is all about feminine excess – big, overblown florals and tribal patterns; beads, sequins and fringing; party dresses, raw crystals and gilt candlesticks.

Anthropologie’s boho-inspired clothing and lifestyle products aren’t really my cup of tea, but despite this, I love shopping its stores because of its wildly creative merchandising. Every product, everywhere, is arranged with curatorial care into complicated still-life displays, and the narratives these create are reinforced by wonderfully theatrical props. When I visited Anthropologie’s three-storey Regent St, London branch in February, it had a life-sized humpback whale made of papier mache hung above the homewares section.

Retailers have traditionally offered a ‘third space’ which is neither work nor home, but dialing up the ‘home’ factor can increase customer loyalty as long as it doesn’t result in stagnation. Especially for travelers, globally consistent branding, a strong story and a great in-store experience can give your store that irresistible combination of familiarity and novelty that’ll keep customers lovin’ it all over the world.

This story originally appeared in NZ Retail magazine issue 749 April / May 2017

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