German retail has been suffering for years now, but more and more shopkeepers are finding new ways to bring customers through their doors -- and keep them there.
While parents shop, the kids can play -- or carve pumpkins
Dinger's Garden Center in Cologne is like any other large nursery, with row after row of seedlings, bushes and flowers lining light-filled hothouses. But one Saturday a month, families visiting the store can do more than just shop for plants. Parents bring young children to the store to take part in workshops run by a local art school. And while the kids are making potato-stamp pictures or carving pumpkins, the parents can shop in peace, or sit down in the in-house café and have a bite to eat.
Dinger's has been offering the arts-and-crafts days for the past three years, and the response has grown steadily, said Hans Berkhauer, the store's buyer and event-management director.
The management came up with the idea as a way of attracting young families to the store. "Just setting up a slide and a ball pit, or having a TV running some cartoon loop isn’t enough anymore," Berkhauer said. In order to set itself apart from other places selling plants -- large discounters or a nearby supermarket or hardware store -- Dinger's adopted a different approach, Berkhauer said.
"The commercial idea is to generate long-term clients. Hopefully in 30 or 40 years those kids will remember their nice Saturdays at Dinger's and will want to come back."
The nursery is just one example of an emerging trend of flexibility and creativity in Germany’s traditionally stiff retail environment. Sure, bookstores have been hosting readings (with follow-up book signings) and expanding reading-friendly cafés for a while now. But following trends already long underway in the United States and elsewhere in Europe, German retailers are starting to get more creative with their offerings. And the lines between shopping, leisure and culture are beginning to blur.
More and more, retailers are opening coffee bars and day spas on their premises, or hosting events -- both to promote specific goods, or simply create a feel-good shopping environment.
Change in bureaucracy
The phenomenon is still overwhelmingly associated with high-end retail, according to Armin Busacker, a lawyer and manager at the German retail association HDE. Two months ago, the laws changed, allowing retailers to sell food and drink on their premises without having to specifically obtain a food service license. This has facilitated the trend toward adding a "lifestyle" component to retail shops, Busacker said.
"I just had a call from a flower shop in Stuttgart that wanted to add a café, they weren’t sure it was allowed," Busacker said. "In Germany the competition is really extreme, so retailers and small boutiques are trying to keep their clients by adding extra service. ... It remains to be seen if it will help."
Busacker asserts shops in pedestrian zones in city centers are the most creative in their marketing, because they have to be. Downtown areas are under heavy pressure from suburban shopping centers, which Busacker calls "green belt" shopping. They are often easier to access, and have the square footage to hold a larger assortment of goods.
Apropos Cöln Concept Store restaurant
"People come to downtown shopping districts to have an experience. They want to be offered a glass of champagne or a coffee. The stores have had to become creative -- so they do wellness, fashion shows or poetry readings. Otherwise they’ll be left behind," said Busacker.
In Cologne, a store called Apropos Cöln Concept Store has taken the leisure-meets-retail concept to an extreme. The space, which garnered retail association HDE’s Store of the Year award for 2005, is modeled on ultra-exclusive, lifestyle-oriented retail venues like Fred Segal in Los Angeles.
Under a concept it calls "fusion," Apropos Cöln sells clothing, cosmetics and jewelry, housewares, music and books, but also has an art gallery, lounge, café, restaurant and day spa.
The idea to create the shop came about after space got tight at Apropos Cöln’s first venue, which focused purely on luxury clothing and cosmetics. When a large downtown space became available, the owners began thinking of ways to fill it. With cosmetics selling well at the initial store, a spa seemed a natural step. Indeed, it is now one of the store’s top business areas, according to Apropos Cöln spokesman Guido Boehler.
"What makes (the concept store) different is that we aren’t committed to doing any one thing. We can try out new ideas, new wares. The slogan of the concept store is 'from Converse to couture,' and that sums it up," Boehler said. "We will sell 60-euro running shoes, or a designer skirt for 2,000 euros."
Range of patrons
The shop not only sells culture, it creates it, putting out its own fashion and lifestyle magazine and hosting rotating exhibits in an art gallery. The gallery is a pet project of the store’s two owners, Daniel Riedo and Klaus Ritzenhöfer, who "wanted to share their passion for art photography with the public," said Boehler. But at the same time, the gallery also double as the home to Apropos Cöln's housewares department. Customers get to look at art and buy imported French teas in one and the same place.
So far, the store has attracted an unusually wide public. "At a store that just sells high fashion, there is one price range: expensive," Boehlen said. "At the Concept Store, someone young, who doesn’t have much money, might only buy a lipstick. Or just sit and drink a coffee. They can still take part."