As the Classic Department Store Falters, These 4 Challengers Want to Upend the Retail Model

An adjacent industry is cropping up

Bulletin's flagship in Manhattan. Courtesy of Bulletin
Headshot of Ann-Marie Alcántara

Don’t call it a comeback—call it a renaissance, a golden age of retail. Contrary to headlines bemoaning the death of merchandising, the so-called “retail apocalypse,” it’s still alive and kicking and was all anyone talked about at this year’s Shoptalk retail/commerce conference. 

While legacy retailers are experimenting with all sorts of ways to keep customers coming through the door—nail salons, laundry service and buy-online-pickup-in-store offerings—a new breed of store is cropping up, one that brings the digital experience to a brick-and-mortar environment. 

A few of these—b8ta, Bulletin, Neighborhood Goods and Showfields—offer direct-to-consumer companies the ability to grow their brand, all the while taking a cut of sales, data or both. In an era where digital acquisition channels are becoming more costly, these new department stores suggest that not only is the death of retail premature, but perhaps it’s a bit exaggerated.

“First of all, [these new retailers] are selling the products that people want to buy—it seems obvious, but department stores are not doing [this],” said Nicole Quinn, partner at Lightspeed Venture, a VC firm that has funded Bonobos, Stitch Fix, Zola and others. “There’s a real value in discovery and curation of these department stores.”


Showfields has a four-floor store on NYC's Bond Street.
Courtesy of Showfields

Showfields takes the curation aspect of a retailer and flips it on its head. Brands like Quip, a DTC toothbrush company, and Function of Beauty shampoos, for example, pay a member fee starting at $6,000 per month to join Showfields; the price changes based on in-store location and square footage. Showfields provides a mobile point of sale to check out anywhere in-store.

“All the brands are consumer centric, brand oriented, design driven,” said Showfields co-founder and CEO Tal Zvi Nathanel. “Between the community events and the art and the brands themselves, you will never see the same thing twice.”

Nathanel said his team works with brands to not only design their space but also set goals, like customer satisfaction. These KPIs, as well as sales, lead to a vast amount of data Showfields collects. Nathanel said Showfields shares more qualitative data points, such as dwell time, how one brand is doing versus another, customer feedback—all of which are proprietary.

The company recently raised $9 million in a seed round and just added Shopify as a brand member. Merchants on Shopify can now become part of Showfields, which officially opened all four floors of its store on New York’s Bond Street on March 15 (it initially launched with just one floor in December).

Brian Trunzo, a senior consultant and trend forecaster at WGSN, isn’t sold on Showfields’ concept, noting a similar model exists in Europe.

“It’s just the perfect example of when there’s blood in the streets, there’s opportunity to be had,” Trunzo said, adding that some of the data around foot traffic isn’t as valuable to brands as they think it might be. If only 50 people are in the store per day, the data is “useless” unless the brand is there to observe more qualitative data.

Neighborhood Goods

Neighborhood Goods' Prim and Proper bar features products from brands like cookware company Year & Day or Made In cooking knives.
Courtesy of Neighborhood Goods

Fresh off its latest seed round of $8.8 million, Neighborhood Goods, a retail store that shuffles brands in and out, is now setting its sights on opening its next shop in New York. The company established a 14,000-square-foot store in Plano, Texas, in December, originally wanting only 15 brands in the space. It ended up with 32, like Great by Serena Williams and Hims. The store’s bar, restaurant and communal area all serve as places where it mixes in products from brands.

The 10-year lease shop functions similar to Showfields; brands can pay a monthly fixed fee, a fixed fee plus a percentage of sales, or a fixed fee and integration of the brand into the space. The company declined to share those fees or percentages, but they vary per brand and space. Neighborhood Goods provides all the staffing and a central checkout experience both online and offline.

Matt Alexander, co-founder and CEO of Neighborhood Goods, said brands use the space differently. Some test new products while others acquire customers. Alexander calls a six- to nine-month stay the “sweet spot,” but is open to anything from two to 12 months.

“We’re trying to be very cautious as to how we do that,” Alexander said. “Owning the entirety of the relationship and very diligent about keeping focused on privacy. We’re not going to do anything unless we really have expressed authorization from the customer.”

Natan Reddy, senior intelligence analyst at CB Insights, believes any amount of data is “valuable” to these companies—like the generalized sales and foot traffic data Neighborhood Goods is sharing. And while there’s a lot of “risk” with having real estate versus existing solely online, it’s still vital for today’s consumer.

“These department store startups are taking these different trends and turning the store into an experience you can’t get online and honing in on the idea on DNVB [digitally native vertical brands] going physical in a way that’s different than the Macy’s model,” Reddy said. 

Alexander wouldn’t share sales numbers, other than it’s exceeded the company’s “target.” Alexander said the company’s on track to opening four or six more locations this year.


Bulletin focuses on companies led by women, as well as people who identify as queer or nonbinary.
Courtesy of Bulletin

Bulletin opened a store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in November 2016, after testing the concept at the Brooklyn Flea and pivoting from its original idea, a digital site where co-founders Ali Kriegsman and Alana Branston curated “the coolest digitally native brands getting overshadowed on markets like Etsy,” according to Kriegsman, who also serves as COO.

Now, Bulletin has three locations in New York and has worked with 200 brands across the stores. Kriegsman declined to share concrete numbers but said each store is profitable. Bulletin focuses on companies led by women, as well as people who identify as queer or nonbinary.

“We focus on price point,” Kriegsman said. “We really want Bulletin to be an accessible space. We really want it to feel like a warm, open, welcoming space for women in New York.”

Bulletin also operates under a membership fee, with a minimum commitment from brands of two months. Kriegsman said most end up staying longer and some are seasonal, but in all cases, Bulletin is providing them with real-time sales data so they can adjust their messaging or which products they’re selling in-store. The fees are fixed and range from $300 to $750, depending on the store location. Additionally, Bulletin gets a 30 percent cut of sales, 10 percent of sales go to Planned Parenthood of New York and the rest to the brand. The company had a $2.2 million seed round, with another coming soon.


b8ta is also opening a Hudson Yards location as part of its efforts to double its retail footprint in 2019.
Courtesy of b8ta

Phillip Raub, founder and president of b8ta, said the company is actually two parts: the store, which opened in December 2015 (as well as its dozen additional sites), and RaaS, or retail as a service, offering software that helps brands manage checkout, inventory, point of sale and more.

B8ta is planning to double its retail footprint this year, including opening in New York’s Hudson Yards. Like Bulletin, b8ta is a subscription service; the brand gets 100 percent of sales but pays to subscribe to the space and the service administered there, with a sales staff and real-time data. But, sales isn’t a key KPI for b8ta or the brands. Instead, Raub said he sees retail as a “media and advertising platform,” with a store providing brand awareness and data such as impressions, customer engagement, demos and dwell time.

“Most new brands find that about 50 percent of their brand awareness comes from retail, not public relations, not digital advertising,” Raub said. “People are discovering and learning about their products for the first time [in-store]. This is more of a media play.”

Since opening, b8ta has worked with more than 500 different companies and rotates through 10 to 15 products a month, all on consignment. To Raub, the allure of b8ta is its “sleek, modern design” that traditional department stores can’t offer—including store associates who understand what the product is about.

“It’s a partnership and collaboration with the brand to help them reach the consumer in different ways they just can’t do with traditional advertising,” Raub said.

B8ta’s alliance with Macy’s, which led to $19 million in Series B funding last year, is an example of what Sucharita Kodali, an analyst at Forrester, believes newer retailers must do to scale. While stores are an “important direction for retail,” particularly the DTC brands, Kodali said it’s still unclear whether they can survive past their initial funding.

This story first appeared in the March 18, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@itstheannmarie Ann-Marie Alcántara is a tech reporter for Adweek, focusing on direct-to-consumer brands and ecommerce.