Looking back at the future of retail: a conversation with Rachel Shechtman about the legacy of "Story"

When Rachel Shechtman opened the innovative concept store "Story" in New York, it was hailed as the future of retail. In an exclusive interview, Shechtman talks about the evolution of retail, the importance of sponsorship and employee motivation, and the challenges of curation in a time when everyone is becoming a curator.
19 September, 2023 by
Looking back at the future of retail: a conversation with Rachel Shechtman about the legacy of "Story"
GDI Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute

GDI: Ms. Shechtman, when you started your “Story” shop in New York with its ever-changing magazine-like approach, it was praised as the future of retail. Today, it’s closed. What has happened to our future?

Rachel Shechtman: Whenever Story was discussed through the lens of “the future of retail,” to me it was not about Story specifically, but rather the concept of rethinking the retail business, industry and model. Changing a store as frequently as we did, and introducing new revenue streams like sponsorship, were both very new elements for the retail industry at that time. It was actually “doing something differently successfully,” whether or not there is still a STORY, that inspired others to do the same. It was the successful infusion of innovation that has happened to impact the future of retail.

Once upon a time, a storyteller like Homer was paid for telling his story. A storyteller in retail, however, is telling the story for free, hoping to get some sales in return. How can this work?

Part of the Story business model was to charge a sponsorship to a large participating brand that brought authority and authenticity to a specific subject matter - think Coty sponsoring Beauty, Lexus sponsoring Design or Intel sponsoring Tech. Brands paid us upwards of one million dollars per theme in order to have their brand integrated into our experience, attached to specific deliverables of course. You have other models now like CAMP, where in addition to having brand sponsorship, they sell tickets, so that’s how they get paid for their story. I think the opportunity is to rethink how we monetize and what we monetize.

Let’s think of the local manager of a fashion retail outlet or of a grocery store: His or her daily experience on the job is mostly logistics and process optimization. How can we enable them to become experience retailers?

First, it is important to ensure there is an alignment with an employees’ motivation, brand mission and the actual needs of the role. A key part of Story’s success in finding the right people with high rates of intention was attributed to focus on hiring for mindset, oftentimes over specific industry experience. 

Build and roll out a comprehensive training program. Arm employees with the information they need and most importantly, the why behind everything. And then give them the space and confidence to “make it their own.” Individuality is a huge part of providing an authentic experience.

Beyond that, in the same way most people incentive sales performance, it is imperative to incentivize any behavior associated with experiential elements employees are contributing.

Curating has become some kind of hype term: every salesperson, every ad agency claims to be a content curator. But more and more often, people curate their own content, design their own playlists, choose their own timelines. How can a retailer stand out from the curator crowd?

I think it is less about standing out and more about making sure you have something customers want, in addition to ensuring retailers bring authenticity, quality and value for customers’ time to their experience. 

Rachel Shechtman spoke at the 73rd International Retail Summit on the topic "Experience Retail: Integrating Content, Community and Commerce. How storytelling turns a shop into an experience."

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