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Commercial Basis: Shopper as Flaneur

Thought Leadership // Dec 17, 2015


‘Commercial Basis’ explores how technology, branding and demographic preferences are shaping office and retail real estate in New York City. As these forces break down the barriers from where we live to where we work and shop, Lead Commercial Specialist Alex Cohen will assess the impact on real estate values and opportunities.

Flaneur, from the French noun flâneur, means a stroller, a saunterer or a browser. A Flaneur does basically what we used to do in a book store or in a record store (remember those?) and what some people still do in clothing stores – that is walk into a store without a specific purchase in mind and wander around aimlessly browsing the shelves, record bins or clothing racks for something that catches our eye and that we might be tempted to purchase.

We don’t generally shop on the Internet as a flaneur—nearly all web purchases are deliberate (97% of sales on Amazon are planned). Perhaps preserving brick and mortar stores as a generator of sales and brand outpost, particularly aimed at the luxury shopper, will depend in part on restoring the flaneur appeal of the store experience which is largely absent from Internet shopping. This was one of the things I learned at The Future Laboratory’s recent US Luxury Futures Forum.

For example, SoHo House Berlin has redesigned its entire ground floor, which is open to the public, renaming the floor The Store. But this “store” actually blurs the distinction between hotel and retail. The SoHo House ground floor includes lobby, restaurant, lounge, check-in and concierge services, but includes no structural distinctions or visual demarcations of a retail outlet. Instead, every candle, every vase, every piece of furniture and every wall covering in the space is actually for sale. A visitor to SoHo House, without a predetermined intention to purchase anything material, may be likely to become a “flaneur” on this floor and potentially a retail customer, as they wait to be seated for dinner or to check-in for the evening. Visitors also experience a highly curated environment that signifies SoHo House’s positioning at the cutting edge of the creative industries, to which it targets its membership and hotel rooms.

Closer to home, the architect Marco Marcellini encouraged me to stroll through the Fifth Avenue Valentino store, recently designed by the British architect David Chipperfield, and compare this experience to the new 57th Street Fendi store which Marco designed at Peter Marino Architect. My impressions of the Valentino store are that it is a minimalist container for showcasing couture and accessories. The materials and finishes are stunning and are replicated throughout – gray terrazzo and bare marble floors and walls and elegant bronze and glass vitrines. But my eyes were drawn more to the articulated clothing racking systems on the men’s floor than anything else particularly distinctive. The store’s architecture appears to be working very hard not to distract one from the clothes inside and, while it is a beautiful showcase, the boutique is really not that memorable and in its minimalist desolation, a bit intimidating. In contrast, the architecture and design of the Fendi store is far from minimalist. The finishes and materials vary between selling departments and include stitched leather, fur and petrified wood wall coverings. The displays for accessories, shoe and bags are sometimes recessed into the walls and sometimes they protrude, but they are designed to be perceived as seamlessly integrated into the architecture of the store and not as add-on fixtures. Most significantly, each departments’ accommodations seem designed to be experienced like a unique room and create a distinct and expressive context shopping (or just browsing).