'Con' Game: the Best Stores Are Not Stores

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Credit: Complex via Youtube

We can talk about how shopping needs to be an event, how millennials respond more to experiences and influencers than the latest collection from Abercrombie (remember those days?), but what does that actually look like? Pop-ups have gone from a trend to a common part of our retail and marketing vernacular. With retail and media doing a synchronized swan dive, expect to see special-interest communities looking for experiences (and things to buy) that relate to their passions.

Agencies and brands have experiential marketing teams, so it only makes sense to layer in transactions. Over the past few years, I've become fascinated—OK, obsessed—with experiences like Beautycon and ComplexCon just for that reason: They are, by definition, what I call "experiential commerce communities." From minimalism to sneakerheads to beauty-product junkies, the internet has given birth to a universe of subcultures and empowered us to participate in these spaces every day. If you have your personal subculture "spaces" online—wellness, streetwear, beauty or technology—why can't we bring them to life offline?

We're just starting to see brands recognize the power of extending the performance of these subcultural identities to physical spaces.

Credit: Rachel Shechtman

Comic-Con, which started in the 1970s, was the first to see the power of organizing a fanatical subculture around an event and using it as a mechanism to sell stuff—from T-shirts and costumes to action figures. What's new is how emergent subcultures latch onto the model as a means to inspire loyalty and drive consumer behavior. It can get niche too, like the weed-focused Cannabis Cup and Bulletproof coffee's annual Biohacking Conference, where you can do yoga for biohackers and listen to keynotes by former pro athletes and Ayurvedic doctors.

A few common threads run through these conventions: They bring together subculture communities that have typically met in online spaces; they often include an element of learning and doing; they empower personal discovery of new brands and information; and they give you endless ways to transact. At ComplexCon, for example, every "experiential" moment is brought to you by a brand—and the experiences they provide often involve buying something.

Beautycon is no different. "You don't need lipstick, lipstick needs you," it proclaims as part of a mission that sees makeup as a tool to create meaningful connections for a diverse global community of content creators, celebrities, fans and brands. Each Beautycon event has thousands of attendees who wait in line for hours for a free sample, Instagram pic or lecture with their favorite YouTube celeb. At ComplexCon last month, even the coolest of kids in one-off Nikes weren't above waiting for an hour to screen-print a basic T-shirt customized by their hero Virgil Abloh, the designer, DJ and fashion-label impresario.

"This is an awesome utopia," Abloh said onstage at the event. "There are four walls where it's OK to be excited. This is literally the internet. You're on the superhighway of Instagram."

Retailers, take note. Apply what ComplexCon creates in the ephemeral to permanent retail environments like malls. Imagine an Eataly for sneakerheads. This isn't just tailored experiential retail, it's turning our individual internet subcultures into physical destinations that make us feel connected and inspired.

Rachel Shechtman is the founder and CEO of Story and a former brand consultant for Kraft, Toms shoes and Lincoln

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