Is NYC’s 5th Avenue the Future of US Retail?

NYC 5th avenue

From Gucci and Louis Vuitton to Bergdorfs and Saks, New York City’s 5th Avenue is one of the world’s greatest shopping Meccas. Heritage brand storefronts line the sidewalks, and mannequins wear looks torn straight out of fashion magazines. Therefore, it’s surprising that the street’s iconic retail terrain has recently been changing. Rising rents and the surging popularity of online shopping have caused an extremely challenging retail climate- especially for mid-priced retailers.

Earlier this month, Ralph Lauren announced plans to vacate its Polo flagship store in the coming year. But the very successful nearby Polo Bar is staying, and Ralph’s Coffee shop, which is located in the Polo store, may expand to new locations. So, we are seeing the closing of a major apparel store, but the rise of two related non-fashion offshoots. What do these non-fashion offshoots have in common?

They provide experiences to customers. At the Polo Bar, the brand is re-imagined as an immersive restaurant experience. Could this be the beginning of a larger shift towards experience-based fashion branding and retailing? And what would that entail?



Experience-based fashion retail infuses merchandise, dining, social gatherings, and unique services under one big roof. The perfect example is NikeTown on Madison Avenue. Personal styling, a running club, and a training club are shopping perks at this interactive store. The staff will even stick a water bottle inside your in-store locker for when you get back from your Nike branded training session. All of this is done while the customer is surrounded by Nike merchandise. While this “new” breed of immersive shopping experience isn’t exactly new, it has been getting a lot of buzz.  

The Rise of the Customer Experience

Experience-based retail has roots in the early 20th century with major department stores like London-based Harrod’s and Selfridges. Afternoon tea and special events made these stores into gathering spots and infused fun into shopping. Company heads recognized that people were more apt to make purchases when they were having a good time. And, really, it’s a genius idea… who wouldn’t spend more freely after a bit of champagne and dessert? 



Fast-forward to Selfridge’s today, where the Oxford Street location has more than fifteen restaurants and coffee shops scattered across its six floors. With dining options from morning through evening, a customer can ostensibly spend hours browsing and buying. In-store exercise classes and art workshops go beyond shopping and communicate that Selfridge’s cares for customers’ well beings as much as their purchasing powers.

How 5th Avenue is Evolving

Back in the US, NikeTown, Apple, and American Girl are just a few 5th Avenue stores who have adopted the experience-based retail model. Apple hosts classes to further product knowledge, while American Girl has a tea shop and doll beauty salon. But most of the other fashion retailers along this corridor (and in the US at large) still have a long ways to go.

The recent demise of long-standing mall brands, like The Limited and Wet Seal, has shown us that merchandise alone is no longer enticing enough to woo customers. In cities across the US, the fierce competition between closely located malls has resulted in a retail survival of the fittest. Yet fashion has been slow to adopt a broader retail model. Luxury stores have so far done the best job, offering special services like in-house salons and events replete with DJs and canapés. But in the future it’s going to take more than a little buying party to win customers.


Happy Weekend: we’ll be here.

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Selfridge’s London store is the gold-standard of experience-based fashion retailing, and the American public is very ready for something similar. NikeTown is a great concept, but it’s just the beginning of what’s truly possible. US fashion retailers could take a page from Selfridge’s playbook… after all, stores are competing with the comfort and convenience of online shopping, and that’s tough to beat.


*Feature image courtesy of Sujanesh Patel at