In the Flesh

Online brands promise an escape from the conventional logic of consumerism — until they open physical stores

Like many erstwhile leisure activities — exercise, cooking, walking your dog — shopping has become something that some marketers would have us believe is onerous, a problem we need solved rather than an activity we might deliberately pursue and even enjoy. Borrowing the most convincing rhetoric from tech companies, brands like Casper (mattresses), Everlane (clothes), and Harry’s (razors) have positioned their online, direct-to-consumer model as an elegant solution to the endless, overly complicated process of buying things. Part of their appeal is that by shopping on their sites, you can move beyond acquiring products in pursuit of a certain kind of enviable lifestyle and instead focus on what matters to you, whatever that may be. With their tightly edited selections of fewer, better things, these brands offer you the most sophisticated choice of all: to opt out of the cycle of consumerism and simplify your life.

But inevitably, it seems, online brands are forced to shift their strategy to sustain their growth trajectory. “Meeting customers where they are” is a phrase often slung around by venture capitalists and startup executives. It means to put yourself in front of potential buyers online, assuming that most of the time, that’s where they will be. Most retail shoppers, though, are still in the real world. Despite the upward slope of e-commerce growth, experts predict that in the next year, brick and mortar will account for the majority of sales. To meet most of the population “where they are,” a brand needs to have a physical space. For a brand whose goal is an independent market presence instead of eventually being acquired, brick-and-mortar maximizes reach. Warby Parker, which opened its first store in 2013, three years after it launched online, is perhaps the best example of a brand translating from online to off. Its retail locations, modeled loosely on libraries, offer customers a drop-in, low-pressure alternative to LensCrafters. Employees are trained to be attentive but not pushy. “No one wants to be followed around the store,” co-founder Neil Blumenthal told Inc. in 2017, “You never want the customer to feel like they’re better off shopping online.”

A physical space clarifies how a brand sees itself in the world and who it sees as its customers, positions that will necessarily alienate some

As Blumenthal’s comment suggests, the shift to physical spaces does more than relocate the point of exchange for these brands. The tactics they have used to endear themselves to consumers online — replacing the tropes of conspicuous consumption with hyper-convenience and relatability — tend to run counter to the nature of physical stores, complicating the transition. Opening a retail space entails a series of decisions (location, size, décor, employee uniforms) that force a brand to define itself in ways that are avoidable online. A physical space clarifies how a brand sees itself in the world and who it sees as its customers, positions that will necessarily alienate or disappoint some people.

For decades, retailers and manufacturers relied on aspirational marketing. Advertisements for clothing brands, especially, were mood boards, up to their popped collars in imagery of traditional American wealth: stone and ivy campuses, nautical scenes, international travel, tennis courts, improvised games of touch football on grassy lawns. Online brands try to offer a more accessible vision: You don’t need a boat, a country home, or even an apartment without roommates to experience their world of luxury. All you need is convenience, made possible through technology. These brands position themselves as enablers but not arbiters of taste, shifting conceptions of what “high-end” can be.

Rejecting the familiar tropes of luxury, digital-first retailers tend to play up their relatability and emphasize their “realness,” which takes on a different significance when a brand has no physical presence. Burrow describes itself as “the luxury couch for real life.” Likewise, Glossier is “a beauty brand inspired by real life.” Outdoor Voices offers “a wardrobe that spans gym-life and life-life.” The lifestyle these statements hint at is untethered to a particular time and place. This unspecified “realness” allows a brand to present itself as a means by which consumers can access their true selves. What makes the brand “real” is not its ability to convey a particular mode of living but a more abstract commitment to quality over quantity and innovation over aspiration. They are deliberately, appealingly vague.

This vagueness precludes the fantasy of vicariously experiencing a rarefied upper-class lifestyle through the brand, replacing it with the lived experience of a brand simplifying your life. The products — sheets, T-shirts, toothbrushes, lip balm — are quotidian, aesthetically under the radar, capable of effortlessly sliding into the life of anyone who orders them. Every product is an easy, buyable solution.

In a retail setting, it’s harder to maintain the sort of self-centered engagement that these brands have thrived on

On the websites of Everlane, Glossier, and Outdoor Voices, you won’t find many cultural references or overt class signifiers. The models are attractive in an unthreatening way — they’re the kind of people you’d admire on the street but probably wouldn’t see on a runway. They are pictured doing things you could easily do too if you were being your best self: going for a run, getting ready for a night out, eating breakfast in bed with the Sunday paper. The brands promise to streamline your life, seemingly removing the need to be overly concerned with bells, whistles, or designer labels. Luxury, they tell consumers, is no longer about scarcity or wanting things you can’t always have. A brand based on exclusivity, after all, would be antithetical to the scale startups typically seek.

It makes sense, then, that the mission statements of direct-to-consumer companies lecture prospective customers about how their products speak to who they are without telling them exactly who they should be. They are removed from the top-down salesmanship that often defines boutique shopping. After all, “personal choice is the most important decision a brand can never make,” says Glossier. Outdoor Voices, too, believes that “when you drop the expectations to perform, the magic happens.” And Everlane wants “the right choice to be as easy as putting on a great T-shirt.” The implication behind these dictums is obvious: If you think for yourself, you buy direct.

This approach seeks to minimize the drama of shopping — a reversal of conventional retail. In her 1981 essay Casual Imagination, artist Judith Barry argued that “the activity of shopping directly engages the shopper in the generation of a complex narrative all her own. In a sense she is the protagonist of a detective story, following her own desire as she moves through the store.” For direct-to-consumer brands, there is no mystery to solve. They aim to create uncluttered paths — in their advertising and online user experience — that give customers the opportunity to discover themselves through activities that are more meaningful, and less transactional, than shopping.

Online, it’s easy to imagine that a brand understands you. Transitioning to brick and mortar requires embracing some of the exclusivity they ostensibly opposed

Part of the brands’ relatability strategy online is “engaging” customers rather than merely advertising at them. They often rely on referral programs and user-generated content (enthusiastic product reviews, Instagram posts from customers that double as advertisements) that are meant to give customers a sense of investment in and identification with the brand. A purchase spurred by a social media post seems more natural than calculated.

When these brands open physical spaces, they try to preserve that formula. Often, designs feature rounded edges, white walls, natural woods, and pastel accents — warm, “organic,” and faintly futuristic without being challenging. The stores are free of unpredictable sale sections, austere fluorescent lighting, and chrome fixtures — nothing to convey urgency or economy. The spaces act as neutral but recognizable canvases, attuned to melt into the background of a selfie. Company representatives often use terms like “clubhouse” “mecca,” and, more clinically, “community activation space” to describe their sales floors. To make in-store shopping feel participatory, the companies recast their locations as meet-ups or Instagrammable attractions to generate social media posts from customers — harmoniously completing the cycle of online to physical space to online again.

But if the physical instantiations of these brands are intended to make you feel like you’re more part of their community, they can easily have the opposite effect: It’s one thing to imagine or project the sorts of other people who share your interests and another thing to encounter them face to face. In a retail setting, it’s harder to maintain the sort of self-centered engagement that these brands have thrived on. 

For all their messaging around access and convenience, offline shops are often inherently inconvenient. They are abuzz with “friction” — which, for startups, means anything that slows down commerce. Online, the circuit from inspiration to completion of the sale can be extremely direct, often a matter of a few swipes or clicks. But in retail showrooms, customers must place orders and wait for delivery after having handled items and hankered for them. And at stores that work like traditional boutiques, there are often lines around the block and low inventory. As online reviews indicate, stores tend to be overstaffed but underserviced, with attention unevenly split among customers. Gone are the chatty emails and instant messaging of online customer service, the unseen representatives who like your Instagram posts and use phrases like “No worries!” In physical retail locations, the brands are hampered by the thing they claim to be powered by — “real” people.

Lifestyle brands rely on a suspension of disbelief. They require that customers buy into the idea that owning a specific kind of product denotes a particular, desirable way of living, as imagined by the brand. In their online forms, direct-to-consumer companies seemed to offer an alternative option, an appealing lifestyle defined by and attainable within the self instead of the brand. Offline stores are unnerving, not because they are inherently bad but because they make clear the hollowness of viewing a brand as a means of self-discovery. Online, it’s easy to feel a connection to a brand, to imagine that it understands you, and that it can get you closer to the life you want. In store, it becomes more obvious that this sense of relatability is part of a larger strategy of customer engagement, a tactic that can be switched on or off.

Physical retail stores appear to undermine the things that made online brands attractive: efficiency, accessibility, and a personalized, customer-driven experience. In transitioning to brick and mortar, brands may aspire to build their “community,” but in practice this requires embracing some of the exclusivity and aspirationalism they ostensibly opposed online. For those who met these brands virtually, offline stores renege on the online brand’s promise of self-fulfillment beyond rather than through shopping. In a store, it becomes impossible to miss that nothing is made just for you.

Rachel del Valle is a freelance writer and copywriter. She lives in Brooklyn.