From Clicks to Bricks: Say Hello To A New Retail Era

The lights flicker, the floors are bare, and shirts with ripped seams cover the floor. Excited teens once dug through overstuffed racks here, but now every window of Forever 21 boasts a bright red sign: “Store Closing.”​

More than 12,000 brick-and-mortar stores will close in 2019, according to Coresight Research, an advisory firm analyzing fashion retail. This comes as little surprise as online shopping has taken over and companies worry about the future of physical shops. While legacy retailers like Forever 21 are shutting their doors, online brands are opening storefronts of their own. Physical retail isn’t dying, but rather shifting beneath our feet.​

Social media has changed the way people shop, users can discover new brands and make purchases straight from Instagram. Coresight Research reported 8 in 10 US shoppers purchase products they discover on social media. “Social media influencers have a lot of sway over consumers,” said Marie Driscoll, a financial analyst at Coresight. “They start trends and determine what’s cool.” Though social media has done great deeds for retail, it’s also raised questions about authenticity.

“The issue is that the people we follow online are being paid to promote different products. It brings down that level of trust. Consumers question if influencers actually love a product or really use it. The discovery mechanism is still there, but the trust factor has gone out the window,” said Katie Hunt, co-Founder of Showfields, a modern retail space, calling itself ‘the most interesting store in the world.’ It displays an array of online brands in their own mini storefronts that are inside the larger store, rotating out every six months.​

Located on the bustling corner of Lafayette and Bond Street in Manhattan, Showfields is an example of where brick-and-mortar is headed. Today’s generation of young shoppers have grown bored of traditional store concepts. Malls, department and big-box stores that feature a fixed lineup of brands pay no mind to customer experience. The whole point of retail today is not necessarily to sell products, but to sell an experience.

Showfields’ Instagram-friendly interior and unique aesthetic consists of eye-popping displays, selfie-mirrors, and colorful accent walls. In one room, mysterious structures protrude from a wall that look like a cross between an octopus’ tentacles and drops of melting ice cream. This is part of the immersive, free, 20-minute-long theater performance, beginning when customers go behind a bookshelf and down a slide. At the bottom of the slide, they end up in a forest outside of a house. Customers tour the house where they meet actors and travel through different rooms, each featuring art and sculptures by emerging artists. The products displayed correspond to the room themes. In the kitchen, customers learn about (Re)Zip reusable plastic bags, and in the bathroom they can test Nuria skincare products.​

Co-founder Hunt said, “The immersive experience lets us break the wall with the consumer, bringing them to a place where they feel comfortable trying new things.” Hunt believes that customers are more inclined to make a purchase after creating a personal connection and trying a product beforehand. “If I’m walking down a store aisle, and I see a product amongst everything else, and I have no knowledge of it, I’d be hesitant about giving it a try. People need physical locations because they want that trust factor of touching and seeing brands in person.”

Coresight Research found that online brands are saving money when displayed in pop-up or concept shops. Rather than paying a year’s worth of rent, they only commit to a few months. Financial analyst Driscoll said, “Brands normally pay 25 to 30 percent of their sales to attract customers via social media, and influencer marketing can be expensive. It used to be free to advertise on Facebook and Instagram, but not anymore. Brands who want to save money are entering physical stores where their company can get just as much, or even more, exposure.”

According to Fast Company Business, brands in Showfields pay a subscription fee between $6,000 and $12,000 a month which includes staffing, inventory, management, and sales data. Opening a store in Manhattan could cost more than $25,000 a month, according to real estate platform Agorafy. It’s also cheaper than social media marketing which can cost up to $20,800 a month, reported by marketing agency, Linqia.

41 Winks, a sleep accessories and eye mask company, is one of the many online retailers who has been featured in Showfields. “Navigating the digital landscape was really tough and it was hard to gain digital customers. We realized that our products sell so much quicker and easier when people see them in person,” said Olivia White, CEO of 41 Winks. “We're not in a position to have our own brick-and-mortar, so getting to work with Showfields was really awesome. We can interact with customers and gain more physical exposure which has definitely grown our brand awareness.” In the bedroom of the Showfields house, 41 Winks products are displayed for customers to try as actors educate them on the brand.​

Naked, on 224 Mulberry Street in Manhattan, is another retail concept company that designs physical spaces for online brands. They challenge traditional stores with an Instagramable interior and experiential food tastings. Kyra Garber, director of partnerships at Naked, said, “It’s about creating an experiential environment in stores and providing things that are more aesthetically pleasing. It’s how companies are getting people into their stores. Everything from messaging on boards, to window structure, to sales associates. It’s a whole process of making sure that creating a retail space is not only welcoming, but relevant.” Tranquil and intimate, Naked’s interior is a comfortable environment that feels like home. Minimalist and monochrome designs feature neutral colors. Plywood shelves and potted plants fill the space as ceiling-to-floor windows bring in natural light. Brands appear for a limited time only, compelling customers to hurry in and see the new Nuraphone headphones before it’s too late. Like Showfields, the brands in Naked—like Ash Footwear and Andie Swim—pay a monthly fee.​

Despite the seemingly irreversible rise of online shopping, the future of brick-and-mortar isn’t completely dim.

The Rise of The Micro-Influencer

A Hong Kong native at heart, Andrea Lee has found joy in documenting her life, personal style, and travels online. Currently a junior at Northeastern University in Boston, she is pursuing a degree in Marketing and Interactive Design. Her artistic and trendy street-style photos have earned her close to five thousand Instagram followers. Some may even call her a micro-influencer. In today’s digital world, the term ‘influencer’ is nothing new. It refers to someone who has established credibility in a specific industry and has access to a large audience through social media. So, what makes micro-influencers so special? They typically have less than one-hundred thousand followers and are able to connect to their audience on a more intimate level, creating greater engagement. In conversation with Andrea, she gave us a glimpse into her world and why micro-influencers are not ones to ignore.


Hannah Zipf: When did you start blogging and what was your motivation for getting started? What type of content do you currently post?


Andrea Lee: I started blogging on and off Instagram almost 6 years ago during my sophomore year of high school. I primarily post fashion and a few sprinkles of lifestyle and travel content here and there. And if I'm being frank, I started off just wanting to have a digital space for me to save outfit ideas that I styled for myself. But it quickly became more than that and into a journey to discovering what my personal style is and embracing clothing that makes me feel confident and comfortable in my own skin. On my terms and not anyone else's, and helping other young women do the same too.


HZ: Who is your primary audience? How do you think they relate to you?


AL: My primary audience is between the 18-24 demographic. Most of them are students, in college or in high school. I think they're able to relate to me through my captions; they're very much grounded in my humor. But also just my sense of style, I don't have a set "aesthetic", for better or for worse, and I try to just have a fun time with A. Flair.


HZ: What advantages do you think micro-influencers have over macro-influencers?


AL: Micro-influencers are able to tap into the nichest of social groups, which from a marketing stand-point is so critical. I really think brands should put more effort into micro-influencing because these women are the ones who can help them reach audiences they might not even know they haven't reached and boost their brand awareness. And for many micro-influencers quite a significant degree of their following is based upon friends and family- or people they actually know- and this word-of-mouth mentality that comes into play gives micro-influencers a significant heads-up on engagement rates too.

HZ: Have you worked with any brands? If so, which ones? What was the experience like for you?


AL: I work with Mejuri, Express, Primark, and Rent the Runway on a regular basis. Aside, I've also done some one-off collabs with brands as well, such as InnisFree and Uniqlo. The experience has always been great, and everyone that I've worked with has been extremely understanding of giving creators the space to create in their own way


HZ: How do you decide which brands to partner with or promote?


AL: I really really do care about sustainable fashion. But I also am aware of how, the idea of being able to afford "sustainable clothing" is also a very tricky grey area too. So I try very hard to only work with brands that are making a conscious and verbal effort to be sustainable, whether through how it is sourced, produced, or delivered.


HZ: When it comes to your blog and the content you create, what are you most proud of?


AL: Over the summer, I really spent more time to try and produce video content on my IGTV. I did a lot of OOTWs [Outfit Of The Week], styling videos, and even some vlogs. Those are probably some of my proudest content.


HZ: What advice would you give to someone interested in building a following online or starting their own blog?


AL: I'm a Pisces, so with that said, my advice would be to just do it. Go and start your blog. Don't be scared of critics because there will always be critics in this world. Just do you and focus on the content and message you want to spread for the good of the world. Don't worry about needing to follow a certain aesthetic, be your own aesthetic.


You can find Andrea on Instagram @a.flair and on her blog www.a.flair.com.

A Search for Human Connection

Imagining life somewhere far, far away is a consoling thing to do right now as we search for an escape from the chaos and reminders that a virus rules our daily lives. Being restricted to the confines of our homes has left us unable to socialize like we once did, making us feel more lonely than usual. A selfish but ideal situation might be to put a comfortable space between the real world and ourselves.

Most nights I settle on Netflix’s Selling Sunset, a show about millionaire real estate agents in Los Angeles. The episodes follow the same zany format: glamorous female agents driving to open houses in the Hidden Hills. With their Range Rovers parked in the driveway, they wear 6-inch heels that click on marble floors and greet clients with unforgettable charm. Their arms wave overhead to show off the crystal chandelier and infinity pool, eventually landing them an expensive deal. The workday ends with an office dinner, bottles of champagne, and syrupy gossip for dessert. As I watch what unfolds on-screen, I wonder if the internet is pop culture’s greatest gift or worst nightmare. But it may be a bit of a false dilemma. As it turns out, it might actually be both.

The pandemic has disrupted our normal routines and forced us to adapt to the current circumstances. Social distancing is the new norm and in-person interactions have been brought online. You may even have a greater tendency to turn on the TV, skip past the news, and find a reality show to watch. Click play and soon your body and mind–tense with unease–is free from it all. Light jumps from the screen and animates the room as you feed on its formulaic delights.

In this current moment of unscripted catastrophe, it is ironic that people have found enjoyment in “unscripted” reality shows. What sets the genre apart is how exaggerated, stylized, and idealistic the worlds portrayed are. Viewers aspire to be like the people they see on TV because their lives seem more achievable than fictional ones. The genre is also particularly appealing to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu who aim to attract viewers as more services enter the competition. According to research from South University, scripted shows often include a hefty price tag, costing upwards of a million dollars per episode. Meanwhile, unscripted shows range between $100,000 and $500,000 per episode. Therefore, it is easier to manage, produce, and sell reality content to networks. Most audiences understand the exaggerated and unnatural aspects of reality TV that are meant to outrage, shock, and delight. It has provided the world with sugary drama and thrills that remind us of what life used to be like. It is a glimmer of hope that keeps us holding on. Cycling through one program after the next has given us a new sense of human connection, but today, reality TV has never felt more untethered from real life.


Reality TV has grown throughout history and so has its appeal. Candid Camera became America’s first form of reality entertainment in 1948. The show secretly filmed people reacting to practical jokes. It premiered on television until 1967, the same year President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act. This led to the formation of National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), both of which shaped the reality genre and today’s contemporary media landscape. In 1973, PBS aired An American Family, a documentary series that followed the Louds, a family from Santa Barbara, and offered a powerful critique of American society. The show examined their lifestyle, the parent’s divorce, and the coming out of their gay son, among other things. This was the first time a television series showcased such content.

The genre began to thrive in the 1980s with the appearance of Real People on NBC. Each episode featured “real people” doing unusual things like eating dirt or walking backward. ABC saw how popular it was and began to produce its own reality programs like That’s Incredible! and Those Amazing Animals with the hopes to attract a larger audience. Access to home-video technology spread in the 80s and 90s, resulting in shows that featured content produced by amateurs like America’s Funniest Home Videos. Candid Camera was also revived in the 90s on CBS until 2014. 

By the end of the century, reality TV became more artificial and less realistic with MTV’s The Real World in 1992. It filmed young adult strangers who were selected to live together in a house supplied to them by the network. Their lives and relationships were filmed and all dramatized for television. The 2000s introduced American audiences to a range of reality subgenres: home makeovers like Fixer Upper, competitions like Survivor, and dating on The Bachelor. It also gave us a peek into the lives of luxury and wealth through Keeping Up With The Kardashians. The goal has always been to make viewers believe that something real is unfolding on-screen, letting them explore an unfamiliar world without worry. Of course, they have humored, entertained, and provoked eye rolls. But watching “unscripted” scenarios of socialites who live in aspirational worlds does not mirror our own reality, therefore, failing to raise awareness about the current human condition.


Laying on her grey and white star duvet cover, Gracie Hawkes logs onto Instagram and tunes into the British reality series Glow Up where aspiring makeup artists compete for a career in the beauty industry. Hawkes is an 18-year-old social media micro-influencer who creates mental health awareness content for her 5,000 followers. Reflecting on her life during the pandemic she says, “At the start, I definitely felt increased loneliness. I was also left to my own thoughts a lot more, and was beating myself up and overthinking more than I was prior.” With school closed and little social life, Hawkes has spent more time in her childhood bedroom where she has increased her focus on curating the perfect Instagram feed. Lounging in a pair of fuzzy penguin pajama pants and an oversized hoodie, she lays back on her bed, thumbing through the app for creative inspiration but can’t help comparing herself to others. “Running social media accounts as an influencer or blogger can definitely be anxiety-provoking as the pressure to maintain everything is high,” she says. “For those who use social media leisurely, I think it can also make people anxious as they want to show their ‘‘best life’” and ‘“best self’”, also creating pressure.” Hawkes has made several posts with the goal of easing people’s minds, helping them to cope with stress and anxiety during this unprecedented time. “Stop comparing your struggles to what you see online,” she writes.  “You see a tiny percentage of people’s lives. You don’t truly know what they’re going through.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, loneliness has impacted human mental health in many ways. Humans are social creatures who are not wired to be isolated or alone. “We need a connection to others in order to survive,” says Talitha Fosh, a London-based psychotherapist. The need for human contact can be traced back to when we were young children and how we relied on our parents or caregivers for support. Being close to other people signals safety to our bodies and nervous system. When we are unable to connect with others, we turn everything inwards. This can manifest itself through negative feelings which consequently make us feel even more isolated and dissociated with the outside world.

“It has been a time where we have needed to sit with ourselves which has given the space for feelings to come up that we are used to pushing away. Consequently, we get overwhelmed and our mental health can deteriorate,” says Fosh. When a person feels lonely, the amygdala, or the fear-center of their brain, swells when they feel threatened or have a negative experience. This evolutionary instinct is meant to keep us safe but can overwhelm and turn off the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls emotions and critical thinking. This causes low levels of serotonin, depression, and anxiety.

A national survey conducted by the health organization Cigna found that in 2019 and 2020 61 percent of Americans reported feeling lonely, compared to 54 percent in 2018. This was due to a lack of social support, infrequent social interactions, and a lack of balance in their daily lives. Gracie Hawkes has felt the same while being confined to her home. “It was very difficult during lockdown not being able to see my boyfriend, my dad, and friends, as I rely on them a lot for support,” she says.

Loneliness can feed itself if left unresolved and creates other crippling mindsets. Some may experience cabin fever when they are inside or alone for long periods of time, leading to irritability, low mood, or poor sleep. “It kind of feels like being in a box or on a hamster wheel because there isn’t a change of scenery when people are in their homes,” says Khumo Masege, a New York-based psychotherapist who specializes in relationships and identities. These scenarios can lead to substance abuse with drugs and alcohol, but in today’s digital world, television and social media pose as a similar agent.

Internet addiction disorder, also known as IAD, is similar to substance abuse and is difficult to break the attachment. A study published by Dr. Weinstein in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse found that 8.2 percent of Americans are reported to suffer from IAD, however, it is often underdiagnosed. “IAD affects the brain the same way alcohol or drugs do and releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure or makes a person feel rewarded,” says pProfessor of psychology Howard Steele. How many times have you found yourself scrolling through TikTok or binge-watching a new show until you look up and realize how much time has passed? Internet use may seem like a harmless activity in the moment but constant consumption can make people feel numb and less likely to acknowledge their own realities. “It is so much easier to spend time looking at other things online than it is to ask ourselves questions like “How are we today?” or “How can I take care of myself?” says Fosh. She knows people have not been taught to properly deal with feelings of loneliness or what else can arise from it. Watching the lives of other people might be appealing and the easiest way to cope but it only provides a temporary fix. “If we are given the tools to manage loneliness such as reaching out to others or gratitude lists, it can be much better managed and is less of a threat to our mental health,” says Fosh. 

Over the years, reality TV and social media have become forms of self-sabotage and tools for comparison. More specifically, if we are already feeling low, we compare our insides to other people’s outsides which reinforces negative emotions. Using reality TV and social media to view aspirational worlds lets people create a persona for themselves that is “perfect” to society. They also may feel better about themselves and believe that they can be famous, too. “It is like we are picturing ourselves in a different world, separate from our own, where our problems do not exist,” says Howard Steele. Tuning in to a reality TV show makes people feel better because they do not have to face their own problems. However, these feelings of relief and contentment are short-lived. In real life, problems are not neatly solved within thirty minutes as portrayed in most reality shows. Someone might actually feel worse by the time the credits roll, citing their inability to find solutions to problems so quickly.

It is also common for a person to develop strong connections with the characters they see on TV and social media. If we engage too much, we may feel like we are actually living their lives, leading us to buy the same things these people sell or use. In pursuit of wanting what other people have, we are going to make decisions that allow us to be in the same positions. “People will do things in order to post about it or show it off. It boosts our confidence,” says Masege. Fosh agrees, believing that trying to live like the people we see on-screen “can be dangerous if taken too far. It can also become addictive.”

It is important to remind ourselves that what we see online is a small snippet of someone’s life or might be fabricated altogether. What is also posted or filmed will likely be unattainable for most people. It is uncommon to see someone disclose the fight they had with a loved one or a personal issue they are dealing with. This makes it seem like these things are unlikely to happen which can lead to feelings of isolation and thinking a person’s experience is only something they are going through.

For social connection, the internet “is the one thing we have to rely on,” says Masege. “It gives us the same feeling of changing environments and being with different people.” The marketing consultancy Kepios found that in July 2020 media use increased by 10.5 percent, proving that it has become an indispensable part of everyday life for people all over the world. In the past, it has faced scrutiny for its negative effects on wellbeing. However, in the age of a global pandemic, it is also helping consumers to feel more comfortable being themselves. According to the market research company GWI, 40 percent of people in the U.S and UK say they have felt less pressure to portray a perfect version of themselves online. This could be due to people realizing that we are all experiencing the same things which are encouraging a greater sense of openness. When it comes to social media, the pandemic has seemed to bring back the “social” aspect of it. Now more than ever, people are using it to come together for support, to build each other up, and to seek out meaningful human connections.

What consumers were once detoxing from has turned out to be beneficial in some regard to combat feelings of loneliness. Over-engaging with television and social media has become a psychological necessity. 2020 has changed the way humans interact with screens. The internet has influenced the way people work, attend school, receive news, and communicate. These new patterns of use will have various implications in the future. “Taking note of how much we are using is important. Intentionally follow and watch people who mimic your beliefs and understanding of the world. Be aware of how things you see make you feel,” says Masege.

Finding social support and maintaining healthy relationships is more difficult–and more important–than ever. This is the first time any living generation has experienced a pandemic to this scale. Humans are just beginning to understand the importance of social interaction and the role of the internet. We all need something to keep our minds busy and no platform is perfect. It’s not our place to blame the internet for how it’s making us feel, but rather we should pay attention to how and why we are using it.