One of my favourite retail futurists, Howard Saunders, recently posted an opinion piece on the rise of Microtowns. This is an entirely new retail concept to me; Howard is famous for making new stuff up, and Howard believes that Microtowns are providing an alternative to the homogenised high streets. Essentially hipster green shoots popping up everywhere.
And whilst I agree with his thoughts on why these Microtowns are becoming an increasing part of our retail landscape, I also think they have been borne from other emerging retail trends including hyper-personalisation, hyper-localisation and social community consciousness.
So what is a Microtown exactly? Well Howard tells us……
The term Microtown was originally coined to describe a place that had near bled to death because its citizens abandoned it to work elsewhere, so that it became a tiny, broken version of its former self; a kind of pre-ghost town.
Howard’s now hijacked the term to describe something far more significant: the nuclei that is the genesis of new communities. Those edge-of-town micro-brewers and food artisans; pioneers building our future, have re-awakened our shopping streets, and in the process, redefined retail itself. They have already shifted the centre of gravity away from the mediocrity at the heart of so many towns.
Read more about Microtowns from Howard Saunders
It is very exciting that in Howard’s top picks of his favourite Microtowns, Auckland’s City Works Depot is the first mentioned; and this guy travels the world! He was quite smitten with it (and apparently not impressed with much else on offer in town).
I however was smitten with the Proxy
On a recent trip to San Francisco, we fell upon a precinct that is a portable microtown in Hayes Valley. This little container village was a pop of excitement on a dull, wet day; essentially a cohort of experiences “which seeks to mobilize a flexible environment of food, art, culture, and retail” according to the website.
PROXY was born as a response and a solution to the ever-changing urban lifecycle, “existing as a temporary placeholder and an instigator of evolving cultural curiosities in art, food, retail and events.” The design embraces the diversity of a city and encourages the rotation of new ideas and businesses as well as innovative public art installations which come and go like new visitors at the site.
PROXY is home to ultra cool retailer, Aether Apparel which is a technical clothing for men and woman with a clean modern aesthetic. They built a concept space constructed from 3 shipping containers with a custom glass-encased cantilevered lounge and the ultra-cool feature of a belt-driven dry-cleaner style conveyor system for stock (yes I get excited about the strangest things). But the design and experience makes for a truly unique, local store.
Super cool dry-cleaner style conveyor system for stock
On the day we were visiting, we got to experience the launch of the True&Co Try-On Truck. True&Co started as a lingerie etailer who wanted to create “a live version of our personal fitting experience, inspired by the ‘tiny homes’ movement. We wanted women to feel at home in our mobile shop,“ according to Michelle Lam, True&Co.’s CEO and founder.
The customised space is meant to evoke a boutique filled with "the breezy warm feel of California sun on weathered wood,” according to a press release, featuring four fitting rooms for sampling a selection of True&Co.’s well-curated bras. These bras are selected based on the fitting as well as a five-minute Fit Quiz that you take at the start of your process. You can book a free appointment here; any bras you buy will be shipped to your home.
After the launch in San Francisco, the Try-On Truck was off through Northern California and then heading on to Los Angeles. After that, anywhere……
Smitten originally started as a truly mobile experience before setting up sticks in the PROXY
What got me super-excited; Smitten, on this day, was a cute little dessert shop, like no other dessert shop you have ever seen. With swirls of fog billowing out of mixers, a Hogart’s style concoction of sheer delight was being crafted inside.
Smitten was the brainchild of founder Robyn Sue Fisher, who really didn’t like how ice cream was made today. The baffling ingredient listings of unpronounceable names compelled her to make an ice cream “closer to the cow” or “new, old-fashioned ice-cream.”
The centre of this experience is the Brr, a proprietary ice cream maker that churns out the good stuff. Made to order, using liquid nitrogen at a super-cold temperature, means the ice cream is far smoother than regular ice cream (a whole science behind it).
The Brrr ice cream machine
This is a wonderful experience as a shopper. From entering the inviting store, to your “Brrister” explaining the process, then handcrafting your ice cream to order, this is the ultimate in perfection.
What makes this “from scratch” ice cream so delicious is the love and care given to the highest quality ingredients. Partnering with the best-of-the-best local farms and purveyors, they seem to find the freshest and most flavourful ingredients.
Be smitten yourself http://edition.cnn.com/2013/11/13/tech/innovation/smitten-ice-cream/#
Microtowns are an evolution from the tired, dreary and pitiful state of the worst the retail sector has to offer. They are providing a renaissance of sorts; the craftsmanship, passion and mastery of retail that has been lost with the “stack it high, watch it fly” mass market approach. These communities are rewarding us with a wonderful array of hyper-personalised, hyper-local and hyper-cool products to buy and experience, bringing passion back into the art of retailing - doing it their way.