Brick and mortar retail is in decline, but some Portland businesses are trying to buck the trend by turning their stores into venues.
The Business Tribune visited three new Portland retailers to see why they are banking on traditional stores, and how they aim to stand out.
David Kahl gave his company a rebrand in December 2016. It was called Ergo Depot and it sold ergonomic furniture, such as sit-stand desks and kneeling chairs. The new name is Fully. This name change is part of a pivot to suggest that the furniture is all about living life more fully. But the e-commerce company also opened a bricks-and-mortar showroom in April on Water Avenue (the Rodeo Drive of the Central Eastside) where customers can come in and feel the merchandise.
It's a familiar pattern: e-tailer grows brand; e-tailer wants more; e-tailer opens brick and mortar store. Glasses company Warby Parker did it, opening 44 stores. Amazon is dabbling in it with its bookstore, such as the one in Washington Square Mall.
On a recent morning, three Fully salespeople were at work at standing desks. When not tending to live customers, their work includes answering customer service queries. The space has large windows, a bar with kombucha and beer taps, and a small elevated area that can be a stage. A long-eared dog has the run of the place.
"There are a lot of trends in our favor and we're going to keep making great products," Kahl told the Business Tribune. "But with the brand change to Fully we're no longer tied to furniture. Fully can mean whatever. We'll look into other products that help us connect with ourselves and others better."
He says they are taking a hard look at flooring, because humans didn't evolve walking on flat ground. They have a rubber standing mat with bulges and raised edges that "give the body the invitation to move. When the body's moving around more it feels better. There's a lot of flat arches now and back problems just because we're walking on unnatural (flat) terrains."
The company has a $2,000 recliner, the Gravity Balance, that has four positions and allows one to jiggle side to side a little, to keep movement going. Fully's designers are also debuting a line of children's furniture later in 2017.
The showroom allows people to see, sit on, stroke, listen to and even smell the desks and chairs they will be spending half their lives at. A basic two-legged Jarvis adjustable desk starts at $445. (IKEA's version $500 and is of lesser quality.) So it's an investment that people need to try out the first time.
"Having this conceptual playground is another way our customers can interact with our product. For most of our customers it's a new experience, how they can work that way," says Kahl.
Bring in more people
The "fully present" concept is hard to grasp. But the store's secondary use, as an event space, is simple. It needs to be enlivened with people. As the architects say, it needs to be activated.
Fully has already hosted Design Week Portland events and Kahl expects more design-centric talks and fundraisers.
"We're not trying to lure people in unless it's for the community or if they're interested in design and architecture. The more architects who are open to this way of working (standing and moving) the better."
"We have a centrally located, wide-open space, so we wanted to be able to offer it up where needed. The intention is this: maybe nonprofits, like Social Venture Partners, Outside In or New Avenues for Youth can use this for free after hours."
"People are just walking along the street here, this has become quite a pedestrian neighborhood. Especially on the weekend, we attract curious people. We never marketed like that before, now it's a little more upstream," he says, meaning passers by might think about ergonomic furniture for a long time before pulling the trigger.
Room & Board
Designer Associate Laura Angel is both a designer and salesperson at furniture store Room & Board in the Pearl District.
The Minneapolis-based company offers perks, such as free interior design services (using the software Icovia), even if you buy nothing. Sales staff are not on commission. The furniture is solid and usually made of real wood: a typical six-drawer dresser goes for $2,000. It counts as heirloom in today's disposable world.
Before it opened in the former Cargo space on Northwest 13th Avenue, Room & Board remodeled the almost 100-year-old building hoping to turn it in to a community space. The company is a national chain making its first foray into Portland, and had to dig into the community fast.
Portland born and raised, Angel worked with the Room & Board brand team in Minneapolis as they developed an event series. She expects the rate will level out at one per month.
That means they hold tastings, displays of skill and fundraisers in the space. The homeless youth charity Pear was there recently. Its baristas came in to make free coffee and talk about their barista school.
Staff also pushed the tables and ottomans out of the way to make space for Sangria Day, when Portland Sangria came in to make free taster drinks. The same for Bull in a China Shop, which offered craft cocktails.
"We've had a cross section of pieces that we feel represent Portland's culture, to connect with customers and welcome them into our new building," Angel Says.
The store permanently offers free coffee and bottled water, to get people to stick around.
Usually the events are from 2 to 6 p.m. on a weekend, to catch the post-lunch crowd. They recently had a cookbook signing from Andrea Bemis, a farm-to-table farmer/chef from Hood River.
They also benefitted from Pints in the Pearl and the Pride Parade.
"Thirteenth Avenue and Flanders Street have such a large volume of foot traffic. We've had a lot of people. It's people coming and going."
"Furniture's different, this is a piece you can live with 10 or 20 years, or forever. The quality is there. So it maybe take two or three visits."
The whole Room & Board chain hosts events, but local managers have leeway to tap into the local culture. So here they are talking to the Portland Gay Men's Chorus about hosting a fundraiser in the space. "We don't have a locked-in formula for events, it's about finding the right fit," says Angel.
Bed and bath store Parachute began online, then advanced to brick and mortar store in Venice, California. Owner and CEO Ariel Kaye has strong Oregon ties and saw a chance to open a second store here, on Northwest 23rd Avenue, just a few doors from the gold mine that is Salt and Straw.
Parachute sells high-end sheets, towels and throws — the sort of objects people need to fondle, given the amount of misinformation about thread count online.
Parachute in Portland is bigger than the one in Venice but it's still small. Instead of beds, Kaye considers a waste of space, there is a cushion-covered L-shaped couch. Other items hang from rails and pegs, tethered to them so no one feels they have to refold them.
"It's awesome to have people come into the store and 30 minutes later leave as brand ambassador," Kaye told the Business Tribune before the grand opening last Thursday.
"In an age where everyone if on their phone, it's special to be able to meet in person."
The company's values are quality, craftsmanship and social responsibility. They have the products made in Italy, Portugal and Turkey.
"I think it adds value to be able to host events," she adds. "We like to connect with local people, such as florists (Solabee) and décor stores like Spartan.
In Los Angeles they held flower wreath-making workshops and sound baths, which Kaye describes as meditation with singing bowls music.
In Portland, the store manager Stephanie Grosse will handle the events.
In the back yard green space they plan to have movie nights and dinner parties. They held an opening party recently, with a DJ and a table tasting hosted by Portland Sangria.
Parachute promises more events, where the guest list will be their mailing list customers and friends, rather than an open invite.
The VC-backed firm is looking to expand, but Kaye says the long-term goal is not to be chain store or dilute the brand. She hopes to have 10 stores tops.
"Ecommerce will always be a very important part of our business. . But we want to be where our customers are."