In the age of Amazon, stores are trying to reinvent themselves, generally using one of two strategies: deliver products more quickly and nearly as cheaply as online sellers, or offer shopping experiences that entice people to visit their establishment and buy something. ¶ As Chris Weilminster, senior vice president of leasing for Federal Realty Investment Trust, puts it: “Those retailers where there is average service and very little experience, I think aren’t going to really be around.” Think Circuit City. Or Blockbuster. Meanwhile both dollar stores (discount) and Apple stores (experience) are faring quite well. ¶ At Federal Realty, one of the country’s biggest shopping center owners, Weilminster’s job requires that he scour the country for the next big thing in retail. Because Federal Realty is based in Rockville, he also has an intimate knowledge of how retail is being reshaped in Washington. He sees some long-term changes taking hold in area storefronts as competition with online sellers heats up.
Serving meals with slightly better service and selection than the big fast food chains has turned into the $31 billion fast-casual restaurant category, born out of Americans’ desire to eat out, even in a flat economy, without having to say they are serving their families fast food.
Five Guys Burgers and Fries, which opened its first restaurant in Arlington in 1986, has ridden the fast-casual wave, but now multiple brands are sprouting from every city. A Chicago company, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, offers 47 concepts. “You’ve got a group of executives that understands how to take concepts and understands how to execute them on a large scale,” Weilminster said.
There are now more than 400 fast-casual concepts in all, with Panera Bread, Chipotle and Panda Express among the dominant players, but newer options such as Roti and Cava Mezze Grill are expanding locally, and with Washingtonians so short on time, Weilminster sees that continuing. “When I came home as a kid, there was always a meal on the table, now I don’t think that’s the case,” Weilminster said. “People are picking up meals on the way home — the home meal replacement.”
It started with paint-your-own pottery and Build-A-Bear Workshops. Now Weilminster sees a proliferation of stores offering patrons the chance to create or customize in person, something difficult to replicate online.
Federal Realty is bringing a company called Make Meaning to Bethesda, which will offer the chance to create customized candles, soap, glass artwork, cakes, books, jewelry and stationary. “What it is is they’ve taken that experience of painting your own pottery, putting it in a kiln and getting it back a day or two later, they’ve now taken it and added seven or eight experiences and put them together under one roof,” he said.
Weilminster considers Pirch, a California kitchen and bath company, to be in a different category, but it offers a similar opportunity to build and customize one’s own product. Pirch offers fully functioning showrooms where shoppers can choose and arrange pieces for their own kitchens and bathrooms, just as their kids might choose clothes for a teddy bear. “It’s a whole different way to shop,” he said. “Sixty-five to 75 percent of what they have in there is functional. All the faucets in there, if you turn them on, water comes out.” Pirch isn’t in Washington yet.
Like cupcakes, the arrival of blow-dry bars might have felt like a fad, but Weilminster said it is quickly becoming a permanent niche service akin to manicures, pedicures or a visit to the spa. Drybar is already in Georgetown and Bethesda, and a raft of competitors is arriving, such as Release Blow Dry Bar (H Street NE), Blowout Bar (Foggy Bottom), Hot Air (Baltimore) and Haute Blow Dry Bar (Towson).
Salons will blow dry your hair as well, of course, but the message isn’t the same. “They didn’t market themselves as being a blow-dry concept, they marketed it as getting your hair cut,” Weilminster said. As the blow-dry business becomes more competitive, he expects other niche services to follow the same model.
D.C. and some of its wealthier suburbs are being flooded by new theater concepts, almost all of them offering restaurants and bars to enjoy on your way in and reserved seating; cushy, reclining chairs and a more selective group of films from which to choose. IPic Entertainment is coming to Federal Realty’s project in White Flint, Silverspot Cinema is coming to Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda, and Angelika Film Center to the Mosaic District in Merrifield and Union Market in D.C.
With tickets ranging as high as $25, it is a more expensive experience than popcorn and a movie at the mall, but Weilminster says Washingtonians, with some of the wealthiest and most educated communities in the country, are willing to pay for it. “I think what it is is a reinvention of how the theater business can now become more of a complete experience,” he said.