NEW YORK — It's a gray, cold, semi-miserable Saturday morning, yet three dozen people are waiting in the shadow of Manhattan's High Line for Story to open.
Story is a store. A cozy one of less than 2,000 square feet on the ground floor of a residential brick building. It sells neither the latest sneakers nor the newest Apple gizmos, yet there's often a line. Especially when the theme is "Home for the Holidays," the gas fireplace is ablaze, and the store is packed with potential Christmas gifts — 2,300 items ranging in price from $2 (candy cane) to $1,400 (a store-exclusive Edie Parker clutch handbag).
Story changes its theme, or "story," every few weeks. The website says it has the "point of view of a magazine, changes like a gallery, sells things like a store." Staff members are called "storytellers" and greet everyone at the door.
The brainchild of fourth-generation retailer Rachel Shechtman, Story has been profitable since its first year of business in 2011. On a holiday-season Saturday, says Shechtman, as many as 5,500 people parade through its glass doors.
Meanwhile, retailers elsewhere go begging for customers, even at the height of the holiday shopping season. Why? Because so many of us would rather have oral surgery than set foot in an actual store anymore.
Shechtman, 40, may have discovered the antidote to this aversion. "People are yearning and desiring of experience," she says, nailing a salient truth about the millennial generation. (Well, every generation, to be honest.) "The idea is that you tell stories through merchandise curation and event promotion."
Story holds yoga and cooking classes, and dozens of DIY workshops. In early December, style icon Iris Apfel held her sixth trunk show at the store. It's a destination, a hit on social media, a hub that extends well beyond the neighborhood.
Shopping there feels exclusive and special, and not like something that you can replicate at home. Because you can't. Shechtman manages a robust website and a mailing list of 50,000, but she sells nothing online. It's all about the store.
Melissa Heitmann, a beauty-industry consultant, visits Story three times a week with her dog — Story is very dog-friendly — and her infant daughter.
"I'm known among my friends as the queen of online shopping. I hate to go into brick-and-mortar stores," Heitmann says. "But Rachel brings playfulness back to shopping. She's found a way to make shopping fun again. She has a way of finding items that you have to have before you even knew you wanted them."
Imagine that. Shopping as something exciting. Shopping as fun.
Remember when people used to go to stores for fun? Maybe you don't, but honest, they did. Shoppers made special trips downtown to the grand temples of commerce, especially at the holidays. Shopping was a journey of discovery.
Not so long ago, department and specialty stores offered exclusive merchandise, creating identity and a distinct, enticing world. Zippy, flashy Bloomingdale's boasted completely different inventory from ladylike Lord & Taylor. Those stores had flair. They inspired loyalty.
Today, there's little loyalty, despite rewards cards that state otherwise, and less joy.
As a result, to add to 2017's myriad joys, this was the year of the "retail apocalypse."
Almost 7,000 stores, large and small, boutique and chain, closed their doors. Plenty more are withering on life support. More than a thousand malls — a thousand! — are nearing zombie status. Enter, and you can sense death, a way of business that's doomed.
People no longer go out to shop as much. They stay in — especially the younger set — on the computer, alone.
Online shopping offers an intoxicating trifecta of freedom: the ability to shop anywhere, anytime, wearing anything. Younger consumers believe shopping is about ordering eight nubby gray sweaters online to send back all but one.
Who can blame them? In-store shopping has become a miserable experience. You're ignored when you require service, or bombarded when you don't (especially in the perfume aisle). Stores are comically large, requiring you to walk a football field in length from gadgetry to produce. Many are too dingy. Correctional institutions offer better lighting.
There are too many stores and a confounding preponderance of malls, which all smell alarmingly similar — drenched in Cinnabon and Aunt Annie's pretzels with a base note of failure. "We built too many stores, and America has too many malls," concurs Barbara Kahn, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. "People got greedy."
The stores purport to offer choice yet stock the same picked-over stuff that looks worn, wrinkled and dated before it has left the premises.
Is this enjoyable? No, it is not.
"Retailers took everything for granted," says Columbia Business School retail professor Mark A. Cohen. "The department stores now haven't got a prayer of retaining customers' affection. They fail to deliver what once made them famous."
Some, though, are trying to woo customers back.
Shoppers — especially millennials, and they are the shoppers of the future — actually like being with other people, and crave community. They want to feel special again, say retail experts, and to believe that leaving the comfort of their homes and the ability to shop in their pajamas is worth the trip.
Fulfilling those desires is the driver behind a radical innovation that Nordstrom unveiled this fall. Nordstrom Local in Los Angeles offers a panoply of services: personal stylists, alterations, nail technicians, a juice bar, wine.
What's missing from the streamlined "showroom" is, well, stuff.
A stylist helps you select items from the company's website that you pick up at a later date — or have shipped to your home. Promoted as a "neighborhood hub," Nordstrom Local is intended as a place to gather and gab that melds the old (physical stores) and the new (online shopping) with a return of the personal touch.
"Finding new ways to engage with customers on their terms is more important to us now than ever," says Nordstrom's Shea Jensen. Jensen's title is senior vice president of customer experience. Apparently, the company wants people to have more of them.
Can this effort succeed?
Nordstrom has yet to announce additional stores, a plan to take Local national. Says Jensen, "We'll let the customer guide our journey."
We are on some journey. If we must shop — and who can avoid it this time of year? (or any other time, really) — we should enjoy the ride. Customer service that pays attention to the customer would be nice for starters. And maybe some melted cheese.
During the holidays, Story treats shoppers to lunch from a rotating series of food trucks parked outside on Tenth Avenue, including one selling maple grilled cheese. "We know shopping is a pain," Shechtman says. "Have lunch on us."
She tries to stock items that can't be found in other stores. Humor also works. "We sell a ton of socks, 100 unique styles, candles," Shechtman says. "Lots of books, an absurd amount of books. Anyone who says people aren't buying books isn't trying hard enough."
One of her great successes is "Pitch Night," held four times a year, when she invites small vendors to pitch their goods to her store, the media and other retailers, including some of the giants.
Retail is "driven by spreadsheets, and executives are handcuffed to Wall Street and quarterly earnings," Shechtman says. "To me, the in-store experience should begin as a conversation with the customer."
Shechtman's formula seems to be working. She's in discussions with potential partners about expanding Pitch Night nationally. And she's considering possibly opening another location of Story in Los Angeles.
"Time is the ultimate luxury," Shechtman says as she walks around tidying items, handing out baskets and sharing her story. "Are you giving people an experience they can't have on their own?"
In other words, retailers, it's time to make shopping fun again. Otherwise, we may as well stay home.