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Innovations in Retail: Lessons Learned from Guideshops

By Jeff Hastings, Contributing Writer

September 3, 2019

Much like one’s personal wardrobe, the retail apparel business is constantly evolving with new looks and fashions, as well as innovative trends. One relatively recent innovation that is worth examining for those in the decorated apparel industry is the emergence of so-called “guideshops.”

Initially popularized by menswear retailer Bonobos, which was founded as an online-only enterprise in 2007 before deciding to open unique brick-and-mortar locations in 2012, guideshops are designed to offer several things that online-only retailers cannot — the ability to try on clothes, to touch and interact with products, and to receive personalized customer service in the form of a friendly conversation with a helpful human being.

As some big-name retailers adapt to changing consumer expectations by, for example, offering same-day delivery, other brands are responding by opening small brick-and-mortar locations that focus on a unique, curated shopping experience — one that emphasizes building brand recognition and loyalty rather than focusing solely on the transaction that has traditionally defined the in-store shopping experience.

This approach connects to a phenomenon that is shaking up the retail industry — one that at first glance might seem counter-intuitive, but that is inspired by the belief that retail is not just about product and price anymore, it’s about customer experience.

For decorated apparel entrepreneurs, the guideshop model includes a number of key features that are worth noting:

  • Retailers placing heightened emphasis on customer experience
  • Physical stores adopting a “less is more” aesthetic
  • Online retailers opening brick-and-mortar locations

Below, we offer insight into the guideshop phenomenon by highlighting several brands that are optimizing the brick-and-mortar shopping experience for the modern consumer by using design and customer engagement strategies to provide a memorable shopping experience, create a positive impression of the brand and leave them wanting more.

Bonobos and the Evolution of Retail

It’s probably just a coincidence that a company named after an endangered great ape is the highest-profile example of a key trend in the recent evolution of retail. But Bonobos, the menswear retailer founded online in 2007, became a much-watched retail innovator when it opened its first guideshops in 2012.

The Bonobos guideshop experience (see video) typically involves making an appointment to receive high-touch, one-on-one service without the hassle of crowds, imposing walls of merchandise, uncomfortable fitting room sessions and bulky shopping bags. Customer service guides, also called “ninjas,” help shoppers find ideal fit and styles, then place orders on the spot for 1-2 day direct delivery.

Free to place far less emphasis on inventory, Bonobos guideshops feature spacious, uncrowded interiors with adventurous designs and comfortable places to sit and relax while “shopping.” According to a report in Forbes, Bonobos’ quest to deliver optimal customer experience also includes offering guests a free beverage, with many opting for a cold, frosty beer.

Dyson Demo Stores

Dyson, the household appliance maker best known for its high-tech vacuum cleaners, has also embraced the guideshop model with its Dyson Demo Stores like this one in San Francisco.

Dyson is a good example of one key tenet of guideshop strategy — showcase featured merchandise in ways that emphasize the relationship you want shoppers to have with the product. Using large free-standing plinths, products are displayed so customers can view them from all angles.

Other products are displayed on near-invisible mounts, reducing visual clutter around hairdryers and vacuum components. The lighting design also keeps the focus on the products while interest is created with full-wall LED screens.

At Everlane, a Clean Minimalist Aesthetic

If you have loyal online customers, it’s worth taking the time to find out what, exactly, they like about shopping on your ecommerce website. If you can incorporate the best design elements of your website and your customers’ shopping style into your brick-and-mortar presence, you can take advantage of your brand recognition and loyalty.

Apparel retailer Everlane’s showrooms are a great example of taking the best parts of your online business and bringing it to the real world to create a unique, well-branded, in-person shopping experience.

Beyond its emphasis on quality and ethical processes, Everlane’s aesthetic is a clean, contemporary minimalism that has caught and kept the attention of millennial shoppers since its founding in 2010. The bright, airy look of their website is mimicked by an all-glass façade, allowing passers-by to see the product in the store just like they would on a web page.

Everlane places their different product lines together using custom displays with bars for hanging jeans, shelves for folded sweaters and pegs for matching handbags. Not only does this keep their showroom displays interesting, but it also encourages the purchase of multiple pieces at once, which is a great merchandising tip for a guideshop with limited space and inventory. Putting like items together saves floor space while inspiring shoppers to see how your products look and work together.

Products, and Customers, Given Room to Breathe at Cuyana

A well-known merchandising strategy is to give more expensive items more space.

Psychologically, shoppers understand the value of square footage, so when generous space is devoted to a limited number of items, it gives a sense of quality and price point.

Spacing out items when designing your guideshop also gives your customers a better experience — ultimately creating a shopping environment that is less about the transaction at the end and more about providing an enjoyable experience that will motivate shoppers to come back and visit again.

Digital-first retailer Cuyana does this by using large surfaces to showcase a curated collection of products; they do not have rows or stacks of products, and all products have lots of breathing room.

If the new brick-and-mortar is about the experience you are able to provide to visitors, then unique fixtures and custom retail displaysare a must. On-brand fixtures add to the overall aesthetic you are trying to achieve. Details great and small — from the materials and finishes to making a statement with oversized lighting — can push your retail experience to the next level.

Since guideshops and demo stores are minimal in terms of inventory, the way in which you display your items is of the utmost importance. That’s why brands are turning to specialized retail fixtures to take the presentation of even the most basic of inventory from expected to outstanding. Cuyana also offers in-house monogramming to create a personalized experience and encourage return visits.

M.Gemi Gets Creative with Fixtures and Displays

Getting creative with your fixtures and displays is one hallmark of the guideshop experience. One way that Italian shoemaker M.Gemi does this is by using mirrored displays to showcase just oneshoe, while the reflection in the mirror mimics the look of putting both shoes on display. This reduces the amount of product displayed on the floor while still giving guests the chance to see the shoe as a pair.

M. Gemi maximizes their brand impact with the use of modular/movable plinths that can be turned, moved and stacked differently, allowing shoppers to see something fresh or new upon each return visit.

As guideshops like those operated by Bonobos and others have become an industry success story, a quick look at the pros and cons of this model helps explain why.

Retail Guideshop Pros and Cons

Andy Dunn, CEO and founder of Bonobos, said in an interviewthat when he started the online retailer in 2007, he didn’t envision Bonobos ever having a brick-and-mortar presence, but decided on the term “guideshops” to highlight a clearly differentiated shopping experience.

“In a lot of clothing and apparel stores, you’ll see the staff fussing around with the stock — straightening it, counting it, replenishing it. That sucks up a lot of their time, leaving only marginal attention for the customer. When you take the inventory out, your store personnel can focus more on your customers,” he said. “We chose to stay small, experiential, high intimacy, and high customer service.”

The formula has not only worked wonders, it has launched a trend, which is not surprising when you consider the pros and cons.


Customers are more relaxed.

Far less space needed for inventory.

No competing for retail space with other brands.

Guides help customers find the best fit.

Guides also double as stylists.

Average orders are larger than online-only orders.

More repeat purchases (sizes are kept on file).

Fewer returns.

Brand loyalty is high.


Harder to provide “instant gratification” as shoppers typically wait 1-3 days for delivery.

Guideshops represent another example of how the future of retail is personal, how the most creative retailers are finding new ways to differentiate themselves with next-level customer service and unforgettable customer experience.

Jeff is the Chief Marketing Officer for Visual Creations, Inc. A retail merchandising and marketing veteran, Jeff has over a decade of retail design experience, knowledge and insight from serving as the Senior Director of Retail Design, Director of Visual Merchandising and Senior Marketing Director for multiple retail and graphic companies across the United States.