By Oliver St. John
WASHINGTON, D.C. - Folks who walk into a Bonobos Guideshop can't help but notice one thing: There's hardly any merchandise.
That's on purpose.
Bonobos, (say "bu-NO-bos") Guideshops are men's clothing stores that basically don't sell anything. Customers can try stuff on for size, put outfits together and get advice from salespeople. But if they like it, they've got to order it on the Bonobos website.
This small store is a big deal. If other stores catch on - and it may be more of a question of when than if - this could ultimately change the business model for the nation's 895,800 retail establishments.
Just as media giants are being forced to adapt to a virtual world and re-create themselves, the nation's retailers - whose sales are expected to top $3.1 trillion this year, according to the National Retail Federation - may sooner than later have to take a page out of the same playbook.
All of this plays into the shopping and spending habits of the nation's tens of millions of Millennials - a key target of many retailers.
But isn't the point of shopping to walk out of the store with a big bag of fashionable bounty? Not so, says founder Andy Dunn. "We think service is more important than instant gratification," he says. "What's the benefit of walking out of the store with a bag of two shirts and some pants if it'll be on your desk the next day?"
About half of the customers at the Bonobos Guideshop in D.C. request fitting appointments online, so there's usually only two or three customers at most in the small store at a time, and only two or three employees who offer them a beer when they show up. On a table front and center, a pile of washed chinos in rising sizes sits next to an array showing each color available. There's a similar setup with shirts, other styles of pants and suits. Aside from a couple of mannequins and a necktie display, there's not much else in the store.
Bonobos has company, too. Online eyewear dealer Warby Parker and Gap's Piperlime Internet label have been opening up physical locations for folks to try on the goods, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has discussed opening up stores, where customers can check out the Kindle line. It's all an attempt to ride on the $150 billion-a-year in sales success of Apple, whose hands-on-centric stores changed the focus from buying to trying.
Checking stuff out in stores, then ordering online is becoming the new way to shop. According to a recent survey from IBM, nearly half of all online shoppers use this technique. About 34% of them end up buying from an online-only retailer, too, which makes most traditional retailers pull out their hair, says Jill Puleri, vice president of retail at IBM.
"This is actually a perfect example of how retail is changing," says Kevin Sterneckert, vice president of research at business strategy firm Gartner. "Instead of a place where you buy things, it's a place where you're able to experience things."
Fiona Dias, strategy chief for online retail network ShopRunner isn't so sure.
"That's the whole reason to go to stores, because you get it now. I'm a little stumped," Dias says. "Sounds like they might not have thought their store strategy all the way through."
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THE MOVE OFFLINE
If J.C. Penney suddenly stopped stocking inventory without warning, it might ruffle some feathers, says Dunn. Well, Bonobos customers never had to be weaned off that kind of shopping experience, because Bonobos was an online store from the get-go.
"We founded Bonobos to really create a better shopping experience for men," says Erin Ersenkal, chief of Bonobos Guideshop operations. "Initially, we thought we could do it purely on a website, but we realized from talking to our customers that actually some of them like to try on the clothes."
Bonobos opened up its first Guideshop in May 2012 in New York and now has locations in Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and D.C.. Five more are planned by the end of the year.
D.C. resident Shaun Terrill always bought Bonobos clothing online before the Georgetown Guideshop opened in January. He'd never liked the slim-fit pants until a salesperson there recommended he try them a size up.
"They looked really good, and they fit really well. It's not anything I would have known online," Terrill says.
"The whole idea of what's convenient is changing," says Dunn, who doesn't like to fight crowds, drive to stores, wait for people to help him, or schlep around a big heavy shopping bag. Terrill, 40, feels similarly.
"I've never been the type to say, 'I need a shirt. Must go. Right now,'" says Terrill, who doesn't mind waiting one to two business days for delivery. "Because I was used to the online system, it didn't have any effect on me."
INTERNET AS THE BACKROOM
As long as customers like Terrill don't mind waiting for delivery, a store like Bonobos has an easier time getting him his size, even if it's one traditional stores don't usually carry, say retail gurus.
"For the typical retailer to get the right sizes for each location, it's very difficult," says Sterneckert. The odd-size customer might have a hard time shopping at a traditional retailer, for which it might only be profitable to stock the most commonly purchased sizes at each location. No storeroom at Bonobos means nothing's out of stock at a store unless it's out of stock companywide.
"What's fun about our model is that we're able to deliver the same productivity with a fraction of the typical inventory investment," Dunn says. "When you have to stock a big store, you have people running around folding clothes and stocking things. You can't prioritize what's most important."
But what about customers who absolutely without a doubt have to have that article of clothing right now?
"At some point we'll end up with a small stash of inventory to serve those needs," says Dunn.
The bonobo is a kind of chimpanzee known mostly for its promiscuity. They're also known for their ability to solve conflict non-violently, says Dunn. Which they do by having sex. Is there a message here that Dunn is trying to convey about wearing a well-fitting pair of pants?
"Perhaps there is," he says.