If you want to buy some clothes at the posh MM.LaFleur in New York, you’ll be in for a few surprises. It starts with the location—611 Broadway is a trendy SoHo address, but there’s no visible clothing store there. Instead, a cavernous Crate and Barrel dominates at street level. To get to the store, you’ll have to take the elevator to Suite 401. Once you’re up there, another surprise awaits. There is, in fact, a clothing store, but one with no visible clothing.
The reception area’s white walls, bare plank floors and potted palm could well belong to a design firm or a pricey plastic surgeon’s office. And instead of a sales associate greeting you with retail’s usual plastic smile, the associates here already know your name, and they’ll hand you a flute of champagne and whisk away your cell phone for charging.
So, is MM.LaFleur a clothing store at all? Well, sure. But “store” doesn’t wholly convey what’s going on here. MM.LaFleur, which has grown to five locations nationally, is a showroom brand. People who visit consult one on one with stylists who bring out sample garments for them to try on. Once the selections are made, the shopper goes home empty handed. Instead, a few days later, her selections arrive by mail.
“This is a tranquil space, and it’s the most efficient 60 minutes of your life,” says company founder Sarah LaFleur. “My customer is a professional woman. She’s busy—midcareer and approaching executive level—and tends to be a mom with kids. She doesn’t have time to run into a department store.”
MM.LaFleur isn’t just an alternative to the traditional, often hectic realm of clothes shopping—it’s one of several showroom brands in its ascendancy. Having started about a decade ago with the rise of Warby Parker, showrooms (sometimes called “guide shops” or “fit shops”) have been quietly proliferating across the country.
They include shoe stores like M.Gemi and Paul Evans, which fit customers for high-end footwear that’s handmade in Italy and shipped directly to customers’ homes in the U.S. They include interior-décor companies like Restoration Hardware, whose opulent “galleries” across America let shoppers touch and feel and lounge in its luxurious furnishings, then go home and wait for their selections to be sent there. And they include apparel brands like MM.LaFleur, Bonobos and J. Hilburn—stores that, according to retail industry watchers, offer a viable alternative to the brick-and-mortar model that’s been taking gut punches from Amazon and other eretailers.
“We are definitely believers in the validity of this model,” says Melissa Gonzalez, founder of retail strategy firm the Lionesque Group. “The purpose of physical [stores] continues to evolve and, at the core of it, brands need to utilize physical [locations] to deliver something they cannot online.”
Reduced to its essentials, a showroom gives customers all of the touchy-feely advantages traditional stores always did. But because there’s little or no on-site stock—the shopper has to wait for his or her purchases to be prepared and shipped off—showroom brands have many operational and competitive advantages over yesterday’s brick-and-mortar outposts.
For example, showrooms save significantly on rent because they operate on smaller footprints. Ask Micky Onvural, CMO of Bonobos, an upmarket men’s retailer with 47 “guide shops” around the country.
“In terms of what we can build with this no-inventory model, we can take much smaller real-estate spaces because we don’t have to have every single product on the rack,” she says. A Bonobos guide walks customers through the goods, helps with size and selection and then zaps the order to a central warehouse. With order fulfillment moving away from the store, “you [also] don’t need all the back office and storage,” Onvural says. “So it’s a much, much smaller square-foot space.”