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Secret club gives an experience, as all retailers should


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Workout outfits aren’t just for working out anymore. Now they’re called “athleisure,” and they’re for everything from working to shopping to hanging out.

Volstead’s Emporium in Minneapolis has no website, zero online presence, no sign on the door and no published address—yet on a frigid Saturday night in January when I visited, six weeks after it opened, the place was packed with people who heard of it by word of mouth and knew to bang on the iron door when the red light is on.

Volstead’s Emporium is a speakeasy, modeled after the forbidden clubs in New York in the early 1900s and named after the Minnesota politician who championed Prohibition, according to its owner, Dave West. It is also a shining example of the hottest trend in retail: It offers people an “experience,” not just a product or service. And that is what all retailers and restaurant owners should strive to do, according to three fashion and franchise gurus at a Minnesota Shopping Center Association event in January.

“It’s got to feel like an experience,” said panelist Allison Kaplan of Mpls. St. Paul magazine, citing a local men’s clothing store as an example. “Martin Patrick 3 is an amazing store because it’s an experience. They have booze and food and a private room. They have a private den.”

Added panelist Stephanie March, also with Mpls.St. Paul magazine, “The online generation is looking for something different and something more,” she says. “As far as online food—that’s huge. They can sit on their couch and buy from Bite Squad,” or they can order “a box of food and recipes designed by a local chef. That’s an experience.”

“What’s Hot? What’s Not?” was the name of the event, and the panel, including our own Tom Kaiser of Franchise Times, weighed in on several items in a lightning round.

Some were obvious: Pizza is hot, as anyone knows watching all the quick-make franchises popping up, from Blaze to MOD to PizzaRev to Pie Five. Taprooms are hot, too, the panelists opined, and franchises like World of Beer and Casual Pint would second that point.

So are the 1970s, although some women in attendance groaned when Kaplan predicted the revival of the flare-leg pant—there go all those skinny jeans we own.

Uggs boots are not hot, according to the panel and seconded by anyone in the North, where everybody has three pairs in the back of their closets, all hideously stained because they can’t withstand a whiff of ice, snow or slush. The only place they work is Southern California or indoors.

Nor are cupcakes, because no one eats carbs anymore in the form of bread—they’re too busy drinking their carbs in the taprooms. And e-cigarettes were deemed not hot, but don’t tell Chip Paul, CEO of the franchise Palm Beach Vapors, who told Franchise Times last year he’s trying to expand his offerings into marijuana with a second franchise. Everybody knows that pot is hot, hot, hot.

Franchise Times’ Kaiser in one case stood in strong opposition to the other panelists, who declared “athleisure” to be hot. “Wearing fitness clothes when you’re not working out, it’s hotter than ever,” Kaplan said, pointing to Athleta and Lululemon as the old guard in the category, but to newcomer Kit and Ace as well. “It’s owned by the son and wife of Lululemon’s founder, so they can afford to open 60 stores.”

At a local Kit and Ace “showroom,” as the founders call it (apparently it’s not hot to call something a store), “they have clothing, but they have wine tasting and art on the walls. They have technical cashmere that you can wash,” Kaplan said, again explaining the most popular retailers today are selling an experience that includes cocktail samples and more, rather than just clothes.

Bruce Carlson, VP at Doran Cos. and the panel moderator, indicated that might be a millennial thing. “I like to go to a store and sample Scotch, too, and it’s called the Monte Carlo,” he quipped, referring to a famous local bar and restaurant.

He also mentioned the surprising success of L.L. Bean, the venerable catalog retailer, after opening a store in the Mall of America. “One person said, ‘It’s like a virtual catalog,’” Carlson said with a laugh. Added Kaplan: “It’s kind of retro cool.”

Kaiser was having none of it. “I see athleisure as a fad,” he said. “It’s like in the ‘90s, we all dressed like we were going mountain climbing. Are we really exercising that much? I’m not,” he said, and many women in the room, wearing their comfortable and roomy athleisure pants, squirmed.

As for Volstead’s Emporium, it will be difficult for the owners to preserve the experience—the fun of trying to hunt down the place, the cachet of knowing something “secret”—and that is the challenge for all retailers who want to stay on trend. People seeking experiences always want the next new thing.

On my visit, West agreed to be interviewed later for an article, but only if I promised not to publish Volstead’s address. But on the very next Sunday, there it was, published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, including instructions to find the place. Talk about throwing cold water on something hot.

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