Before my 19 year old daughter headed for semester of college abroad, we headed to the local mall to shop for clothes that ensured she was suitably fashionable. (Me? I would have just thrown my most comfortable jeans, tees, and sneakers in a backpack and headed for the airport. But teenage girls? Well, you know.) So there we were milling around in Urban Outfitters, in what is probably a common (if slightly pathetic?) twosome: A father, trying to find a quiet corner or pillar to lean against until he is called upon for his credit card -- and his daughter, methodically moving from rack to rack, rapidly ruling items "in" or "out" based on some highly specific, but impossible-to-articulate criteria.
As I sat dad-like, on an out-of-the way platform near the front window, my eyes wandered and, per usual, began to focus on the minute details that make up an environment. What is it that makes an Urban Outfitters store feel like an Urban Outfitters? (Spoiler alert: A deep dive into the intricacies of retail space design is not where I'm heading with this particular post.) The pre-worn and pre-torn jeans, frilly tops, and crafted accessories are critical to the picture, to be sure. Then, there's enormously current alternative music, which -- though, piped throughout the store -- somehow appears to be provide the sensation of individual soundtracks for each teen's and 20-something's shopping experience. My daughter included. Next, you have to credit the invariably attractive, inked and/or pierced, and seemingly gender-fluid sales associates bustling about, tidying up the inventory, and facilitating checkouts. And, finally, there are the hardwood floors, exposed pipes and air-ducts in the ceiling, and the steam-punk inspired clothing racks themselves...all of these accents of environmental design meticulously chosen to foment the feeling you have discovered a genuine stash of edgy fashions in the basement of some, industrial-era Manhattan basement instead of a recently sheet-rocked stall of decidedly sub-urban shopping mall.
Putting aside the cynicism of that last observation (as a father, it is true, I sometimes despair!) -- let's focus instead, as I did that day, on those industrial-looking racks (aka: 'retail fixtures') for a moment. And ask this question: Who supplies the thousands of linear feet of iron piping, cases of castor wheels, and faux, Edison-era lighting fixtures to this and other Urban Outfitters across the U.S. (not to mention the hundreds of similarly vibe'd competitive chains like American Eagle, Aeropostale, Old Navy, et al)?
Allowing for variations of the multi-tier supply chain involved in this sort of thing -- doubtless, corporate buyers, retail store designers, and retail fixture distributors all play a role -- somewhere at the back of the line the are actual foundries, metal-working shops, and other assorted manufacturers of the pipe, fittings, wheels, woodblock, and fixtures we as consumers have come to expect in today's hipster retail environments. Companies...
> who used to produce their wares exclusively for construction applications;
> who used to sell exclusively to industrial customers;
> who used to sell only through industrial distributors;
...and all of whom, at some point, had nary a thought of selling their grimy, gritty, and above all functional industrial goods into retail settings simply because they look cool.
Now, I have a suspicion that the fashion industry (or fixture designers and makers) approached the industrial folks on this one, rather than the inverse. Nevertheless, a new market for existing materials resulted from the exercise of looking at an age-old product through new lenses.
For another dramatic example of this sort of stand-on-your-head, new-market-for-existing-products thinking -- check out this life-hacker video that whips through a handful of alternative ways to use an ordinary binder clip in an office environment. Sure, some of these are silly or impractical, but some of might yield legitimate, new revenue streams if the ideas were re-packaged and marketed the right way. (If I were a clip or other commodity office products manufacturer, I'd consider charging someone on staff with replicating the process captured in this video. Marching order: "What other ways can one use our product... 1, 2, 3: Go!"
So, if you've got product at the mature phase of its life cycle, before writing it off, so to speak, you may want to consciously consider it from a new vantage point: There might be new life, and new sales, awaiting you in an entirely new market.
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