The Sound of Silence

23 Dec

Modern department stores can cause a sensory overload- there’s so much to look at, tons to touch, smells of sample fragrances wafting through the air… and then there’s that loud music they pump through the store’s sound systems. I’m someone who loves shopping and has an academic fascination with retail, and I still find many department stores overwhelming. I can imagine many other shoppers feel the same way. And now British department store Selfridges is introducing an area called “No Noise” that promises to, well, have no noise. No music playing above. No shoes allowed. And no technology permitted inside, either- not even cell phones.  There will be meditation classes, and experts on hand to help shoppers reach a more tranquil state.

It all sounds very lovely, but don’t be confused: it’s still a retail space. Yes, there will be zen and all that fun stuff, but there will still be stuff for sale. Stuff that supposedly fits with the theme of tranquility, but merchandise nonetheless. Press coverage for the “No Noise” section says that it’s a reincarnation of the “Silence Room” that was located in the very first Selfridges back in the early 20th century. Naturally I was intrigued, and had to look it up. I found that the original Silence Room was a room where shoppers could get away from the hubbub of the store and relax. No merchandise, no sales pitches- just a nice place to sit for a while. Which makes it markedly different from what they’re opening up in 2013, don’t you think? The original Silence Room took customers out of the shopping environment: today’s just moves them to a different sort of retail space. It might be hard to conceptualize in today’s fast-paced retail world, but early department stores were designed to feel like second homes. They came at the time of a big shift in retail, and owners wanted their (mostly female) customers to spend as much time in the store as possible. So they added amenities like tea salons, restaurants and even reading rooms. And while the ultimate goal was to make women buy more, department stores really did become a sort of safe haven for women shoppers. Overall, I find the comparisons between the two versions of “silent rooms” a bit misleading, but let’s be real: have you ever seen a modern department store with more than 2 square feet left un-merchandised?

There’s one more thing worth noting about Selfridge’s new space: there will also be a shop with de-branded merchandise. Meaning, big brands will take the labels off their goods so shoppers don’t know exactly who they’re buying from. In the past, I’ve only seen de-branding at cheap-o resellers that are required to cut off labels to “preserve” the brands’ honor. But when the merchandise is the same high price- just unmarked- it’s a totally different ballgame. Guess we’ll see what shoppers do!

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