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Story's Rachel Shechtman has always harbored dreams of opening her own shop—the fourth-generation entrepreneur was bitten by the retail bug when her mother took her to a trade show to buy her bat mitzvah favors at wholesale prices. But the former consultant's decision to make that career shift happen wasn't the result of a layoff, or yoga-retreat-induced epiphany. Shechtman's voice of reason was her pal TOMS owner Blake Mycoskie, who said back in 2011, "Enough of this 'someday' shit."
So that year Shechtman launched the beta version of Story, a shape-shifting Chelsea concept shop that partners with sponsors every few weeks to bring themes, or "stories"—like American-made goods, or wearable tech—to life. And while Mycoskie may have given Shechtman the kick she needed to get Story off the ground, famous friends spurring major business decisions seems to be a theme in her life. Quirky's Ben Kaufman bet her she couldn't open Story just a month after signing the lease (she won), Steven Alan offered to take up some square footage when the 10th Avenue space proved to be too cavernous (they're still neighbors), and when Shechtman introduced herself to Target chairman Brian Cornell and asked if she could carry a few of the mega-chain's products as part of this season's "Home for the Holidays" story, he agreed. She was wearing sweatpants at the time of this meeting.
"I always describe Story as a living magazine," Shechtman says. "If a magazine tells stories by taking pictures and writing articles, we tell stories through merchandising and events."
Tell us a bit about your background! Have you always wanted to have your own store?
I'm a fourth generation retail entrepreneur. I walked my first trade show to buy my bat mitzvah favors wholesale with my mom, and that's when I realized you could shop for a living. Fast forward a bit and I worked at a start-up that was formed to help emerging designers, and then as a consultant for a range of companies—from Toms and the CFDA to Gap and Kraft.
What does a consultant…do?
I was creating new ways of doing business. At the CFDA I launched their first business and partnership division. It was called the Business Services Network. The idea was giving designers strategic access to companies that added value. I was known for connecting the dots in ways that people wouldn't think of at first pass.
When did you start thinking about Story?
It's really been an evolution. My consulting career was an accident—six months turned into 12 years. I ended up developing this unique niche of mashing up different business functions that aren't typically together within an organization. I often say companies are like the United Nations without a translator: advertising speaks Swahili, marketing speaks French, and merchandising speaks Spanish. I really liked mixing the creative and the business, and I knew at some point I would have to do a store to get it out of my system.
How long did it take you to make this idea for a store a reality?
In 2011, I was driving with my friend Blake Mycoskie, who founded Toms, and he said, "Enough of this 'someday' shit. It's time to do it." That was in April. I went to sign my lease in July, and I lost my lease on the day I was supposed to sign it. I always say I was stood up at the altar. But then I found my soulmate, which is this location. I opened up on December 21st, 2011, four weeks after I signed that lease. It was actually a bet with Ben Kaufman from Quirky. He bet me a lot of money I couldn't open in a month.
When we launched, we only sold products from start-ups like Birchbox, BaubleBar, and Quirky.
Was that Story's first "story?"
That was our soft launch. I revealed our name and our first real story in February, 2012. It was "Love Story." We sold everything from VPL to Vosges chocolate. We had some great jewelry from Simon Alcantara, lingerie from Only Hearts, lots of books.
How did you feel on your opening day?
I was tired and emotional and I didn't like the store.
Why didn't you like it?
I think if you talk to anyone who's a creative entrepreneur, we're our own hardest critics. I had spent twelve years consulting, giving people recommendations for their businesses, and I just felt a tremendous amount of pressure because I was the idea girl for so long and suddenly I was executing. We had gotten a lot of press from our soft launch, which I did not anticipate. Within a week of our opening there were headlines like, "Can They Reinvent Retail?" I was anxious because it was new.
People always ask me what our most successful story has been. Success to me is when I ask customers what their favorite story is, and they give me all different answers. That first story, creatively, was probably one of my least favorites. But there are some very high-profile designers who say it's their favorite.
Why did you choose to open in Chelsea?
I wanted to choose a geographic area that emulated the principles of the business model. So something that was new or different but not too out-there. In 2011, there weren't a lot of people opening up stores, and there was no retail store north of 16th Street on 10th Avenue. There were bookstores and restaurants and galleries, but there were no stores.
Originally the space was 4,000 square feet and I called up Steven Alan—who's one of my dearest friends—and said, "we need to divide this, I think you should be my neighbor." So he moved in and now there are two more clothing stores two blocks away. The neighborhood is totally changing.
Did you ever toy with the idea of launching a website instead of opening a brick-and-mortar store?
When a lot of people are screaming and you scream, no one can hear you. But if no one is screaming and you scream you can be heard. If I were to take this and launch it as e-commerce first, we would have had to work a lot harder to make noise because there's a lot of noise there, a lot of newness.
How many times per year do you change the story?
I think an average year can be anywhere from six to eight stories.
Do you have an all-time favorite?
I have different favorites for different reasons. I like the "Style.Tech" story we did with Intel because it was so contextually relevant to that moment in time. We opened a week before the iWatch came out, and there was so much happening around wearables.
Are there any constants in the store? Or does all the merchandise change with each new story?
The one brand that's always in the store is Beth Macri—she was the first designer in our incubator. We carry her necklaces, you can customize them with your own hidden messages. Even though it changes, we always have a selection of products from New York—from mugs to stationery to coffee table books. We get a lot of tourists because of the High Line.
Are you going to be expanding your designer incubator?
Beth was kind of our beta test. Pitch Night has become such a core part of our DNA, and in 2015 we're going to be blowing it out in a bigger way. In the same way the store becomes that passive discovery platform, I want to be able to actively leverage our relationships more to help these smaller companies.
You're partnering with Target this season! How did that come about?
Target's chairman Brian Cornell came in here and I was talking to him and I didn't know who he was. I was in sweatpants. Target has always been my dream partner and one of my favorite stores. I always wanted to do something with them that they had never done before.
One thing about traditional retail that has never resonated with me is companies have the women's shoe buyer and the men's accessories buyer and the women's ready-to-wear buyer. They're so siloed in how they approach merchandising a store. But we wake up and we wash our hair with shampoo and we eat food and we get dressed. So the idea that you can get a Diptyque candle next to pancake mix from Target—you're going to eat pancakes in the morning and you might want to give a candle as a gift. That's how we live.
You usually partner with sponsors on your stories. Do you reach out to them? Are they connections from your consulting jobs?
It's a combination of both. Up until now, 80% have come to us. No one else has been doing what we're doing and it's a really important time for reinventing physical retail experiences.
I think retail is an untapped media channel. It's why we have corporate sponsors. I always describe Story as a living magazine. If a magazine tells stories by taking pictures and writing articles, we tell stories through merchandising and events. They make money from advertising, we make money from sponsorships. It's the point of view of a magazine, we change things like a gallery, and we sell like a store.
Which story was your riskiest?
When we did "His Story" we were doing hot towel shaves with Gillette and Braun. We wanted to build trust and have people engage in the experience, so we worked with a barbershop on the Lower East Side. The reason we have sponsors is because we know a little about a lot of things. We want partners who are contextually relevant and who add authority to a subject matter. Is a man going to want to get a hot towel shave in the middle of a store facing 10th Avenue? If I have Gillette and Braun's logo in my window are people going to think I'm a sellout. Knock on wood, there's never been an issue with it. I think if you had Taco Bell's logo on the wall of a men's grooming store people would say something because it wouldn't make sense.
Have there been any brands from the store's early days that have really taken off?
We do a pitch night, which is my favorite thing. Beth Macri is a big one. Whoopi Goldeberg bought one of her necklaces and put it on The View. She's since gotten into wholesale and we've started advising her, she's in Fred Segal now. Unwashed Denim—which is a brand started by a seventeen-year-old, Will Berman—was picked up by Pilgrim, a hot concept shop in London.
One of the things that I spend a lot of time thinking about is democratizing discovery and access. A press release shouldn't just be for the press, or a trade show just for the trade, or a store just for consumers.
That's why we have an editorial team—so we can create original content for every story, and tell the stories of brands, and include their social media information. That way buyers from other stores and press can come in here and discover new brands just like a consumer.
Who is your typical customer?
That's one of my most favorite things about what we do. Literally, you come into this store and it's men women and kids between six and 80. It can be a New York City bus driver, it can be a hedge fund manager, it can be Martha Stewart, it can be Whoopi Goldberg, it can be a kid getting fake tattoos. We have a point of view, for sure, but it's an accessible experience—not just in terms of price point but in terms of the audience we appeal to.
Are there plans to launch e-commerce?
Yes, we will. We're a little late to the game, but that's just a byproduct of the fact that I funded the company myself and we've grown really fast.
What do you look for when you're hiring?
I'm a big believer in attracting what you need and adding what you do well. We do creative chaos very well, so I like hiring people who come from more corporate environments. A lot of our employees come from places like Apple, Bloomingdale's, or Lord & Taylor.
It's important to be proactive, not reactive. In traditional retail, it's about maintaining systems, and here it's about creating them. One month we'll be doing in-store yoga and pilates on the weekends and another month we'll be doing mixology classes.
Would you ever open a second Story?
I was ambitious early on and I was very bold about saying we'd open up more stores. I didn't realize how hard certain parts of the business would be, but it is something I really want to do. I want to open up a store in L.A.
When does your next story launch?
We'll close January 4th and we'll open January 19th.
Any hints as to what your next story will be?
I always say, in the same way you don't know what's on the cover of your favorite magazine before it comes out, you'll have to wait and see.
Time for the lightning round!
8am or 8pm?
Beer or wine?
Whiskey or tequila?
Bagels or croissants?
Cats or dogs?
Beach or mountains?
Favorite neighborhood lunch spot?
Favorite neighborhood happy hour spot?
Scandal or Homeland?
Mad Men or Game of Thrones?
· Story [Official Site]
· Better Know a Store Owner [Racked NY]
· Concept Shop Story Brings Target Home for the Holidays [Racked NY]