Multi-brand to multi-experience: distinction or extinction

KM20 are true true ‘experiential merchants’ by Start Design. Multi-brand, multi-experience is the future of retail
Olga Karput and her team at KM20 have created a compelling multi-brand shopping experience.


The global story of struggling multi-brand stores sheds a stark light on why retailers must reward shoppers with store experiences to remember. Here’s how three game-changing retailers are revitalising the multi-brand sector, by redefining the physical store as multi-experience platforms.

It’s been a challenging couple of years for traditional multi-brand retail. Here in the UK, we’ve seen big household names such as Debenhams, House of Fraser and Fenwick – in their heyday, stalwarts of our high streets – flounder in the face of declining footfall, shaky consumer confidence, constant pressure on pricing and the relentless rise of online equivalents with deeper ranges and broader assortment. Even the seemingly unsinkable John Lewis has reported a drop to profits, laying the blame at Brexit’s door. It’s a similar story in the US, with Sears, Macy’s and JC Penney suffering in an over-stored market.  

Growth opportunities remain in comparative under-stored Asian markets, but a plethora of innovative, direct-to-consumer (D2C) brands are also applying further pressure, bypassing department stores altogether in favour of their own social, digital and physical channels. You can read our 10 tips for thriving in this direct-to-consumer era here. The upshot of all this is inevitable. Multi-brand stores, as we know them, are almost certainly breathing their last, unable to respond fast enough to the radically different ways consumers shop. Let’s face it, these days, a neglected department store hardly cuts it as a millennial’s shopping destination of choice. 

Disruptive multi-brand, multi-experience retail.

So, if consumers don’t want them and brands don’t need them like they used to, can the ‘multi-brand retail’ still play a valuable role in the future? There are some shining examples of resurgence from the likes of London’s Selfridges or Galeries Lafayette in Paris, now famed for their multi-experience based strategies. Selfridges recently turned its store into an art gallery for its ‘State of the Arts’ Campaign. Its windows featured work by renowned artists, and visitors could follow an art trail around the store. Nordstrom and Macy’s in the US, as well as newcomer Neighborhood Goods, are experimenting with smaller formats and new platforms to entice customers and brands back in to their stores. 

But it’s a new breed of smaller, more agile, multi-brand retailers that are really doing things differently. The most successful are founded on a mixed retail model, a blend of both physical and digital channels, each informing and supporting the other, delivering highly curated products and experiences sharply focused on meeting their customers’ needs and expectations. Think of Wolf & Badger, Sevenstore, Dover Street Market, Browns, Modern Society, 18Montrose, KM20, West Elm, Merci, B8ta, Showfields, Nous and TheStore X. Destination concepts all offering something unique to their location, their customers and their communities. Here’s three thriving, multi-brand, multi-experience brands that we think are shaping the future of retail.


Image showing 10 Corso Como in South Side Seaport in New York. 10 Corso Como are true ‘experiential merchants’ by Start Design. Multi-brand, multi-experience is the future of retail
10 Corso Como at South Side Seaport in New York

10 CORSO COMO – a ‘living lifestyle magazine’

One of the original of the new multi-brand concept stores, 10 Corso Como opened its doors back in the early 1990’s, in a regenerating area of Milan. With its newest outpost just opened in Manhattan’s historic South Street Seaport district in New York, it continues to pull in the crowds with its radical mingling of commerce and culture. Stores host regular events and exhibitions from book launches to photography shows and collaborations with designers, architects and brands.

Why we like it:

The ultimate, slow-shopping experience, 10 Corso Como presents a highly-edited lifestyle collection of fashion, furniture, books and homewares. It’s the antithesis to internet shopping, designed to encourage people to spend time, linger and discover. Each store is an emporium for the senses, complete with photography gallery, café and garden.


Image showing basement and footwear wall of Sevenstore, Baltic Triangle in Liverpool. The Sevenstore team are true ‘experiential merchants’ by Start Design. Multi-brand, multi-experience is the future of retail
Sevenstore, Baltic Triangle, Liverpool

SEVENSTORE – the latest retail edition

Probably the newest kid on the block when it comes to multi-brand experiences, Sevenstore opened in May 2019, in Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle. The minimalist, industrial space completely reinvents itself every seven weeks with an entirely new edition of its store. Presented over two floors, the space pivots between store and event space, with a curated programme of content – inspired by Liverpool’s own creative culture – carefully intertwining music and art with changing fashion collections.

Why we like it:

Start Design worked with Sevenstore to create both the retail strategy and store, so of course we love it. But the best thing about this concept is that it’s living proof that collaboration and community are perfect partners when it comes to revitalising retail experiences. In this case a three-way partnership between Sevenstore, the brands it showcases, and the creative community it seeks to represent. The result is a store that delivers fresh experiences to drive footfall and increase sales across all its channels. You can read more about it here


Image showing exterior of KM20 on Kuznetsky Most in Moscow. KM20 are true true ‘experiential merchants’ by Start Design. Multi-brand, multi-experience is the future of retail


KM20 – a unique aesthetic

Located in Moscow’s popular Stoleshnikov shopping district, and founded by street style star, Olga Karput, KM20 is credited with bringing international brands, such as Yeezy and Raf Simons, together with local and emerging Russian designers for the first time. Complete with a stripped back, industrial aesthetic, its newest and largest multi-brand store to date houses a mix of beauty, clothing, gadgets and magazines, with a café overlooking the city on the top floor. An underground multi-experience space hosts a revolving programme of exhibitions, product launches, installations and parties – all aimed at building cultural links with Moscow’s influential fashion scene.

Why we like it:

The team behind KM20 understand the role multi-experience has in defining a distinctive multi-brand shopping experience. This concept gets it just right; subversive enough to give the space the identity it needs to pull in its target shoppers and a perfect canvas to showcase the provenance of the brands it plays host to.

Multi-Experience, Content and Collaboration

There are four overriding factors that unite the success of these three multi-brand retailers:

1. They’re all ‘experiential merchants’
Each understands the value of being a true ‘experiential merchant’ (in the words of
retail prophet, Doug Stephens), committed to redefining physical retail beyond a
place solely for transactions.

2. They’re Kings of Content
Each is a skilled content editor, presenting a curated and revolving collection of
products, services and experiences based on a deep understanding of their
customers, their community, their brands and locale.

3. They keep good company
These brands understand that they’re only as good as the company they keep, and
are experts at bringing brands together that feed off each other. These concepts
nurture their brand relationships, giving them the control over the selling environment
they crave, often providing hyper-localised collections into the bargain.

4. They value visual design
All the above are masters of elevating the different elements of visual design to
create a unique identity and experience. Whether it’s subverting luxury aesthetic or
creating a sensorial palace, each has crafted its own visual language that
strengthens their overall appeal for both brands and shoppers.

Far from dying out, multi-brand retail is a sector to watch, as both legacy businesses and bold, new concepts respond in different ways to changing market dynamics. Start Design delivers next generation retail for brands. Shaping the future of retail and want some help? Get in touch below.

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