Ron Robinson has a remedy for America’s slumping brick-and-mortar sales: Make Shopping Fun Again
By Christina Campodonico
When you arrive at his namesake store in downtown Santa Monica, Ron Robinson wants it to feel a bit like you’re entering his home.
“I wouldn’t let you stand there and not offer you a drink,” says the longtime L.A. fashion retailer and Venice Canals resident as he makes me a latte at the in-house coffee bar. A few taps on an iPad, and steaming hot coffee and milk flows from a sleek spout seamlessly integrated into the white marble countertop.
“This comes from the mind of one of the esoteric premium coffee guru guys,” explains Robinson, who then turns my attention to an elegant black pour-over kettle that looks like it would be equally at home in an art museum.
“If it can be functional and be art or if it can be art and be functional, isn’t that fabulous?” he remarks.
That philosophy — and a whimsical sense of humor — runs throughout RON ROBINSON, the Santa Monica flagship store of Robinson’s eponymous retail brand, which began at Fred Segal in 1978 and continues to wow visitors here on Fifth Street and at a second location on Melrose Avenue. Robinson made his name and rose through the Fred Segal ranks by turning the brand’s Melrose Avenue center into a top L.A. shopping destination.
Upon entering the Santa Monica store, pint-sized plastic gnomes — reminiscent of the sheens and hues of Crayola crayons — greet you with the victory sign. Others give you the finger.
The irreverent gesture sets a playful tone that continues throughout the walls of the eclectic lifestyle boutique. Panels of fantastically dressed animals in haute couture, designed by New York artist Brian Kenny for Christian Lacroix’s 30th anniversary, add flashes of whimsy. And miniatures of artist Jeff Koons’ famed chrome balloon dog sculptures — with light bulbs for noses — are another fun new addition.
Robinson tells me he doesn’t just put items in store for the sake of filling up shelf space.
“It was because it was the coolest thing that I could find,” he says, excitedly moving on to a clock that spells out the time and a state-of-the-art speaker that animates the lyrics to your favorite songs.
Yet the store is not simply a showroom for Robinson’s carefully curated high-tech home décor and wares, encompassing designer apparel, fine art, cosmetics and art books. The store doubles as an event space for a range of activities, from book signings and art exhibit openings to workshops and fitness classes — usually yoga, which happens Saturday mornings on an outdoor patio that serves as a lounge space for chitchatting or sipping coffee or tea the rest of the week.
Robinson says hosting events in the store adds a “social component” to the store that’s missing from online shopping and more traditional brick-and-mortar retailers.
“There’s a very human and personal touch to what goes on here,” says Robinson. “We have a collected, curated group of products that is really wonderful and fun to look at, but each one of them has a story to tell. … It’s just an object until it gets awoken by somebody.”
For Robinson, that “somebody” could be a knowledgeable shop worker, an author who’s launching a new book, an artist displaying his artwork, or an instructor-led workout to kick off your weekend. The important thing is all of these interactions bring the shopping experience to life for customers. Combine that with a beautifully designed showroom, and you have a one-of-a-kind experience.
“It’s a total immersion in arts, culture and fashion. It’s just a full experience,” says RON ROBINSON regular Cynthia Biret, fresh off a dance/fitness/cardio workout in the store Saturday morning. She first came to Robinson’s Santa Monica store about a year ago to attend a Pamela Anderson book signing and has been attending classes and shopping here.
“It fosters a really nice sense of community,” adds Laura Winiko, who attends the weekly yoga workouts with her girlfriends and appreciates the prize giveaways at the end of each class. “I wish other stores would do it.”
Robinson credits the experiential quality of his stores for the RON ROBINSON retail brand’s longevity and success, even when closures of Macy’s, Sears and JCPenney stores in Southern California and across the country caused alarm in the retail industry and inspired panicky headlines declaring the death of retail.
Earlier this year, a report by NPR’s “Marketplace” noted that the number of distressed U.S. retailers is the highest since the Great Recession. As of September, 19 U.S. retailers had filed for bankruptcy this year, according to CNBC — women’s apparel chain The Limited, footwear maker Aerosoles, Gymboree, Payless Shoesource and Toys R Us among them. The Atlantic has called it “the retail meltdown of 2017.”
“It’s a very interesting moment in retail,” observes Robinson. “You read the papers, like I read the papers, and we open them up today and we see that a hundred of these stores are closing and a thousand of those stores are closing. I’m going to tell you that — because of the way we’ve approached our specialty business — our stores are doing better. … Our business is up, and it’s fabulous.”
Robinson says he doesn’t really care how retailers in distress will turn the ship around, but he does offer insight into what those stores may lack or fail to offer their customers.
“Here’s what’s missing in today’s shopping experience … the experience part,” he says. “That word is critical to me. Because that’s what my customer wants. They want the product, but they want to feel like it was really a great experience. … It’s like leaving a restaurant a little bit hungry for the next time.”
RON ROBINSON is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays (except Thanksgiving) and from noon to 6 p.m. Sundays at 1327 Fifth St., Santa Monica. Visit ronrobinson.com to sign up for event notifications.