A New Department Store Narrative: Story Launches Inside Macy’s With A Rainbow Of Color And Wide Array Of Indie Brands

Stepping out of the bright sunlight into Macy’s at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Calif., a rainbow of eclectic products never before offered at the retailer is a surprise to shoppers expecting the standard department store selection.

As part of Macy’s shop-in-shop retail concept called Story, a wide range of beauty, wellness, fashion, stationery, DIY crafts and food is artfully displayed in color-coded sections corresponding with the merchandise’s vivid packaging.

In a pink area facing the glass doors leading from the street, Lapcos’ $14 brightening face masks are hung above small kits Pinch has filled for emergencies (lip balm, tampons and other necessities for $18) as well as television binge-watching (pedicure tools, hand lotion and 20 other items for $22). Behind it, a red section includes The Barr-Co. Soap Shop’s $26 tubes of berry-scented shea butter cream.

The green zone is a showcase for plants and related goods such as Weleda’s $19 ultra-rich cream and Yes Studio’s $7 bath fizzers. Soaprocks’ $13 chunks of soap resembling blue agate pop are in the blue area, while Tenoverten’s nail polish in tints named Bond (dark and inky) and Reade (gunmetal glitter) balance out the vibrancy in a bastion of black. Lapcos, Barr-Co., Weleda, Yes Studio, Soaprocks and Tenoverten are all first-time vendors, according to Macy’s.

STORY at Macy'sCarlos Delgado/AP Images for Macy's
Story’s in-store shop at Macy’s in South Coast Plaza was packed on Wednesday for its unveiling. Story has rolled out at 36 Macy’s locations nationwide.

“It’s not like traditional retail, where there’s a beauty department and a kids’ department,” says Jessica Kao, an integrated merchant at Story. “There are no hard and fast rules. Product is always king.”

Macy’s, the 161-year-old department store with some 640 locations, is experimenting with a magazine’s point of view, art gallery’s exhibition calendar and more than 70 small business partners in its ambitious new project. On Wednesday, eleven months following its acquisition of Story, a New York concept store created by Rachel Shechtman, now Macy’s brand experience officer, that pioneered a novel rotating business model, the retail giant unveiled the titular shops in 36 units spanning the U.S. from Las Vegas and Houston to Miami and its flagship in New York’s Herald Square.

The Story locations nationwide adhere to the same theme, which will stick around through June 26. To demonstrate what Kao described as “agility at scale,” its team will budget about four days to disassemble the current color theme and set up for the next theme. Themes will be switched every few months.

“It’s really about the experience…How do brick-and-mortar stores compete? How do we bring her [the customer] back? How do we keep her coming back?”

The arrival of Story inside Macy’s comes as the owner of Bloomingdale’s and Bluemercury is grappling with how department stores will stay relevant in a retail landscape disrupted by direct-to-conumer brands and dominated by Amazon. The Cincinnati-based company’s fiscal 2018 sales remained basically flat from the previous year at $25 billion.

“It’s really about the experience,” says Kao, adding that the questions traditional retailers must address are: “How do brick-and-mortar stores compete? How do we bring her [the customer] back? How do we keep her coming back?”

One way to enhance the experience at Story is by hiring specialized employees that Macy’s is calling storytellers instead of the usual salespeople on the department store floor. In the eight-month-long process of planning Story’s in-store launch, 300 people were hired to work at it. Dressed in vivid ensembles incorporating a red tank dress, royal-blue cardigan and hot-pink pants, storytellers at South Coast Plaza are, according to Kao, “a huge part of the education for our customer and building a community.”

Carlos Delgado/AP Images for Macy's
Macy’s has partnered with more than 70 small businesses to bring the selection at Story inside its stores to life.

Story in Herald Square occupies boasts the in-store shop’s largest footprint with 7,500 square feet of display, but the average size of Story spaces is 1,500 square feet. At Herald Square, Story features a broader array of partners and activations than elsewhere. New York designer David Stark has fashioned a vibrant circus in the location with faux fur columns. There’s also an interactive Lite-Brite installation and illuminated rainbow tunnel.

At roughly 800 square feet, the South Coast Plaza version of Story is much smaller than its incarnation at Herald Square. A visitor can walk its length in less than 10 seconds and the end would be just wide enough for two love seats. In the 36 department stores picked for the initial round, the Story shop-in-shops command 55,000 square feet on the main floor.

While Kao couldn’t break down the exact composition of beauty and wellness products among the 400-plus items at Story, she acknowledges that the sector “is super-important to us.” Aware that independent brands may find it challenging to overcome supply-chain logistics and operational costs to stock their products at Macy’s, she says Story’s curated and concentrated merchandising allows for the department store to test new brands, and support businesses owned by women and people of color.

“Being able to stimulate the small-business economy is so amazing.”

Take Da Bomb, the American-made bath fizzer brand run by a pair of teen sisters filling the bath bombs with toys and quotes. “I love this company,” says Kao as she held up Da Bomb’s $25 jar emblazoned with the name “Amaze Balls.” “For me, personally, being able to stimulate the small-business economy is so amazing.”

One juggernaut involved in Story is MAC Cosmetics, a sponsor of Story along with Crayola and Levi’s Kids. Besides selling $17 sets of false eyelashes and other makeup, MAC allows customers to build “Make Your Own” palettes at 30 Story locations.

Story isn’t Macy’s only in-store shop. After acquiring beauty specialty chain Bluemercury in 2015, Macy’s put Bluemercery shop-in-shops in select locations. Per the retailer’s fourth-quarter 2018 earnings call, those shop-in-shops have been registering double-digit comps, underscoring the role of the beauty category as a sales driver at Macy’s.

Story at Macy'sCarlos Delgado/AP Images for Macy's
MAC Cosmetics, Crayola and Levi’s Kids are sponsors of Story.

Story is certainly not emulating Bluemercury. Kao notes, “Bluemercury is more of a specialty boutique,” with an emphasis on experts and clinical skincare. “Our breadth [at Story] is so different,” she says. “Who knows—we could partner with them in the future.”