The Power of Story: What We Can Learn from Strangers

Toby Barlow talks about what he’s discovered by opening his own store.

New York magazine’s “In 2029 IRL Retail Will Live Only Inside Amusement Parks” is an overview of how, in the writer’s estimation, the new 5.7 billion dollar American Dream mall in New Jersey is an ominous sign of things to come. I’m sure it’s always unnerving for New Yorkers to hear that the future lies in New Jersey, but looking the article over there isn’t anything all that new or revealing.

In a sense, malls have driven their own obsolescence, each one arriving without any true invention. Building a more epic mall is like building a more epic casino, all it does is make the last one seem smaller and start the countdown to the moment when this new palace will be dwarfed by the next one. It’s epic and dramatic, yes, but malls have been one upping themselves since the first one opened in Edina, Minnesota more than a half century ago. The second one maybe had a fancy fountain, the next a food court, then a skating rink, then a monorail, etc.

I opened one very small store five years ago for a very specific reason. In an age when people ordered everything they could from the internet, I believe there is still a hunger for items that can be touched, smelled, experienced in some sensory fashion. Also, knee deep in a career in advertising, I was, shall we say, retail curious. I wanted to discover the real world of selling and compare it to the theories we were spinning in ad world’s lofty conference rooms.

So, seven years in, what have I found? While some of the stratagems we dreamed up on Madison Avenue turned out to be true, many of our fancier notions turned out to be as ridiculous as my clients always suspected them to be. But, surprisingly, I discovered keys to success that appealed just as much to my experience as a novelist than my work as an ad man. Because the most effective tool truly does turn out to be the power of story.

In Yuval Harari’s bestseller Sapiens, he attributes a good chunk of humanity’s success to the fact that we’re fundamentally a race of storytellers. So, what makes a great story? Often, it’s a moment of discovery. Ali Baba with his dusty lamp. Or the small detail that reveals great craftsmanship, like a perfect Hemingway sentence. It’s a thoughtful touch or a bit of humor – one of Dorothy Parker’s bon mots – that makes a memorable connection. It can be overwhelming awe, yes, like the worlds of Frank Herbert’s Dune, but that alone isn’t enough, there needs to be a human truth behind it. Mostly, it’s a sense of reward that comes when a customer trips over some unexpected treasure. Something to think about, talk about, a tale they can tell, “Look what I found…”

So yes, the scale of the mall or market or superstore may keep expanding, but the very human scale of the shoppers inside it remains eternally the same, and while we can be awed, we can also be charmed, touched, intrigued and impressed. The reason Nordstrom breaks through is because of the thoughtfulness of the staff, the reason Ikea impresses is because of the vision of the designers. Every store experience is wholly its own, born from the DNA of whoever dreamed it up in the first place. It takes imagination and vision.

I remember watching shoppers at the Forever 21 on Union Square, it was one of the most powerful retail moments of my life. Women plowed through massive piles of clothes with a concentrated, methodical diligence. It was a laborious harvest, with no sense of curation, no order, no story. Everyone was on their own. It was survival of the fittest, fast fashion at its most furious, and ultimately it was a kingdom that collapsed into itself. So, apparently, that isn’t the future of retail.

Physical stores will be facing the online shopping threat forever. But my theory – one borne out by my experience with my own store – is that brick and mortar will win by doubling down on story, on experience, finding more treasures, both personal and physical. In marketing, we call it a “customer journey” but I think we forget how truly wonderful a journey can be.

They say there are only two plots, either someone sets out on the road alone or a stranger comes to town. I try to remember that every time a customer walks into my store, a stranger has come to town. What will their experience be? What adventure will they find? What will they remember? What will be their story?

Toby Barlow is the founder and CEO of Lafayette American, a creative marketing agency located in Core City, Detroit.