Disenchanted with the dull click-click of online shopping? Do you find yourself thinking that, unlike Amazon.com, the long-abandoned mall at least afforded you a chance to see some spectacularly failed skateboard tricks in the parking lot? Subports -- an experimental, renegade retail hub -- is here to help.
Subports is a retail mechanism disguised as fun. In short, the business is a transactions service: it provides vendors with a text "shortcode" -- you know, like the way they vote on reality TV shows -- that customers, who have enrolled their credit cards, can use to purchase products via text message.
Instead of rolling out in support of big box retail, Subports chose to work with artists, designers and record stores. They also orchestrate “pop up” shops -- and you can text one of many cleverly disseminated codes to Subports to have a designer T-shirt, or a dog bed made of tennis balls, or even a poem charged to your pre-synced credit card and delivered post-haste.
With its cross-pollination of swoony art and mischievous attitude, independent salesmanship and sleek design, Subports is an intriguing mutant: a website that dissolves old networks to achieve a porous and delightfully strange new form of consumption.
We spoke to Will Robison, Subports' chief ringleader.
One thing I want to buy via Subports is The Holey Chair from Takeshi Miyakawa Design. It costs $800. What's the most expensive thing you've helped to sell?
Speaking of Takeshi, I just showed him at Art Basel Miami at the SCOPE show. I am about to sell three of his installations to three different collectors simply by sending a text-to-buy code via email. The collector then texts in the code to our number 767-825 (spells PORTAL) where their credit card is charged, and Takeshi receives an email with contact and shipping info. These installation pieces are $8,000 a piece. Before these sales, the most expensive piece Subports sold was a hand carved re-claimed wooden surf board by Danny Hess for $5,000. We sold it to a wonderful woman at a SFMoMA pop up store we did during the SF20 furniture gala this summer. It was great to see her sip a martini and impress her friend by nonchalantly texting from her phone the purchase right from the gallery wall. This was done all without having to talk to any annoying gallery attendants.
Well, about that blasé big-ticket purchase: once my credit card and cell phone are married, "acquiring" seems to become radically disassociated from "paying" -- not to mention a whole lot more streamlined, as you point out. Will registering for Subports result in a slew of impulse buys simply because I don't have to swipe my physical Visa, or type out its foreboding string of digits?
Absolutely. It is like Amazon's “one click,” but it's “one text,” and it works not just on a website but virtually anywhere. As well as making it super easy to acquire items, we make it just as easy to cancel an order. All one needs to do to opt out of the purchase is to reply to the text message receipt “NO” in order to cancel it. This needs to happen prior to an artist shipping out the goods, which we all know could be a couple of days, so there is a nice window of time where a person could back out.
Also, this impulse buy shouldn't make the buyer feel all that guilty either. The artist is getting the lion’s share of the sale, as opposed to splitting the sale 50/50 with a gallery. They get the peace of mind from helping the artist fuel their passion. We take a small fee and of course Visa/Mastercard/Amex take their percentage. It is a win-win for all parties involved.
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Sometimes the process is purposefully complicated for adventure's sake, and the texting is just one step in a mini-quest. Are there some retail experiments you have in mind but can't yet pull off?
Text-to-buy and helping our sellers sell anywhere is our focus right now, and most of our time is spent to make that an excellent product. But we have played with and discussed other fun under-utilized technologies like self-tinting glass for window displays, RFID readers, retinal and fingerprint scanners and bone conduction to enhance the retail experience. Of those, my favorite is bone conduction. Bone conduction is so magical and basically it allows the transfer of sound to be heard via vibrations and not through sound waves. An application for this technology would be creating a bone conduction ring that worked on blue tooth and connected to a mobile GPS app. It would be able to send the person wearing the ring vibrating bits of information along the bones in a finger. When the finger is placed behind the earlobe, the information can be heard inside the skull and the person would hear it even if they were standing next to a booming speaker at a club. The information could range from useful coupons, to notifications of killer stores in the persons location, to teasers of new music. It’s a very sexy way to get info while the mobile device is tucked away in a pocket or purse. To me an occasional vibrating finger that whispers secrets inside your head is much more appealing than receiving mass emails from the big retailers every day in my inbox. I have had conversations with a company in Japan that can produce the ring. I know it sounds far-fetched, but so did text-to-buy when I started Subports.
We have also played around with self-tinting glass. All kinds of suave window displays could be made using this technology. My ideal would be to work with Damian Hirst to create glass and metal containers similar to the ones he is known for. These containers could house amazing installations that contained limited edition objects that one can, of course, buy by text message. The self-tinting glass would only allow Subports members to see the contents, keeping it exclusive in, say, a public setting like Grand Central Station. We try to emit a sense of mystery with everything we do. Einstein said all good artwork is mysterious. He was right. I want everything to feel like art. Even the mundane processes of everyday life can be mysterious and beautiful.
I have a list of ideas the size of my leg. These are just the ones that seem really out of our reach at the moment. We do have some amazing experiments coming up in the new year. Real soon we will be giving away keys to an apartment in Williamsburg to all of our members. The apartment will act like a store and all items inside would be text-to-buy. Customers could also just use it to take a nap or watch TV or grab a rare Finnish cider from the fridge. Another one is retrofitting old vending machines that will be able to be used using text messages. These vending machines would dispense unique items such as jewelry, art, design and fashion accessories. We are building one for an undisclosed fashion designer for their store in the Hamptons and one to sell T-shirts at Roberta's, the most amazing pizzeria in Bushwick. Roberta's has the best energy with everything they do. I am so stoked to be working with them. They are so much more than just a restaurant.
It strikes me as a slyly ideological business, and it's refreshing to think of advanced technology -- bordering on transhumanist stuff -- being put to work in the service of conspiratorial fun. Are you very much an optimist when it comes to the future?
Yes, we humans are figuring out ways to work less and steal clean energy from nature. Why shouldn't we all feel optimistic? There has been a resurgence in museums this past century, with attendance doubling and in some cases quadrupling. People are craving to see and own items made by hand again. Technology is advancing rapidly yet at the same time we are embracing locally grown foods, handicrafts/fashion from Etsy, and small self-sustaining prefab housing like what you see in Dwell magazine -- as opposed to big and wasteful McMansions. It is a good time to be an artist, a craftsman, a baker, eco-friendly architect and a computer programmer. How weird and amazing is that? It is a good time to be alive.