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Good Storytelling Matters, Especially for Your Business

Telling a story with both your brand and your product is more important now than ever, which is why Rachel Shechtman, the founder of STORY—part retail store, part gallery, part magazine—is pioneering the field of retail media.
November 23, 2015

When Rachel Shechtman was a kid growing up in West Hartford, Connecticut, she joined her third-generation retailer mother for a large gift show in New York City every year—and at 12 years old, Shechtman was retail-savvy enough to use the opportunity to buy her own bat mitzvah favors in bulk.

After consulting work with several large brands, Shechtman is now the founder of STORY, a 2,000-square-foot shop that has the "point of view of a magazine, changes like a gallery and sells things like a store," to quote her laser-focused tagline. At the glass-encased boutique, located on a Chelsea corner just a stone's throw from the gift show site she frequented as a young retailer-to-be, Shechtman employs up to 40 people.

Launched in 2011, STORY has pioneered the field of retail media. The shop has two streams of revenue: product sales and sponsorship of "stories" that rotate every three to eight weeks. "Magazines tell stories through words and photos," says Shechtman. "We tell stories with merchandise and events. They have advertisers and we have sponsors."

For example, STORY recently partnered with a design-forward big-box retailer for a "Home for the Holidays" editorialized gift guide, where everything from chocolates to furnishings was laid out like a professional photo shoot in the context of a house and available for purchase.

After introducing and hosting a recent networking event for entrepreneurs presented by American Express OPEN at STORY, Shechtman joined me for a conversation about her always-evolving venue for merchandise and events.

The STORY universe is constantly changing. With so much in flux, are there any constants?

Our constants are in the format—each STORY has a mix of content, commerce and community. We've hosted more than 400 events and sold products from more than 2,000 small businesses in less than four years, so community is a big part of who we are.

I spend a lot of time thinking about our behavior online versus offline: What opportunities and trends are happening online that we can recreate offline? If we have reinvented what personal and professional community is online, then I think it’s time to evolve how we build and create community offline. We have explored different formats of events that attract men, women and kids from age six to 80, as well as different professions from a New York City bus driver to a hedge fund manager to entrepreneurs.

With this new business model and its convergence of retail and media, I'm interested in expanding access to discovery.

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STORY founder Rachel Shechtman

People tend to look at online and mobile strategies driving offline behavior these days. We look to offline activity to drive and amplify online impressions. People ask, "How many people can you actually touch with one store?" Well, if someone with 2 million Instagram followers posts from an in-store event activation or tweets to our social cooler [a cooler that opens to reveal a can of soda if you tweet at it], it can have as much or more of an impact than a traditional campaign.

Why are brands looking more and more to storytelling to power their marketing?

Back in the day, a retailer could compete on price, quality and/or service. Now, those are assumed. You need to have a reason for someone to spend time in your store. Today, people can have household essentials delivered to their door in an hour, so why leave your house? The answer—surprise and delight! A compelling experience.

Storytelling is more important than ever for retailers, and businesses in general, to differentiate themselves. It's more than a trend, it's a fundamental shift—both a challenge and opportunity.

Since physical space is so integral to STORY's identity, why this location?

It's my neighborhood. I've lived here on 10th Avenue for 15 years, and my gut told me it was the right place to launch our business model. When the High Line [an elevated park on Manhattan's West Side] opened in 2009, there were galleries and restaurants around here, but very little retail presence. Since STORY was an emerging new concept, I wanted a neighborhood that reflected those similar principles.

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Fast forward, now Steven Alan is our neighbor, and there are other boutiques within a couple blocks. The neighborhood has evolved over the past few years, as has the face of brick-and-mortar.

What challenges come along with constantly rotating your concept and inventory?

Having an atypical business model also has its challenges. What makes you successful in traditional retail isn't what makes you successful at STORY. In traditional retail, you're rewarded for maintaining systems. At STORY, you're rewarded for creating them. It may sound subtle, but that nuance is important. To support our core structure, we need to combine the equivalent of a chief merchandising officer for retail, a magazine publisher for sponsorship and an editor for content creation.

It's taken a while to find the right balance. Before launching STORY, I was a consultant who had never managed an employee. I never had a store, let alone one that changes every four to eight weeks. So I'm literally learning, doing and leading all at once. It's very difficult. At the same time, I've learned more than I would have in 20 years of nonstop business school. It's exhausting but exciting.

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Photos: Courtesy of STORY