Stores

Why this “dinner-party store” is perfecting brick and mortar before digging into e-comm

Big Night’s categories, home and food, benefit from an in-store dialogue that can be hard to imitate online.
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Big Night

· 4 min read

Katherine Lewin has staged her Brooklyn-based “dinner-party store” Big Night like an eclectic NYC apartment. It’s a small space, just under 300 square feet, with a big window, stocked with colorful wine glasses, linens, tablewares, tinned fish, cheese, bread, dried flowers. She conceived of the idea during the first pandemic holiday season—when people were attempting to work festive atmospheres into their quarantine dungeons—and opened up shop the following summer. Even as fear of the virus loomed over retail, Lewin opted for physical space over digital footprint.

The brick-and-mortar experience is a crucial component, she told Retail Brew, and for all the challenges that come with eschewing e-comm, there are rewards.

Out and about

After about seven months in business, Big Night still doesn’t have an online presence. “That brick-and-mortar, in-person element was the most important thing to get right,” Lewin told us. “After basically two years of staring at screens and having [the] Instagram algorithm feed us what it thinks we want to shop,” shes says she missed the emotional touch and feel of shopping. And Lewin doesn’t think she’s alone.

In creating Big Night, Lewin wanted an intimate space where she could know every single SKU, watch people browse, and speak with them about the brands. She also made sure there was prominent signage for the products, so people could walk around the store and learn about the wares. “Where does it come from? Why is it good? What could they use it in? What other products might they like if they like this one? I think that product storytelling is key,” Lewin explained.

For Big Night, part of telling that story is consistently rewriting it (i.e., bringing in new inventory). “My vision for the store is that it’s jam-packed with things for people to discover. The small footprint actually allows people to dig in a little bit easier,” she said.

Focusing on the in-store experience is especially important in the pandemic era; Michelle Kluz, a partner in Kearney’s consumer practice, believes you’ll catch more consumers with IRL honey.

“When you get somebody into your store, at this point in the evolution of the world, it’s because they’re ready to buy, or they’re interested in something specific,” she told us. “Whereas online, you have a lot of browsers. It’s definitely easier to convert someone in-store these days.” Not only that, creating a valuable online experience is expensive—you have to hire people to operate the customer service chat line and develop the UX, for example—as is holding the inventory for an online store.

  • Kluz said that using a physical space as a “learning platform” could be “invaluable” in determining what will work for a future online store.
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Curation, curation, curation: While Big Night might be jam-packed with product, the SKU count is intentionally slim. Curation is key when it comes to brick and mortar for a few reasons, Kluz noted. For one, consumers can feel weighed down by a paradox of choice. There are also financial restrictions and ~vibe-setting~ practices to consider. She emphasized the appeal of a store owner’s personality via curation, adding that carrying too many SKUs runs the risk of tying up too much cash in inventory.

Big Night’s big selling point (and potential challenge) is how it blends product categories. The lifecycles and use cases for a wheel of brie and a napkin holder are quite different, so Lewin has developed separate inventory strategies:

  • For food, she varies brand and product selection more frequently to accommodate neighborhood regulars and make sure they always have something new to try.
  • The home side is more “occasion driven,” and, therefore, requires less refreshing.

Kluz said the most important thing to keep in mind is balancing your inventory’s “newness” with an understanding of what kind of products are working. “That’s one of the trickiest things. Because even for big businesses, inventory can sink a business.”

Correction: This story was updated on March 29, 2022, to note that Big Night has been in business for seven months.

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