Experience, emotion and empathy form the new gold standard in retailing. In our Italian Issue, we talked to the Italian Rinascente group who demonstrates in Milan and Rome how physical stores can remain relevant in digital times.

What’s the future of retail? Robots swirl around, answering customers’ requests on the fly with a metallic voice? Or everything is ordered and paid online with the swish of a finger? Vittorio Radice, vice chairman of the Italian department store group Rinascente, might chuckle about these suggestions. When he talks about the future, first of all, he beams you centuries back.

The former Selfridges manager who joined Rinascente 12 years ago often begins his speeches with an elegant PowerPoint presentation. The first slide shows an old map of the Persian town of Isfahan. Three spots are highlighted, the palace, the church and the bazaar. “Politics, religion and commerce; in every big city in the world we find that set-up. The bazar is not just a place to buy. It’s foremost a place to meet,” says Radice. And you can guess: The bazar in our times is Rinascente.

Maybe like never before, an old concept has been so modern. Retailers worldwide transform their stores from being warehouses and transaction hubs into cozy private apartments, glitzy showrooms or amusement parks where it’s all about experience, emotion and empathy.

The bazaar in our times - Rinascentes new flagship in Rome
Photo: Rinascente
The bazaar in our times - Rinascentes new flagship in Rome

Radice has been at the forefront of this revolution. And his influence keeps getting bigger. He leads a very different group from when he started. After being acquired by the Thailand-based Central Retail Corp which is led by CEO and president Tos Chirathivat, it has expanded to also own Copenhagen-based Illum; KaDeWe in Berlin; Alsterhaus in Hamburg and Oberpollinger in Munich. Total turnover in Europe amounts to €1.2 billion. The Italian operation with its 11 stores generated sales of €615 million in 2016 and has been growing in the single digits year on year.

2017 was been a very busy year for the group. It celebrated its 100th anniversary with an exhibition called “LR 100-Rinascente. Stories of Innovation” at the Royal Palace in Milan. Finally, in October, it opened its new flagship store in Rome, a sprawling 14,000-sq.-meter compound that cost €250 million (of which €50 million shouldered by the brands) and took 11 years to build. It’s located on Via del Tritone; the Trevi fountain and the Spanish steps are close by. Decades ago, the imposing mansion was home to L’Unità, the official news organ of Italy’s Communist Party.

Photo: Rinascente

Radice’s idea of a department store asan integral element of urban life can be understood strolling around and moving up and down the eight floors in Rome. Little surprises prevent the visitor from getting bored. Behind the main entrance, the customer doesn’t find himself surrounded by perfumes, but gets immediately immersed into the world of luxury. He’s greeted by Céline, Fendi, Marni and Louis Vuitton where a double-decker airplane is dangling from the ceiling. Prada has installed a “Trick-robot” that reminds film enthusiasts of the ‘80s Hollywood comedy Short Circuit.

Over 800 brands are present in Rinascente Rome. However, not every single speck of space is used for selling. In the basement, an original viaduct from the time of the Roman Empire has been restored. It’s illuminated by a light show that tells its 2,000-year-old story. On the upper floor, a food market offers various dishes, from Brazilian sushi to Neapolitan pizza, that one can enjoy sitting on the terrace with a breathtaking view over the Eternal city, St. Peter’s Basilica included.

There’s no doubt that Rinascente in Rome is a luxury temple. Still, that doesn’t mean that it targets just the luxury customer. Whereas many monobrand stores with their heavy doors and muscular security personal keep the just curious from entering, at Rinascente, everybody is welcome, regardless of his or her purchasing power.  “It doesn’t matter if someone buys a pen for €1 or a handbag for €15,000. Everybody is treated the same,” says Radice. “Our smile is identical.”

The Italian group’s conviction that luxury is democratic is reflected in the assortment. In Rome, you can buy small design items. In Milan, in the new Annex area, more affordable sportswear is presented. That comprises not only the megabrands Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, but more fashion-oriented sporty brands such as Koral, Sapopa and Monreal London.

“In Rome, we have opted for a more traditional fashion offering. However, we’re pondering over the question whether to add sportswear brands in the future,” says Monica Marsilli, buying and merchandising director, Rinascente. “We don’t intend to reserve a whole floor for sportswear. It’s more about completing our assortment in order to catch a strong market trend.”

We want to attract eight millions visitors a year. As much as the Louvre.

Vittorio Radice, vice chairman, Rinascente group

No hectic, no jumping to conclusions. Whereas other department stores already have embraced e-commerce, Rinascente is still hesitant and begs its time. For Radice and his team, at the moment, the Internet is not more than an ancillary instrument to stretch a customer’s journey from the physical store into the Web. The Italians have launched an umbrella brand, Aux Villes du Monde, or AVDM. It’s an alliance of several members of the Central Retail Corp. Together they publish a city guide in form of a digital magazine and a newsletter.

The innovative highlight of AVDM is a concierge service. It gives customers the possibility to get in touch with a personal shopper via messaging apps such as WhatsApp. The personal shopper checks whether a product is available. After a quick payment procedure, the package is shipped. The concierge service is for free. However, the access is limited–first come, first served is the rule.

Rinascente's sunset bar in Rome
Photo: Rinascente
Rinascente's sunset bar in Rome

The results in Milan have been promising so far. According to Rinascente’s CEO Pierluigi Cocchini, hundreds of transactions were finalized during the first weeks. Out of all requests  done via WhatsApp, 15% had resulted in a purchase. “The most dominant product category is accessories. They account for 80%. Especially women’s’ bags are in high demand,” says Cocchini, who took over in June from Alberto Baldan, who is now in charge of Grandi Stazioni, which manages Italy’s 13 largest train stations.

Rinascente praises itself for long-term thinking. As a benchmark for the new flagship in Rome, vice president Radice doesn’t choose another department store, but the Louvre. “We want to attract eight million visitors a year. As much as the Louvre,” he says. “We have now turned on the air conditioning. And we won’t switch it off in the next 100 years.”

Find out more about the stars and shapers of our Italian ISSUE in the brand new print magazine or check the digital magazine here.

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