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Making Ssense: a vision of retail futures in Old Montreal

Earlier this month, Drapers took a trip to Canada to view luxury etailer Ssense’s vision of bricks-and-mortar retail’s future.

In the picturesque old town of Montreal in Canada, behind a gothic 19th-century façade, lies the cutting edge, hyper-modern store of Canadian directional luxury ecommerce retailer Ssense.

As traditional bricks-and-mortar stores across the globe are struggling and retailers seek to redefine the physical retail experience, Ssense Montréal is an example of the potential next generation of shops, and combines a personalised shopping experience with technology, in a similar style Matchesfashion’s 5 Carlos Place in London, which opened in London last month.

The five-storey, 13,000 sq ft space opened in May 2018. Its elegant gothic exterior is a sharp contrast to the interior. Designed by David Chipperfield Architects, raw, charcoal grey concrete walls and floors give it a brutalist, minimalist aesthetic, while brushed steel fittings and accents lend the space the air of a high-tech bank vault.

Although the Ssense ecommerce platform sells more than 400 brands, the in-store offer is small and curated, and labels such as Off-White, Balenciaga and JW Anderson appear in dedicated installation spaces. When Drapers visits, for example, Kwaidan Editions womenswear is displayed in a log cabin, complete with moth-eaten patterned curtains.

Alongside the shopping tools, the store also features a dedicated exhibitions space, where guest designers and artists showcase their designs. The space launched with a Prada capsule collection, and Virgil Abloh and Moncler have run takeovers of the space.

The design is underpinned by a sophisticated approach to technology, striving for the ultimate omnichannel experience. As well as being open to browse, the store operates an appointments system. Customers can select products to try on in store through a specially designed website ahead of an appointment with a personal shopper. More than 20,000 luxury products are available to try within 24 hours of scheduling an appointment.

Designed on a grid system, the store is extremely versatile. Areas can be easily converted for retail, events or installations and lighting or electric displays can be moved almost anywhere within the store.

Its vertical lift module – a shelving and picking system usually used in warehouses – serves all five floors. The automated lift and retrieval system allows for greater accuracy in recording stock levels, and speedy collection of customer orders. 


Krishna nikhil ssense

Krishna nikhilssense

Krishna Nikhil

Store insight: Krishna Nikhil, chief merchandising officer, Ssense

Why did you choose to launch a store?

It has been conceived as an experience layer on top of our ecommerce platform. We wanted to build a space that brings Ssense’s unique digital experience, which melds culture and commerce, to the physical arena, while also creating a physical presence that allows us to engage with – and learn from – the community around us.

Ssense Montréal leverages our infrastructure, digital capabilities and cultural perspectives to transcend the definition of physical retail.

You can go online, select items from our online assortment of over 20,000 items, and book an appointment to try the items on at the space with a personal consultation with our staff. Or you can visit without an appointment and discover the five floors of merchandising and cultural programming.

It blends the culture, commerce and community inherent in the ecommerce site and extends this experience and interchange into physical space.

Tell us about the space itself

Ssense Montréal is the first building in Canada designed by David Chipperfield Architects and we collaborated to essentially create a building within a building.

The original structure was first built in the 19th century and we preserved the heritage and facade by constructing a concrete structure within it. Despite it being concrete, the interior is highly flexible.

It’s designed on a sixty-centimetre grid that houses a hidden convertible socket system on the floors and ceiling that can transform between mechanical, technical, and functional elements. We’ve also optimised our back of house by installing a vertical lift module to store and fulfill customer orders.

Why focus on an appointments model?

At our previous Old Montreal location [which closed in September 2018], customers developed strong relationships with our stylists, and started to request items from our online catalogue to be sent to the boutique to try on. Because of our store team’s ability to support these requests, and our ability to fulfil them through our warehouse based in Montreal, this came to represent a large portion of the boutique’s sales.

This was foundational in building the commercial model of our new flagship space around appointment-based shopping and developing a robust technological backend to support it.

The data and intelligence we have accrued through our online business further supports the appointments through an expanded assortment of inventory that we can suggest before to the appointments and provide in store – available for impulse additions and walk-in clients.

The model liberates the real estate of our retail space to be used for other purposes, such as exhibitions, performances or events, as it is no longer beholden to primarily housing the assortment of inventory necessary to drive sales.

What has the response been like to the store so far?

Since opening in May, we have seen positive results in terms of traffic, sales and appointments. The appointments model has been extremely well received by customers – we have as many as 77 appointments in one day.

More than 60% of all appointments convert into a sale and result in follow-up appointment bookings. Almost 50% of customers who have shopped at the store have also purchased online. On average, clients spend 52 minutes in the store.



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