Last week, I found myself in an inevitable position. After barely two weeks in Spain, I had gained a new duffle bag large enough and full enough to make me not only question my own sanity but the airline’s checked baggage allowance policy. I was bittersweetly traveling back home, but first I had to ensure that my new purchases would also be able to fly back with me.

The primary purpose of the trip was to participate in an intensive study of flamenco. Yet even after many hours of dancing each day, I still found time to enjoy the local food, drink, sites…and shopping. I’ve taken flamenco lessons for about five years and it has become a long-term passion. Over the years, I’ve purchased flamenco shoes, skirts, accessories and instruments — including peinetas, abanicos, mantónes, castañuelas and a cajón — primarily online, but occasionally supplemented by a local artisan or a ‘re-purposed’ find. My classmates and teachers have also acquired most of their flamenco provisions by these means, as it is not realistic to think we could walk into a local dance or music store in the U.S. and assume that it would have a stocked assortment of items unique to the art of flamenco or that the staff would be even vaguely familiar with these highly specialized items.

However, during my trip to Spain, I discovered many niche retailers specializing in flamenco apparel and accessories. My travel mates and I spent a lot of time perusing stores, and trading feedback on what looked best and what retail locations must be visited. For the first time, I had a variety of options in front of me and could try on and test items before purchasing, get immediate recommendations and advice, and was even offered free alterations. As we walked through the city, many times someone would spot a potentially interesting store and before they could finish, “Do you want to…” our small shopping group had collectively shifted direction. Even self-confessed ‘anti-shoppers’ were in on the hunt. All of this created a perfect storm: many well-thought-out purchases along with impulse buys, all equally treasured and all surviving the long trip across the Atlantic — in case you were wondering.

Now that I am back home, slowly wading through and organizing my wares, I cannot help but reflect back to our experience and how it relates to current retailing trends. Our experience was greatly fueled by the fact that we (finally) had access to products that we normally only see on our computer or mobile screens. Additionally, we had the opportunity to discuss our purchases with experts who worked at the store, many times the individual who actually created the item. Most of these stores were small family-owned and run. This allowed us to develop connections, trading contact information with the promise of keeping in touch. Finally, I will admit that there were feelings of “must-have” shared by many in our group: when or where else would we have this kind of array, access or opportunity? A lot of this reasoning may seem counterintuitive to the dominance of eCommerce and the popularity of discount stores, both cited as signals for the decline of customer loyalty and increasing inconsistent consumer behaviors. Personally, I found myself thinking many times that this was all going against my normal shopping behaviors. But there are some logical explanations to why my experience in Spain was so impactful and its relevance to larger, traditional retailers.

Unique and Focused Experience

According to the Houston Chronicle, “While niche retailers may not appeal to broad groups of consumers, they can meet the special demands of the smaller groups they target. Trends in niche retail run counter to trends in large, general retailers that sell all types of goods and attempt to reach as many customers as possible.” Niche and specialty retailers are thriving, while we continue to see mall-dependent retailers like department stores struggle. “In a vertical where product selections are often highly personalized, niche retailers have an inherent edge over big-box competitors, because they are able to give customers a unique and focused experience.” I’ve recently stumbled across three different stores focused on olive oil, beef jerky and vinegar, respectively. I remember thinking, “How (and why) are they staying in business?” Again, the answer may seem foreign to those who have no interest in these products, but according to the store operators, they have experienced warm receptions from consumers. These items are in every grocer’s standard assortment, yet the highly unique experience provided by these niche retailers justifies the much higher price points of the products – and consumers are willing to pay for it.

Leveraging the Physical Environment & Location 

Even the physical environments where we shop are strengthening the specialty store. Developers are opting to overhaul existing structures, carving them into smaller shops, restaurants and dwellings, like the popular Krog Street Market and Ponce City Market in my town, as opposed to building pristine retail centers – the norm only a few years ago. These types of markets provide easy access to pedestrians, bicycles and cars, and typically feature a variety of stores and experiences; however, specialty stores overwhelmingly occupy these facilities. JCPenney, Macy’s, Nordstrom and others have been increasingly capitalizing on the “shop-within-a-shop” concept for a few years, and the strategy has proven to be successful for both the department stores and the specialty brands. Finally, regarding the virtual shopping channels, in a somewhat shocking turn of events, Amazon’s business model allows niche retailers to flourish – providing a huge channel for smaller retailers and brands to use not only its online listings to attract customers, but also its physical infrastructure and logistics. This strategy enables rival merchants to collectively generate almost half of the eCommerce giant’s website orders.

Store Associate Expertise 

In each of the flamenco shops we visited in Spain, all the sales associates had intimate top-of-mind knowledge of their inventory. As I mentioned, many times we directly interacted with a owner or family member, who was empowered to make transactional decisions and recommendations. The distinctiveness, craftsmanship and quality were evident in the garments and accessories we considered. Moreover, the shopkeepers provided helpful advice on how to wear each piece, specialized for each person – usually without inquiring or prodding. This personal expertise not only deepened my own knowledge of flamenco apparel, but it also provided an even greater connection and respect to the artistic abilities and styles of professional flamenco dancers. We soaked up stories about and pictures of the dancers who had previously visited, and in many ways hoped our purchases would improve our own abilities.

We’ve mentioned in several Point of Views and blog posts that traditional brick-and-mortar retail is still very important – despite the ubiquity of online shopping options. I hold true to this tenet, as shopping is still very much an in-person, social event for the vast majority of people. Retailers increasingly understand that the in-store customer experience must be strategically intertwined into their overall omnichannel strategy to take advantage of this social aspect of shopping, and this means upping the ante when it comes to training and educating store associates on deep product knowledge as well as exceptional customer service skills. Developing and strengthening relationships between store associates and customers also deepens customer loyalty.

I am excited to try out my new flamenco apparel, partly because it’s all so beautiful and unique and more so because it reminds me of my amazing time in Spain, including a shopping experience that I truly cherished. OLE.

Photographic evidence that I actually took classes too

Courtney