In a time where online sales are dominating the retail industry, you’d be forgiven to think that hyper speciality shops are on the decline, but that couldn’t be further from the truth in Berlin. With our online shopping experience becoming more faceless every day, people are seeking out specialists. Supporting businesses who know exactly what they’re talking about. The experts, the people who live and breathe the product, service or craft.
Online shopping has streamlined the retail experience but has it made it better? We’ve all been on hold to eBay, Amazon, or any other retail customer service line and that’s if you’re lucky. Many online retailers now only like to communicate with their customers through emails or social media channels, something that can be frustrating for a customer who needs to speak to an actual human being and one who knows the product inside and out.
However, for a good few years now Berlin has championed the specialist stores. Some shops sell nothing but buttons, another that only sells liquorice and one that only restores typewriters are typical.
When stores specialize in something, they become known as the place to go for that specific product or service. Online and department stores have a bit of the ‘jack of all trades and master of none’ vibe about them, but specialized stores are the master of their craft.
When the digital revolution began, online industries were quick to make retail as streamlined as possible. Smooth, seamless payment options, fast delivery, and free returns but while focussing on the logistics, they seem to have forgotten the knowledge of what they’re selling. This is a great model for people who don’t like fuss, don’t really like engaging with people and just want the product as quickly as possible but there’s a type of customer out there who needs a more personal approach. They need the knowledge, to create a connection with the person selling to them and to build a relationship for when they need to use the service again.
One shop in Berlin called Antstore is the worlds first specialist ant shop, and you guessed it, they sell nothing but ants and ant related products. The owner is a super passionate ant enthusiast who became frustrated when he couldn’t find a pet store that could help him with building his own ant house. They lacked expertise and enthusiasm for insects, so he set about building his brand and opening the store. He considered branching out to stick insects but quickly found out that branching out means more education, more time spent training staff and more money flying out the store, so he held to specializing in ants only. Owner, Martin Sebesta quotes “These days, if you want to keep your head above the water as a medium-sized business, you can’t afford not to specialize.”
Another store owner and ‘retiree’ Bernd Moser opens up his typewriter repair shops for 5 hours a day, five days a week. With a wealth of knowledge behind him from his 60-year career as an office machine mechanic, he realized that people couldn’t learn all that he knows from a 10-minute Youtube tutorial. He’s snowed under with typewriters that need to be repaired and customers understand that he’s the guy to go to. Imagine buying a typewriter off eBay and then needing to send it back to be repaired? It just doesn’t happen and to find someone like Moser is like finding a needle in a haystack. Typewriters may not be as popular as they used to be, but there’s still plenty of trade out there for Moser to get his hands on.
Garment engineer Silvia Wald set up shop when she realized how accessible and resilient business was for the hyper-specialists. Opening her store in an old butchers shop, she decided to design and make decorative cushions in the shape of legs of pork, chains of sausages and bacon rashers. She took advice from her hyper specialist neighbours and stuck to one theme. The shop has now been open for ten years, and business is booming with space is an excellent advertisement for made to commission work.
So, is hyper-specializing in the future of retail? As consumers, we’re becoming more aware of where our products come from. We want to know which country, which factory or farm and if the staff are being paid a fair wage. We want to talk to people who are passionate about their craft and who already have the answer before you have the question. This authenticity and transparency within business is really starting to boom. Consumers missing that one on one connection with the person they’re buying from. Sometimes you don’t need a person who has a competent grasp of many skills, you just need someone who is outstanding at one.
In 2020 the pandemic has dealt a crushing blow to many businesses both on the high street and online. Non-essential businesses including many well-known chains were forced to close due to government rules. But large numbers of UK retailers were struggling even before the lockdown was enforced. As a business owner it is crucial to adapt and change direction when there is a requirement to do so. Look for specialist services, specialist products and react to shifts in the market.