The hottest category in retail today isn’t technology, even though the Apple Store has changed the face of modern retailing.
It’s not apparel, although Zara, H&M and Uniqlo have all put the ‘fast’ into fashion.
And it’s not sports and leisure, aside from the fact that Nike is amazingly innovative in both its many formats and its use of digital.
No, when I look around the world, the category that consistently gets my retail juices going… is food.
From street food to fine dining, no other area of retail has such an insatiable appetite to do things differently. Perhaps it was ever thus, since the first caveman took a char-grilled mammoth steak off the fire and traded it for a fur-lined loincloth.
Here are just a few of the food concepts that have taken my fancy this year:
Eataly, New York City
This is a 4000sqm shrine to Italian gastronomy that just oozes authenticity.
The first thing that strikes you as you walk through the doors is the sound of Italian accents. Eataly has something for everyone, from genuine Panini and pizza to white tablecloth dining, and fresh produce and grocery as well.
Everywhere you look there is a story to be told or food theatre to be savoured, and it’s all delightfully real. I love the fresh pasta made before your eyes, with the blackboard inscription: “and this is where the magic happens”.
Calbee Plus, Tokyo
This is a lesson in how to create a queue. Calbee is a brand of potato chips, and the concept shop I saw in a Tokyo mall celebrated the provenance of the product.
The Calbee Plus store followed the production process from the raw potato, through the slicing, dicing, frying, and final presentation of fresh potato chips. Customers were mesmerised.
Rhythm Kitchen, London
A prime example of the street food trend that is sweeping the world, from food trucks to shopping centres.
Rhythm Kitchen is Caribbean street food and it sits alongside Indi-Go Street Food of India, Lotus Leaf Fresh Chinese Street Food, and Pho Vietnamese Street Food, in the wildly successful new Westfield Stratford mall.
Rhythm Kitchen is fresh and fantastic; the food is grilled before your eyes, and the concept comes with a warning: “chickens will be jerked on site”.
Hotel Chocolat, London
Billed as a British cocoa grower and chocolatier, no two Hotel Chocolat retail environments are quite the same.
Its Roast & Conch store off Covent Garden features a conch machine, which mixes cocoa butter within chocolate and polishes the particles until velvety smooth.
In terms of provenance, Hotel Chocolat boasts its own cocoa plantation in Saint Lucia (an island country in the Caribbean), and a real life resort there where, among other delights, you can enjoy a CocoaJuvenate chocolate body scrub.
Maille Mustard, Paris
A store that takes tradition and gives it a contemporary kick to showcase one of the world’s most famous mustard brands.
The merchandising is bright and colourful, and the mustard aficionado can purchase a pottery Maille jar and have it filled with the mustard of the month.
There are some great local examples of fresh ideas in Australian food retail.
In the world of mainstream quick service restaurants, Domino’s has led the pack with its smartphone ordering app that became a nice little business in its own right.
McDonald’s in Australia has also broken new ground worldwide with its contemporary store designs and ideas originated here, such as McCafe.
In terms of new concepts, Snag Stand at Westfield Sydney has captured the imagination and stomach of many a retail observer with its trademark haute dogs.
And as reported in Inside Retail last week, the venerable Muffin Break has had a makeover in recent times**. (Love to hear about your favourite food concepts – drop me a line.)
Great food retail can teach us all a thing or two about product newness and excitement, innovation in presentation, and how to make people part of the show.
Open your mouth, open your mind, and there are lessons to be learned.
* Jon Bird is CEO of specialist retail marketing agency IdeaWorks and Chairman of Octomedia, publisher of Inside Retail. Email. Blog: www.newretailblog.com Twitter: @thetweetailer
** Disclosure: Snag Stand and Muffin Break are both clients of IdeaWorks.