Great retail is a piece of cake

Is there anything truly original in this world? The TED Radio Hour podcast on America’s NPR asked that question recently and answered with a definitive “no”. “As far as we know, the Big Bang is original,” observed TED speaker Kirby Ferguson. “And everything else is derivative,” chipped in host Guy Raz, completing the thought.

And so it goes for retail. The idea of selling cupcakes is hardly a new notion, but recently I saw two fresh takes on an age-old concept. Call them “Retail Remixes” to (appropriately) borrow a turn of phrase from Ferguson, who directed the web movie “Everything is a Remix”.

Retail Remix #1 is “Baked By Melissa”, a massively popular 13-store, Manhattan-based chain. So what’s the twist? Well these are irresistibly cute mini-cupcakes, so small that they give the shopper instant permission to indulge. And these bite-size morsels come in a vast variety of flavors, from the signature tie-dye, to the current “Mini of the Month” Root Beer Float. They are great for gifts and “guilt-free” for personal consumption. There’s always a reason to return too, with limited-edition seasonal variations like summer’s Key Lime Pie. For orders of 300 or more (a surprisingly easy number to reach for corporates), you can even create your own cupcake and have it added to the menu. The eponymous Melissa was fired from her job in advertising in 2008, and that kick-started her will to do what she really loved. Melissa first opened a hole-in-the-wall in the SoHo district of Manhattan and quickly built Baked By Melissa to what is now a multi-million dollar empire (well, mini-empire anyway).

Retail Remix #2 is Sprinkles “Cupcake ATM”, opposite Bloomingdales. What looks like a cash machine dispenses moist cupcakes rather than dry greenbacks. Swipe your credit card, punch in your order and watch the screen as your cupcake is magically served through the hole in the wall. This idea works because the Cupcake ATM puts the fun into functional – taking two things we thought we knew and mashing them up to form something different.

That’s the point. Even the genius who reinvented electronic retail in the Apple Stores understood the power of inspiration. In 1996, Steve Jobs referenced one of the greats: “Picasso had a saying – ‘good artists copy; great artists steal’ – and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.” In fact the Apple Stores took their cues from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel – hence the Concierge on the door, and the unswerving commitment to service.

So great retail doesn’t need to fundamentally break new ground. What it has to do though is to provide a fresh spin on a concept – break the pattern by getting jaded shoppers to look at, and experience something in a whole new light. So get remixing. P.S. For every success, there is also a failure. New York-based Crumbs Bakery has just announced they are closing all their stores – 48 locations to zero overnight. As The Washington Post reported – “Maybe it was the décor…Not cute. Not fun… Or maybe the cupcakes were too darn big”!

Jon Bird is Managing Director – Global of Labstore, Y&R’s worldwide retail and shopper marketing network. Email: Twitter: @thetweetailer. Blog:

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