Convergence: The Next Big Trend in Retail

The other night I was researching Tokyo in preparation for an upcoming trip and came across Salon &, a new designer hair salon, coffee stand, and gallery space about to open in Yutenji, a neighborhood in Meguro ward. Although not a familiar concept, I have to admit it made sense – the idea of a hair salon also being a coffee shop and an art gallery. (It made far more sense than eating BBQ in a zantai suit, which apparently is also a thing in Tokyo right now.) But seriously, after reading Salon &, I kept thinking about the concept of “&.”

Lately it seems everyone is seeking to be an “&,” suggesting a trend toward convergence. Convergence is a concept taken from biology, the tendency of animals and plants to evolve toward similar characteristics. There is a great RadioLab podcast which illustrates the concept using lightning bugs. In 1976, in the mangroves of Thailand, researchers observed lightning bugs blinking in silent unison and wondered how and why this happened. They took a sampling back to their hotel room, turned off the lights and waited. At first the lightning bugs lit randomly, then, out of all the chaos, a small faction began to light in unison, gradually growing until the entire group was synchronized.

In the chaos of our busier-than-ever, overstimulated lives perhaps we are gravitating toward trends that represent a similar idea. Call it convergence, a blurring of lines, or simply “&” thinking, we as a culture seem to be moving in this direction.

Consider gender, one of the simplest and most relatable illustrations of two discrete groups. This month, Selfridges, a leading department store in London, launched Agender, a gender neutral shopping environment that offers unisex styles and also did away with gender-specific mannequins in store windows. Designers such as Givenchy, Stella McCartney, and Hermès are including gender-neutral items in their collections and using the same models to show both male and female clothing. In our research with Millennials and Gen Z, we’re seeing a slight blurring of the gender lines both attitudinally and behaviorally as well, indicating less strict associations with one gender or the other, which ultimately translates into open-mindedness, creativity, and optimism for the future.

Consider retail. If you’re not omni-channel, you’re nowhere, I read this week. An omni-channel approach is really just another instance of worlds converging. Once upon a time there were brick-and-mortar stores and there were online stores. Now Amazon is delivering and Banana Republic offers Reserve in Store. This past November, NastyGal, a buzzworthy online-only retailer, opened its first brick-and-mortar on Melrose in LA – one of the first examples of a reverse strategy. A similarly curious case is LINE (an app which allows it’s billions of users to exchange texts, images, and video, and conduct free VoIP conversations and video conferences on digital), which  launched a pop-up shop in Times Square this past December. It is no longer enough to offer physical products in a store OR have a web presence – strategies are converging to offer all things, all ways, all the time. And rightfully so, because consumers are not only showrooming and webrooming, but everything in-between as well (and apparently expecting apps to sell them physical representations of virtual ideas).

Further evidence for the blurring of lines between an in-store and an online experience is the recent trend toward fastlining. Starbucks, Taco Bell, Chipotle and Subway have all introduced mobile order apps, that allow customers to order and pay remotely, just dropping in to pick up. Is this eat-in, takeaway, or drive-thru 2.0? You decide. And now, Starbucks is making news for potentially adding a delivery component to their mobile order app.

Convergence is happening in style and fashion as well. From runways to malls, casual styles and professional styles are melding. Casual attire and workout wear are crossing over. Women wear Lululemon leggings with boots to the office, Bloomingdale’s is selling high-heeled sneakers, and Club Monaco has suede basketball shorts on the front stage. Shoppers are demanding versatility from the items they buy to meet their busy, multi-dimensional lives – which means they need to be able to wear the same clothes to work and to dinner afterward. High-low, as popularized by Marissa Webb and Jenna Lyons is really just a blurring of the lines between discrete categories of clothing, is it not?

The tech category has been converging since phones became computers, computers became phones, and laptops became phablets. Instagram now does video and YouTube now offers streaming music.

Consider transportation. Not too long ago, choices for a ride were public transportation (shared) or a taxi (private). Then came Uber and Lyft. We are even seeing convergence within this category as Lyft recently began offering Lyft Line, a ride-sharing version of Lyft that feels like a perfect mash-up of a taxi and the bus.

There are examples of convergence in nearly every category. As consumers face an ever-increasing array of choices, channels, and options available at the tap of a screen, they feel the excitement of limitless possibilities, but also a sense of confusion and overwhelm. Brands are beginning to recognize this and create products and services that conglomerate offerings and meet multiple needs simultaneously, thus communicating to customers that they understand them and their lifestyle. The critical component however, is that the “&” offering absolutely must address a real consumer need and offer a compelling and clear consumer benefit. Converging two offerings becomes nothing more than a novelty unless it solves for an existing tension that exists as a result of having to choose between two competing sets of benefits.

Looking forward, convergence almost certainly represents a net positive for consumers as it offers increased convenience and empowerment and forces brands to think creatively about how to reconcile tensions with “&” thinking.

Who wouldn’t want coffee and art with their haircut?