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Shopping nostalgia: The opportunity for a retail renaissance

By Guest Contributor


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Filson store in New York Credits: Melvin van Tholl

The Christmas season is upon us again and with it comes the annual festive feeling full of nostalgic vibes. But even outside the winter season, nostalgia proves to be an eager shopping emotion. You may recognise it as a (design) trend in many product lines or as the theme of new, hip shopping experiences. And it has been making a steady march on the high street for some time now: from small towns in the Netherlands to global cities like New York, Tokyo and London. Where did this phenomenon come from and, more importantly, what can you do with it?

What is nostalgia and where does it come from?

According to dictionaries, the meaning of nostalgia ranges from "homesickness" to "longing for a romanticised past". In the Oxford Dictionary, however, it has an additional meaning: "Something done or presented in order to evoke feelings of nostalgia". With that, it is also an external stimulus, evoking nostalgic feelings in you. And as such, it lends itself as a rewarding theme for the appearance of products and the decoration of shops. Think, for instance, of all those brown glass bottles and jars at niche cosmetics stores or in the sustainable lines of drugstores. A great example is Aesop's shops and products. An Australian cosmetics brand with an eye for sustainable and aesthetic values. Every Aesop shop in the world is unique and inspired by a touch of nostalgia, but in a minimalist-futuristic design. The shopping experience unfolds as a sensory journey, with the interior scent holding a slightly mineral smell rather than chemically fruity or floral, like some competitors. The signature smell together with the (walnut) wood furnishings and brown glassware spontaneously evoke the nostalgic feeling, and with it the deeper association that you will find quality products here. Just like in the old days at the trusted and expert pharmacist's. Clearly, nostalgia presents itself as the emotional and neurological messenger of quality, craft and durability with high-quality care! All values that fit seamlessly with the needs of the modern and conscious consumer. And none of this has to be stuffy. For instance, Aesop's minimalist-futuristic design refers to the innovative nature of the brand.

Aesop in Utrechtsestraat Amsterdam Credits: Melvin van Tholl

Apart from being an external stimulus, nostalgia can also be triggered internally in our emotional world. This is as a counter-reaction to our own feelings of insecurity, which are currently triggered in abundance by the many rapid changes and crises around us. From the primary need to keep a grip on our lives, we fall back on what we already know. Especially if we cherish warm feelings about it. In that respect, nostalgia fulfils the need for security and safety. We can see this in the rise of retro store concepts, such as hobby shops selling products with a 1950s retro design, or record shops in cosy basements with reissued LPs from the 1970s and 1980s. The toy brand Lego has also been targeting adults in recent years with their retro marketing, including launching a special 90s nostalgia line. Witness the huge crowds and ringing cash registers in all these stores. They have definitely struck the right chord with consumers with nostalgia.

Nostalgia in fashion

Fashion retailers have also tapped into nostalgia as an attractive shopping mood. A growing number even deploy it as a strategic tool, rigging their entire shopping experience in a nostalgic atmosphere. Often in combination with another distinctive theme, as Aesop does by combining nostalgia and innovation. For inspiration, here is a selection of international shopping streets, with a “trip down memory lane” content.

Nostalgia x vintage

This combination looks like a match made in heaven. Research by ABN Amro shows that the Dutch vintage clothing trade is flourishing. While one in 10 clothing shops have disappeared from the high street since 2020, the number of vintage shops has actually increased by 11 percent, to 669. And while much of it is transacted through online platforms, there are also some physical shops that are well worth a visit, like Oude Liefde [‘Old Love’] in the small town of Woudrichem. Here, you can buy vintage, antiques and kitsch. A special shop with a special story, as it is run by Coby Frankenhuizen and her old love René. To keep with the theme, Coby scours town and country looking for special items that were once also very popular. Alongside these old things from the distant past, they also sell new stuff. To quote Coby: "It's all about making our visitors happy. And that happens so often here, people pick up childhood memories from what we sell." The experience and products in Oude Liefde are more of the 'lived-in' vintage category, and that has its authentic charms. The powdery scent of amber cubes (also good against moths) at the entrance gets you entranced and invites you to explore all the nooks and crannies with hidden treasures. That is also the strength of nostalgic boutiques that often have a refined sensory experience that takes you on a time-travelling journey, making a physical visit to this shop a special outing.

Oude Liefde in Woudrichem Credits: Melvin van Tholl

Nostalgia x modern ambacht

In London's Seven Dials Soho district, you'll find Nappa Dori. Here, nostalgia and craft come together in a modern studio setting that tells the story of how India's Gautam Sinha pays tribute to Indian leather craft. The clothes, leather cases and accessories evoke the feeling of treating yourself to a luxurious oriental train ride. It is hard to leave the shop without memorabilia, however small, such as a scented candle that once again evokes nostalgic feelings of returning home.

Nappa Dori in Londen Credits: Melvin van Tholl

Nostalgia x sustainability

From a nostalgic shopping experience, the hot topic of sustainability can also receive a warm and casual welcome from consumers. Even with those that are not as conscious about the topic. Filson - an American outdoor brand - proves this with their shop and website, offering an experience that emphasises quality, craft and heritage. The brand has been in business since 1897 and mainly appeals to that indestructible Western feeling (see photo at the beginning of this article). To illustrate that quality and durability is in their DNA, they have a standard service that all Filson-made gear is repaired throughout its lifespan.

Nostalgia x luxury

Major international brands also see salvation in nostalgia and even build up flagships on that feeling, like at Ralph Lauren Men's Flagship. On Madison Avenue, you enter through a doorway that transports you to an 80’s luxury society club of heavy dark wood, Persian rugs and velvet suits. With many rooms or lounges, this is the ideal place to spend an afternoon putting together your outfit with a drink on the house. Old-fashioned hospitality also reigns supreme here, as ample time is taken for customers to meet their needs with all due care.

Ralph Lauren Madison Avenue in New York Credits: Melvin van Tholl

Into the future with nostalgia

Many (fashion) retailers still struggle with the major challenges in the high street. Capitalising on nostalgia can unleash a retail renaissance, provided there is an authentic connection to key consumer values in execution. These include durability, quality and security. In this respect, it is also advisable to combine nostalgia with a theme, as in the previous examples, making you stand out as a brand. Shopping nostalgia, by the way, refers not only to nostalgia as being an attractive shopping mood, but also to the nostalgia of good old-fashioned shopping. As in our collective memory, through which shopping is seen as entertainment in its own right and shopkeepers also enjoy receiving many enthusiastic visitors. Shopping nostalgia therefore does not stand for clinging to the old, but more for cherishing old qualities that are worth taking into the new era.

For the upcoming festive season, I wish you joy in creating beautiful new nostalgic moments that will help you grow in the new year.

This is a contribution by Melvin van Tholl, Customer Experience Architect, of BLOODY BELIEVERS. The creative-strategic agency that helps brands and companies develop ground-breaking solutions in their customer experience. He does this for companies both in the Netherlands and abroad. In this series, he takes you into the wonderful world of the consumer, with lessons to make your company future-proof from the customer experience as well.