Retail Series Part 2: Touring Chicago’s flagships

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Author: Ryan Emerick

Chicago retail flagshipsIf you were to walk Michigan Avenue—Chicago’s Magnificent Mile—you would notice the unique stores that line the busy street. In comparison to most retail spaces, the stores on Michigan Avenue seem to be bigger, brighter and fancier, with lavish window displays, iconic architecture, cutting-edge technology and specialty restaurants.

“The flagship store is an entirely different experience compared to a mall or store in the suburbs,” says James Cook, JLL Americas Director of Research, Retail. The term “flagship” refers to the lead ship in a fleet. Often set in a prime urban location like the Magnificent Mile, a flagship store is considered to be the leader in its fleet of stores—a showcase of the very best the brand has to offer.

JLL Retail Research recently analyzed the features of 145 flagship stores across four U.S. markets: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. They identified specific characteristics that set flagship stores apart from fleet stores and differences between flagship stores across retail categories: luxury and luxury lite, high to middle priced, low priced and discount and other.

I toured six Chicago flagship stores—Restoration Hardware, Uniqlo, Ralph Lauren, AT&T, Burberry and Under Armour—to determine if there were marked differences in flagship stores of different cities. More specifically, to find out: what sets the Chicago flagship stores apart from those in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco?

Restoration Hardware – 1300 N. Dearborn Pkwy

Chicago retail flagships

As I climbed out of the taxi I thought the driver took me to the wrong address. Stately mansions lined the quiet, leafy street populated by schoolchildren and elderly couples with dogs. Compared to its neighbors the only conspicuous feature of the Restoration Hardware flagship store was the two valet attendants out front. Otherwise, the store could pass for a home.

The interior too retained the feel of a residential space. People lounged on sectionals and chaises with laptops and coffees in hand. Dim lighting, open windows and contemporary art pieces lent an intimacy rare for a retail store. Behind a couple drinking mimosas hung an attractive acrylic. Something I could get my mom for Christmas, or so I thought. The canvas was an original piece priced at $55,000!

My surprise also stems from the store’s blurred distinction between commercial and residential: as I sipped pour-over coffee from a plush chair at the in-store Three Arts Café I noticed discreet price tags that hung from my chair and table; in-store designers and architects convened with customers at grand dining room tables; and the faucets on sale weren’t just for show—water flowed when I turned the knob. The result is an entirely different shopping experience: I felt as if I could live, work and play in style at the 70,000 square-foot Gold Coast mansion.

Uniqlo – 830 N. Michigan Ave.

Chicago retail flagships

In striking contrast to the subdued elegance of Restoration Hardware is this crowded Japanese import. The fast-casual fashion retailer echoes the spirit of contemporary Tokyo with flashy lights, electronic music and enormous escalators that crisscross the 60,000 square-foot, multi-storied space. Mirrors that span the store augment the motion and heavy foot traffic and disoriented, I admit I collided with one such mirror upon arrival.

Even the mannequins move: 500 of them spin in display cases with the latest trends. Print ads are replaced with screens depicting models in motion. On one screen, a model bounced down some steps to demonstrate the easy movement of a pair of pants for sale on a nearby rack. The Uniqlo app on my smartphone informed me that the men’s section was on the top floor and provided a map for easy navigation.

By making itself readily accessible—through the app and the deployment of 400 sales associates—Uniqlo attempts to provide a custom experience often reserved for luxury stores at a fraction of the cost. Even the artwork is cheaper: T-shirts with reprints of trendy works by Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat could be purchased for $14.90.

Ralph Lauren – 750 N. Michigan Ave.

Chicago retail flagships

If Uniqlo strived for accessibility, then Ralph Lauren wanted exclusivity. Perhaps the slow foot traffic could be due to the Tuesday afternoon or the steep price tags, but it only added to the fashion retailer’s image as a private club.

Display rooms are small and intimate and mapped in a way as if you were wandering through a maze. Unfamiliar and perhaps out of place, at one point I had to locate a sales associate to ask how I might exit the store. Closed curtains, dark wood and walls of original oil paintings contribute to the store’s private and intimate appeal. As I browsed through traditional silk shirts and cashmere jackets I couldn’t help but think of cigars as an apt metaphor for the Ralph Lauren flagship store: leisure, opulence and a window in time.

AT&T – 600 N. Michigan Ave.

Chicago retail flagships

Unlike the small, clustered rooms at Ralph Lauren that could pass for the twentieth century, the AT&T store is a 10,000 square-foot communal room of the future. Instead of a sales associate, an 18-foot interactive video wall greeted me with product information and store layout.

The main floor space is carved into different stations, including “Get Fit,” “Street Smart” and “Chicagoland.” I walked to the latter, where a sales associate pointed to Cubs-themed phone and tablet accessories and apps that can help users navigate the Chicago area. Elsewhere the store was a buzz of activity: tablets provided history lessons, shoppers recorded music on Jawbone JAMBOX speakers and a wireless system installed in an Audi offered tips on how to drive safely. As the most interactive store on the tour, it’s a playground for adults.

Burberry – 633 N. Michigan Ave.

Chicago retail flagships

The most striking aspect of the Burberry flagship store is the architecture. A black box made of glass and chrome, the façade mimics the iconic check pattern found in many of the luxury fashion retailer’s coats and trenches. The dramatic and innovative exterior is a nod to Chicago’s heritage as the birthplace of modern architecture.

I received the ultimate customized experience: after taking my measurements, a sales associate had me try on seven coats. Another took me to a private room not available to the public to look at women’s jackets to buy for my mom—ok, maybe in a few years. Regardless of the steep prices, the private and personal attention I received speaks to Burberry’s image as a luxury, one-of-a-kind experience only available to the select few.

Under Armour – 600 N. Michigan Ave.

Chicago retail flagships

The sportswear flagship store knows its Chicago audience well: an expansive “living wall” of green ivy behind the checkout counter mimics Wrigley Field; a gigantic, chiseled and two-story torso dons a Cubs shirt; and apparel featuring Midwest universities like Notre Dame, Northwestern and UW Madison lines the racks. At 30,000 square feet, this is Under Armour’s largest store.

Despite its classification in the middle-to-low price range among flagships, Under Amour does provide a custom experience: shoppers can test different athletic shoes on the treadmill, try on different fitness devices at the “wearable bar” and operate different health tracking systems on mobile devices. This marks an emerging trend seen in lower-priced stores as they try to provide consumers with an attentive and personalized experience that had once been limited to the luxury goods market.


While New York might claim the highest numbers of flagship and luxury stores in America, Chicago locations tap into the city’s history, architecture and consumer base to shape a singular flagship store experience for the local customer. “It’s a more approachable experience compared with flagship stores in New York or Los Angeles,” says JLL Capital Markets Retail Analyst Arielle Einhorn, who assembled the Chicago flagship tour.

It’s certainly not hard to miss the Windy City spirit in Restoration Hardware’s seamless integration into the Gold Coast neighborhood or Uniqlo’s immersive Tokyo experience for landlocked Chicagoans. Ralph Lauren is nostalgic for a twentieth-century Chicago where power suits and dirty martinis go hand in hand, while AT&T sees an optimistic future in Chicago-friendly apps and digital content. With Burberry’s homage to our architectural legacy and Under Armour’s enthusiasm for hometown sports, the flagship stores appear distinctly, well, Chicagoan.

View Part 1 of our Retail Series here.

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  1. Pingback: Retail Series Part 3: Getting to know Jim Harris

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