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Shopping in Portlandia

This week I am privileged to bring you the wise words from one of my favourite retail thought-leaders, Jon Bird. Jon has recently moved to NYC as the global MD of the Labstore network and his commentary and insight on retail marketing, strategy & execution is always valuable and entertaining.. In this week’s blog he brings to life the retail landscape of Portland, Oregon.

Hip. Seriously hip. Hilariously hip. Hipper than the hippest hipsters in Brooklyn, and that’s hyper hip. I’m talking about Portland, Oregon; a compact, very livable, and very cool city in the Pacific Northwest of the US.

I visited Portland as part of the WPP Intel Futurecasting Summit and naturally snuck in time to do the downtown area in a city famed for its creative class.

It’s Boston-ish or Melbourne-ish, but smaller, grungier, and easier to traverse on foot.

The streets are full of artfully parked vintage cruiser bikes; men with plaid shirts and facial hair who look like they belong in Mumford & Sons; and people sipping Stumptown coffee as they recline on battered leather sofas in the lobby of the Ace Hotel.

You’re probably thinking: “hey, haven’t we got past that stage? I mean we’ve reached ‘peak beard’ haven’t we?” And yes, you may be right. After all, the satirical television series, Portlandia, celebrates the fact that “the dream of the 90s is alive in Portland”. (Check out the show’s opening song from the first season.)

Portlandians don’t care. They’ve settled into a groove, which is just fine by them. And I loved it.

The downtown area is home to interesting sights, sounds and, of course, local independent retail.

Think leather goods. Lots of leather goods. From Oregon brands like Danner and Tanner (no relation), Will and Orox. All of them have stories behind them and recall more honest, more authentic times, when the words ‘crafts’ and ‘man’ fit seamlessly together.

I bought a pair of Danner boots (est. 1932) to cope with the wilds of Westchester County where I live. (Heck at least I’ll feel like an outdoorsman, even though I’m in the ‘burbs.)

Portland is also home to Powell’s City of Books, located on an entire block in the Pearl District.

Here in 68,000 gloriously messy feet (6300sqm), new and used books jostle for space alongside incredibly rare editions in what it claims is the largest independent bookstore in the world.

Nobody told the folks in Portland that Amazon (headquartered three and a half hours’ drive north in Seattle) has taken over with its e-books.

You’ll also find great online goes offline retailers like shoe store, Solestruck, and craft donut maker, Blue Star, which opens from 7am weekdays until sold out. (We were there late afternoon. The racks were bare.)

Malls? Nah. Downtown Portland has Union Way, a Japanese-inspired alleyway where I first found Danner. The ‘food court’ nearby is a flotilla of food trucks – literally – there must be 50 in a parking lot serving delicious gourmet food.

Even the chain stores are a little edgier. The Starbucks in the famous Sentinel Hotel has a pressed metal ceiling and serves Pacific Northwest wine. Whole Foods is about as local as local gets.

So even though some think that Portland is a parody of itself, I found the retail refreshing and the vibe enchanting.

In Portland, same ol’ is replaced by super cool. If you’re into retail, is it worth the trip? Definitely.

Jon Bird is MD, global of Labstore, Y&R’s worldwide retail and shopper marketing network. Twitter: @thetweetailer.

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