I used to walk past Prada’s flagship New York City location on Broadway and Prince Street on my way to work. I’d look at the window display and wonder if today would be the day I dropped half a month’s salary on something ridiculous. The moment never came, but when I actually decided to go into the store for the first time, I noticed something was missing. I couldn’t find a cash register.
I wasn’t alone in this observation. A few weeks later Leah Finnegan, The Outline’s features editor, said she’d noticed that checkout counters seem to be mysteriously disappearing from high-end stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue and Acne Studios. Instead of checking customers out at a specific location, employees at these establishments take their credit card and merchandise to a back room, where they complete the transaction and pack up the purchase.
On a recent visit to Prada (for journalistic purposes, ahem), I asked an employee if the cash wrap — the area where purchases are paid for and wrapped up — was concealed from customers’ view. There are three such hidden locations in the store, he said: Two on the first floor, where the men’s clothing is, and another on the lower level, which is home to women’s accessories and clothing. “Customers don’t go back there unless we have to put in their PIN,” he said. A fourth checkout is housed in a grey alcove near a nondescript customer service window; it blends in with its surroundings and doesn’t distract from the merchandise. So maybe that’s the point.
At the Philipp Plein pop-up store in Soho, where prices for clothing and shoes regularly run into the four figures, the cash wrap is hidden behind a wall. An employee there, who declined to give his name, said this was common in luxury stores, explaining that a certain kind of customer doesn’t want to think about how much money she or he is spending. “When you’re shopping at a high-end store, you don’t want the money to be so visible and involved,” he said.
Another employee, who also asked not to be named, nodded in agreement. “When you’re in luxury, you come for the experience,” she said. “We give you champagne; we give you beer and coffee.” The real transaction — the charging of the card and packaging of the purchase — happens behind the scenes, out of the customer’s view.
The Philipp Plein employees may be on to something. Though an increasing number of luxury purchases are being made online — particularly on discount websites like YOOX, which targets millennials — more than 90 percent of high-end goods are still purchased at brick-and-mortar locations, according to a recent report by Women’s Wear Daily. Still, if customers are going to go out of their way to buy pricey ready-to-wear items in a real store, they need a good reason to go there.
“Now more than ever, the luxury consumer is looking for an experience,” Allison Samek, the CEO of the California lifestyle brand Fred Segal, told Forbes last year. “They don’t want the same shopping experience they’ve seen before; they want one-of-a-kind, hard-to-find items that no one else has; and they want to find it in an environment that isn’t replicated anywhere else.”
At the Zimmerman boutique in Soho, which opened in February, customers walk through rows and rows of gauzy clothing grouped by color. The cash wrap isn’t completely hidden — it’s in a small, dark alcove that blends in with the rest of the room — but it can be easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it. Unlike your typical retailer, where a cash register and line make it immediately clear where customers can check out, boutiques like Zimmerman are designed so the customer has to do as little as possible aside from falling in love with an article of clothing.
Emily W., the store’s assistant manager, told me the cash wrap is hidden for aesthetic reasons. (She declined to give her full last name.) “When you first walk into a store, registers can feel quite cluttered,” she said. “We like to have it nice and clean up front.” Unlike the Prada store, where customers walk to the checkout station with a staffer, Zimmerman customers wait in the store’s lounge while the actual transaction happens. “It’s a smoother, easier site of service,” Emily said. “It’s all about enhancing the customer experience.”
“POS devices can be cumbersome and ugly. That doesn’t fit the image of a luxury store,” Sucharita Kodali, retail analyst at Forrester told The Outline. “The clean look is why more are moving to mobile checkout too. Apple and others have done this for years.”
There’s no cash register in sight at 3x1, a Soho-based denim atelier where a pair of bespoke pants can cost as much as $1,500. One of the walls is covered in looms of different shades and textures of selvedge denim; another displays a small selection of off-the-rack options, which start at $200, with a few pairs of jeans framed above it. Neither those who are willing to pay for a custom pair, which are sewn in a glass-walled room near the back of the store, or those who buy a pair off the rack, are present when the actual transaction is made. In both cases, the employee takes the customer’s new jeans — and their credit card — to a back room, where she or he completes the transaction and wraps up the purchase.
Alexis P., an employee at 3x1 who requested that we not use her full name, told me the store’s layout makes transactions more intimate. “It feels more like a showroom without tills everywhere,” she said. Like at Philipp Plein, customers come to 3x1 when they’re looking get something made just for them. “It’s not just a store; it’s more of a service,” said Alexis.
Luxury stores aren’t the only ones abandoning traditional checkout counters. Amazon recently opened its first cashier-less store in Seattle, where a series of cameras, motion sensors, and algorithms track customers’ movements and ring up their purchases. There’s no waiting in line, no interacting with salespeople, and no visible transaction. You just walk in, grab what you want, and walk out. Though the aim would appear to be making shopping completely seamless (Amazon calls it a “Just Walk Out Shopping experience”), there are some kinks: When the store is crowded, items are moved around, or two customers who look similar are shopping at the same time, the technology might not work correctly, according to Recode.
The cashierless trend has been building for some time. The Atlantic reported on the impending disappearance of checkout counters in 2014, highlighting the Apple store’s lack of checkout stations as one example. In 2012, JCPenney’s former CEO Ron Johnson, who helped create the concept for the Apple Store, said he wanted to use a combination of WiFi and radio-frequency identification tracking systems to eliminate the department store’s checkout counters altogether.
Where Amazon is streamling shopping by removing cash registers from thee equation, Johnson’s plan was primarily a money-saving endeavor. “About ten percent of the money we spend, half a billion dollars a year, goes to transactions,” Johnson told TIME in 2012, referring to both the infrastructure and the labor required by a traditional checkout counter. “Well, that could be done through technology.” The plan was supposed to be in place by 2014, but Johnson was fired by the company’ in 2013 before it came to fruition.
At high-end stores, however, the lack of a visible checkout station seems to have little to do with saving money or catering to people who are so busy they don’t have time to wait in line to buy kombucha. Instead, it’s about making customers feel catered to — and better still, making them feel like the transaction is meaningful.
In Uneasy Street: Anxieties of Affluence, sociologist Rachel Sherman explores how the ultra-rich are often so self-conscious about their wealth that they to great lengths to convince themselves that their spending habits are normal. “They frame ‘ridiculous’ expenditures as special ‘treats’ or situate them in relation to others who spend more, not less,” Sherman writes. “Therefore they can continue to see themselves as living an ‘ordinary’ life, even as their spending ratchets upward.”
After interviewing one woman named Alexis who received a $2,000 handbag as a Mother’s Day gift, Sherman realized that “by deeming [the bag] a Mother’s Day gift, they placed it in the exceptional, and acceptable, category of a ‘treat.’” By turning shopping into an experience, maybe high-end stores are helping well-heeled customers consumers feel a little more justified in their purchases; they’re making splurging on luxury items feel like the exception, not the rule, which somehow makes the whole thing feel both less extravagant and more indulgent. But you still won’t catch me dropping $2,000 on a bag, even if my card is charged behind closed doors.