Eight Innovative Retailers to Visit in California

Frank Beard takes NACS Daily readers along on a recent trip to the West Coast.

December 09, 2019

By Frank Beard

CALIFORNIA—There’s so much to do in San Francisco and Los Angeles that it’s easy to miss the many innovative retail concepts. Fortunately, I took plenty of photos during a recent getaway.

Here are eight options to consider next time you visit.


1. Cafe X (San Francisco)

Baristas are expected to deliver great customer service, but that can be difficult during peak hours. Cafe X saw an opportunity to re-think this model. Their assembly-line-style robotic arms produce up to 120 cups per minute, and customers place their orders via touchscreen or through the Cafe X app. One to two product specialists are available to answer questions and sell pastries.

“We knew a robot could create an exceptional cup of coffee, but we also wanted it to appear warm and friendly,” inventor Henry Hu told CNBC. He conceived the idea during his second year at Babson College after being stuck in a coffee line at the airport. “The baristas to me looked like factory workers. They were moving cups around and pushing buttons, which made me think, ‘I bet we can build a product that automates these boring tasks way more efficiently.’”

The robots even seem to have a good time. At the kiosk I visited, they “danced” while beverages dispensed into customers’ cups.


2. Briggo (San Francisco)

Cafe X isn’t the only robotic barista in town. Inside Terminal 3 at San Francisco’s airport, Briggo delivers a similar assortment of beverages. Their robotic kiosks are also located inside Austin’s airport, Dallas Presbyterian Hospital, two convention centers and a few corporate campuses.

While Briggo has touchscreen ordering, they do not employ dedicated staff. Free coffee promotions also drive app downloads, with the touchscreens reminding customers that the “first one’s on us.”


3. Verve Coffee Roasters (West Hollywood)

For something more upscale, Verve Coffee Roasters is easily one of the best coffee shops that I’ve ever visited.

From the 35-foot copper bar counter to the outdoor patio and superb coffee and food, it’s an example of what an exceptional experience looks and tastes like. I enjoyed a poached egg biscuit and one of the most delicious single-origin pour overs that I’ve ever encountered.


4. Nike by Melrose (West Hollywood)

This is the first Nike Live store—designed entirely around the Melrose neighborhood with the goal of becoming a local hub. It’s all about discovery and personalization. The inventory changes bi-weekly based upon the online purchases of local Nike Plus members, and they can even use their member QR codes to get free socks every two weeks from a vending machine in the back of the store. I’m such a sucker for those kind of tactics that it almost made me want to sign up.

The concept appears to be a success. The conversion rate of shoppers into Nike Plus members is six times higher at this store than at the rest of their locations. Furthermore, the members who visit this store spend 30% more online than those who don’t.


5. Nordstrom Local Melrose (Los Angeles)

This one caught my attention. Some department stores are having a rough time, and I’m always interested to visit new concepts being tested. Nordstrom Local takes a unique approach: There’s no inventory. Seriously. I wandered inside and discovered there was nothing to purchase.

Instead, the store is focused around service. Return products, get measured for a suit, pick up your purchases, enjoy the nail salon, visit with a personal stylist, get your clothes altered and more. In effect, it’s a local hub for Nordstrom.


6. Small Format Target (San Francisco)

Originally called TargetExpress, the San Francisco store on the corner of Bush and Sansome was part one of an early wave of small format Targets that opened in 2015. The original test store opened July 2014 in Minneapolis.

The purpose of this 18,000-square-foot location—like other small format Target stores—is to provide its neighborhood with a curated, personalized product offer. A small convenience store-like section provides grab-and-go sandwiches, salads, breakfast items and midday snacks. The rest of the store has a slimmed down assortment of apparel, home and beauty products, electronics and more. I forgot to pack one of my belts, so I stopped by to purchase one.

7. Zippin’s Test Store (San Francisco)

Those of us who watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation this holiday season will surely laugh at the b-roll of credit card imprinters early in the film. It looks outdated, right?

Perhaps we’ll feel the same way about cash registers at some point. Similar to Amazon Go, companies like Zippin, Standard Cognition and AiFi are demonstrating that there’s a better way to give customers permission to leave a store. Zippin recently signed an 18-month deal with Brazil’s largest retailer, and Standard Cognition’s technology may soon be in stadiums near you. I visited Standard’s test store last year.

Zippin also has a test store in San Francisco with a small assortment of snacks and beverages. Download the app, scan the code to enter, grab a few snacks and walk out when you’re finished. It’s that simple.


8. MedMen (West Hollywood)

While MedMen has attracted negative attention due to complaints that cannabis is being corporatized—most notably from a recent “South Park” episode—their West Hollywood store provides one of the single best retail customer experiences I’ve ever encountered. The store takes an innovative, minimalist approach to design and merchandising, and the staff is genuinely friendly. Regardless of one’s opinions on the products sold, it’s worth visiting just to see it for yourself.

The best way to describe MedMen is a cross between an Apple store and a dispensary. Information on all products are available through tablets—including a full breakdown of cannabinoids via third-party testing. Employees greet visitors and make themselves available should they have questions or need assistance.

NACS Daily readers, don’t miss the takeaways and photos Frank shared with us from his retailer visits in New York CityIowa and Nashville.


Frank Beard is an analyst/evangelist for convenience store trends at GasBuddy, a NACS Magazine contributor, and a speaker and advocate for the industry’s healthful offerings. You can follow Frank on Twitter at @FrankBeard.