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Every store is an experience and every experience is a selfie

Timberland’s new store has a “Rain Room,” a ”Snow Room,” and 2,000 plants. Do you want to buy boots now?

A selfie in Timberland’s “Rain Room” concept.
Kaitlyn Tiffany/Vox

The lighting in Timberland’s new pop-up store is supposed to mimic daylight. Like the lighting in a reptile tank.

This measure is in place to keep more than 2,000 live plants happy, including 10 full-size birch and ficus trees, as well as ferns, moss, and a large variety of what a press release calls “native New England plant species.” (No offense at all to New England, but New York City is not part of it. The mid-Atlantic region is sexy in its own right!)

The new, invasive species–covered Timberland, located at 511 Fifth Avenue, a 20,000-square-foot retail space owned — for the next 96 years — by Jeff Sutton’s Wharton Properties, will be open until January. When it closes, in January, the plants and trees will supposedly be replanted throughout New York City. In January.

I visit it on a Monday morning with two friends and the intention (and assignment) of answering the question: What does this have to do with buying a pair of shoes?

The Fifth Avenue store is effectively Timberland’s testing ground for “experiential retail,” a trend my colleague Chavie Lieber described last week as “brands offer[ing] experiences with the goal being less about a shopper purchasing a brand product and more about the brand purchasing a shopper.” Timberland, the outdoor footwear brand whose sales tripled when it was endorsed by rappers DMX and Biggie Smalls in the ’90s, did five pop-ups last year and seven this year, all designed by an in-house creative team, but this one is the pinnacle. It will be more or less the final word on the question: Does having living plants in a brick-and-mortar store work?

Should Timberland have living plants in its 70 stores nationwide? Are living plants worth the floor space, care, and reptile lighting?

Boots among plants at Timberland’s new concept store.
Kaitlyn Tiffany/Vox

I am not told how much this store cost, but I am told that the plants were brought in by the botanic design company Greenery NYC, which offers “green your office” services with packages starting at $5,000 (this one includes design, installation, and “between 8 and 15 medium to large office plants,” so go ahead and do the math if you feel like passing out). The Greenery also sends someone to water 511 Fifth Avenue’s 2,000 plants every day, as well as swap out and rehabilitate plants that get too stressed out by being in a Timberland store.

Obviously, the idea of the plants being stressed makes me want to volunteer all of my vacation days and health benefits to the plants. The plants are great. Love the plants. I suspect they are going to definitively fail their test of being “worth it.” The plants are supposed to remind you of being outside, and being outside is something you need different shoes for, but there is such a tenuous connection between that process and actually buying a several-hundred-dollar pair of boots that I can’t imagine the conversion rate justifies the plants’ expensive little lives. (Sorry, my guys!)

But it’s cool: 511 Fifth Avenue is also a test for bringing online “hype” culture into the real world. A section of the store is cordoned off for “special drops,” like the brand’s collaboration with — maybe you can guess? — Kanye West creative director Virgil Abloh’s luxury and streetwear brand Off-White. (The collab launched last December.)

And this area is situated next to the store’s two “Instagrammable” experiences. The first is called the Rain Room — not to be confused with the Museum of Modern Art’s famous Rain Room, arguably the genesis of all Instagram-oriented museums and restaurants and retail locations.

It is a room in which sounds of rain are being played over hidden speakers, not quite loud enough to tune out the sounds of the indie pop mix playing out in the main store. Physically, rain is represented by a ceiling covered in LED icicles, such as those you might see hung from suburban porch eaves at Christmastime. Spiritually, rain is represented by a white neon Timberland logo surrounded by a dozen convex circular mirrors of varying sizes, such as those you might look out for if you’re trying to rob a convenience store or a Claire’s Accessories.

Ashley Carman, in Timberland’s “Rain Room.”
Kaitlyn Tiffany/Vox

I ask my friend, Verge reporter Ashley Carman — the most famous Instagram personality I know in real life — to pose for a photo, and she does, and she looks beautiful. Can you see her feet? No. Would someone who is trying on a pair of Timberlands see them in the selfie they took in one of these mirrors, and thereby show them off to their Instagram followers by posting it? No, they would not.

The Rain Room photo doesn’t meet Ashley’s personal bar for Instagram grid photos, and she points out to me that she already has a photo from Yayoi Kusama’s famous sparkly infinity room I Who Have Arrived in Heaven, hosted at the David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea in 2013. She is not above Instagram bait at her institutions of high art or culture, or buying stuff, she emphasizes, and has eagerly fallen for it literally dozens of times, but this won’t cut it.

In the back corner of the store, there is a huge backdrop of a wintry forest, taken by Dutch photographer Albert Dros, and a plastic box about 8 feet long and ankle-high, inside of which swirls about 14 pieces of fake snow. This is the Snow Room. On the floor, there is a printed-out image of snow with Timberland boot footprints in it. You’re supposed to try on a pair of Timberlands and then walk on the footprints to see if you’d like to wear the Timberlands in snow.

I ask Ashley to pose in the Snow Room. From an Instagram perspective, this photo is beyond useless. (From a friendship perspective, it’s nice — a souvenir from our day together.)

During the 40 minutes we spend at 511 Fifth Avenue, we have a nice time. We see one European tourist take a selfie in a Rain Room mirror, and it’s hard to say if the feature would normally be more popular: The Rain Room is objectively lazy and bad, sure, but we also visit it during setup for the Columbus Day parade and have to show a cop both our business cards and a series of emails to prove that we have an appointment on this block. The store is an empty green wonderland, a vaulted-ceiling playground for pals and one European tourist.

Bevan Bloemendaal, Timberland’s vice president of global creative services, assures me the reaction has been positive: “We’ve seen lots of friends snapping photos in the weather elements, which was exactly what we hoped for. [The] beauty of these pop-ups is that they give us a chance to test and learn — to expand upon what’s working, and maybe forgo other pieces.”

Kaitlyn Tiffany/Vox
Kaitlyn Tiffany/Vox
Kaitlyn Tiffany/Vox

Timberland’s new Fifth Avenue concept store, where plants eat up mimicked daylight.

When Timberland launched 511 Fifth Avenue earlier this month, its global brand president Jim Pisani wrote, “For 45 years, Timberland has inspired people to step outside — to pursue the outdoors with passion and purpose … With this new space at Fifth Avenue, we set out to create a haven where the community can experience the beauty and power of nature, right here in the city.”

Sure? I mean, why not? Rain and snow and 2,000 plants are all part of nature. This is probably the first idea you would have if you were compelled to come up with a way to make buying a hiking boot into an experience. (Not to be pedantic, but another example of a place where you can experience the beauty and power of nature, right here in the city, is a park.)

Timberland’s new store promises “an emotional connection” to the brand, as a supplement to a transaction with the brand. This is what consumers want, VP of global brand marketing Argu Secilmis argues. He’s not wrong, exactly. All of us make purchase decisions based on emotions. And I do feel an emotional connection to 511 Fifth Avenue, mostly because I had to run up against the police state to get there — and won! — and because it represented a weird Monday field trip for three friends who typically sit at desks and will take what they can get regarding adventure.

Beautiful Christmas decorations that represent rain.
Kaitlyn Tiffany/Vox

But are young people buying Timberlands because of an emotional connection with trees and fake snow and the suggestion of the great outdoors and the promise of an acceptable Instagram post? Or are they buying them as a fashion statement stemming from an emotional connection to a 30-year history of Timberland boots and hip-hop style, which this center city pop-up seems to deliberately elide? Hm.

When I ask Bloemendaal about this, he points me to Timberland’s tagline, “Born in the woods, raised in the city,” and says I’ll see the city element represented by an upcoming collaboration with British high-fashion workwear designer Christopher Raeburn. “As we look to the future of the Timberland brand, we see a lot of excitement around the notion of connecting our passion and the power of nature with the energy of fashion.” He promises Timberland is just getting started.

As it stands, this store is gorgeous, and its Instagram experience rooms are terrible, almost rude. They show the hand of the people who made them, who clearly assumed that “designated photo area” is all it takes to make a moment warrant a post, and all it takes to trick a young, social media–using consumer who has no taste or discernment and who doesn’t know why they’re spending their money.

What does any of this have to do with actually buying Timberland’s shoes? Almost nothing. This is where the term “window dressing” comes from. It’s window dressing that you can idly appreciate or deliberately ignore, whenever you happen to go to 511 Fifth Avenue with the already-set intention of buying some boots.