Surprise, Surprise: Infusing the Retail Experience With a Sense of Mystery

A couple of weeks ago, during my free day in Paris, I couldn’t resist paying a visit to Colette, the lifestyle retailer whose three-floor, 8,000-square-foot concept store on Rue Saint-Honoré is a mecca for global hipsters.

The crowd inside and out proved that Colette’s influence is in no danger of waning. The store, which opened in 1997, sells a wide range of merchandise, making it hard to categorize. Let’s just call it a lifestyle retailer with a hipper-than-thou sensibility. There are graphic, Japanese-style fashions; Alaïa boots; French perfumes; jewelry by the likes of Repossi, Aurélie Bidermann, and Delfina Delettrez; tech gadgets; art magazines; Hello Kitty notebooks; designer beach towels, Chrome Hearts ketchup and mustard containers; and timepieces from brands as disparate as Devon Works, Girard-Perregaux, and Shinola.

I wandered throughout the store, up and down the high-tech staircase, admiring the artwork—an exhibition of cartoon-like drawings from James Jarvis, entitled “Spheric Dialogues,” was on display—and clucking at all the people clogging up the stairwell before making my way for the door. I’d had enough jostling.

Just as I was about to exit the store, a display positioned next to the door caught my eye: a set of shelves stacked with blue and white paper bags bearing the words colette:surprise. A small sign affixed to the top shelf indicated that the bags cost 20 euros.


The surprise inside Colette’s mystery bags continues to elude me.

I paused for a second, snapped a photo of the display, contemplated buying a bag, and then decided against it, opting to save my euros for taxi fare. As I went about the rest of my day, and the week in Geneva that followed, I couldn’t stop wondering: What was in the damn Colette bag?!

On my final night in Switzerland, I spent the evening with friends who live in Zurich. I can’t make it to their wedding in St. Moritz next month, so I had offered to take them out to dinner instead. Their choice of restaurant couldn’t have been more appropriate after my week at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie. It was called Times and was located in an old auto garage, not far from Zurich main station.

As we sat down, the waitress asked us if we wanted to see menus, or if we would rather order the chef’s “surprise menu.” Our answer to the surprise menu was a unanimous yes.

The multicourse meal, which was paired with Portuguese wines, was lovely. But all I remember is talking and laughing—I don’t have a single memory of what I actually ate. In fact, the only real surprise I do remember about the meal is the bill, which was outrageous even by Zurich standards. (If you really want to know, ask me in the comments section, and I’ll tell you.)

I was so taken by these two consumer experiences, both integrating the element of surprise, that I went searching for some big brain to make sense of them for me. On the Harvard Business Review site, I came across a May 2013 article by Scott Redick, head of strategy at Heat Advertising, that told me exactly what I needed to know.

Not only is surprise addictive, Redick writes that it is also capable of motivating people to change behaviors. “When developing an advertising campaign, we are often too focused on the question of ‘What do we need to say?’ ” he writes. “Instead, we should focus on the question of ‘What expectations do our customers and prospects hold, and how can we turn those on their head?’ ”

The best part? Surprise, says Redick, “is cheap.”

“Rather than attempt to beat the competition with epic production budgets and media plans, marketers should think about how to cram surprising brand stories into the smallest space possible,” he writes. “Consider how Virgin America infuses charm and creativity into everything from website downtime notifications to safety videos.”

I thought back to the surprise bags at Colette. Could a jeweler do something similar? Sure, the merchandise at a fine jewelry store typically costs more than $25, but that doesn’t mean a customer wouldn’t be delighted to open a surprise gift bag filled with jewelry cleaner, a gift certificate for a watch-battery replacement, and other valuable freebies.

Take, for example, the “Stylish Surprises” currently sold out on ModCloth, an online retailer. “For just $15, you might get anything from a terrific top or sassy skirt, to a dazzling dress or cute coat,” according to the website. “There’s a beautiful bevy of mystery items with retail values from $29.99 to $299.99! Ready for some fashion fun? Simply select your size, then add a chic secret to your shopping bag. Hurry—supplies are limited, so snag a Stylish Surprise while you still can!”

The more I learned about the element of surprise in retail, the more I wanted to kick myself for failing to buy Colette’s mystery bag. All was not lost, however. A jewelry-industry friend of mine was in Paris on business, so I texted him and asked him to do me the huge favor of swinging by Colette to buy one for me. He did—and promised to bring the bag to me in Tucson, where I just arrived for this week’s gem shows.

Stay tuned to my Instagram (@VikaVickyVictoria) and Twitter (@vika22) feeds for updates from the JCK Tucson show, which opens today; the AGTA GemFair, which opens Tuesday, Feb. 4; and all the unpredictable, surprise-filled shows in between.