The South Congress Retail Experience

Words and photos by Activaire’s CEO, Adesh Deosaran.

Last month I attended the Shop! Marketplace conference in Austin with Rubin Salinas, Activaire’s head of Client Success. Shop! Marketplace presented an opportunity to explore the innovations, strategies, and people that are building the stores of the future. It was also a reason to visit Austin, and explore the unique South Congress retail experience where Activaire has a high concentration of customers.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion panel with Adimika Owens, Bridget Thomsen, Matthew Conrado, and Cynthia Hirsch Ortiz.

I wanted to see what a post-pandemic / tech-hub Austin would feel like. Austin has undergone an incredible transformation; some of it might be a shock if you’re old-school Austin.

As a native New Yorker, I’ve grown used to change. I grew up with some great businesses and destinations which have vanished, only to be replaced by generic and inferior versions of the places I once loved. Change can be good sometimes, as new businesses bring fresh ideas, and a renewed approach to urban planning.

Shop! Marketplace
Rubin and I at Shop! Marketplace.

The Vibe:

Architecturally, South Congress consists of one to two-story buildings, most of which are repurposed facades from previous businesses or new construction that attempt to fit in rather than stand out. Even though many brands are national, there’s a classic small-town main-drag feel. The semi-rustic design and earth tones are given life with splashes of bright colors. Skyscrapers are visible in the distance, but the open sky above and tree-lined streets slow the pace. The mood is laidback and friendly as locals, transplants, and conference-goers casually stroll past

Graphic design plays a significant role in the streetscape, as surfaces are adorned with playful typography and visual elements. The local businesses that punctuate South Congress maintain the authenticity needed for the national brands to succeed.

Hand-painted sign for the BLK Vinyl record shop.

The Food:

I use food as a way to measure the pace of a city. New York City is fast-paced, and our favorite foods tend to reflect our on-the-go attitude. The food in Austin is indicative of a slower pace. Even simple dishes are made with care and detail. You eat slowly and experience your meals. It’s common to have lengthy discussions about the differences between various taco joints or who makes the best BarBeQue.

This slow pace translates to the shopping experience. Shoppers noticeably take their time when browsing. Details are noticed, and thoughtful experiences are expected

The Music:

It’s easy to assume that Austin is all about Rock and Country, but that’s not true. Music festivals are one thing, but it’s important to note that Austin is a 365-day music city. As a major touring destination, almost every major and indie band comes through. Here’s a list of some artists performing in Austin this year

Future Islands, Crocodiles, The Magician, Rival Sons, Pond, Classixx, Keith Sweat, The Cure, Fruit Bats, My Life With the Thrill Kill Cult, Tove Lo, Obituary, Charlie Puth, Tchami, The Sisters of Mercy, Byron Tiller, Katachafire, Bonobo, Lionel Richie, Sylvan Esso, and Sam Smith.

That’s a really diverse list. We put together a Spotify playlist of some of the acts you can check out in Austin this year.

One of the things I do in every city I visit is take a trip to the local record shops. From looking at the music stocked in the shops, you can tell a lot about where you are. It’s a way for me to read the pulse of what’s going on musically. Like the concert lineup, the record shops featured music from every genre. The second-hand shops were heavy on Soul, vintage Rock, Classic, and Alt. Country records. I was surprised by the amount of underground dance music I found and Avantgarde, Ambient, and Experimental music.

I ended up leaving with a stack of records, even though I didn’t have room in my luggage. Thanks Waterloo Records.

Our customers on South Congress:

The highlight of this trip was meeting the staff at the many businesses we serve in the South Congress area. One thing I noticed about everyone we spoke with was that they all seemed to love their jobs and were happy to represent the companies they worked for. Everyone was knowledgeable about their brand, customers, and how their store experience influenced their bottom line.

We learned firsthand about how the music was working for them. For us, it’s about being on-brand, motivating staff, and delighting their customers.

We discussed how various music programs are used depending on the time of day, the type of customer, and the overall vibe. Many store managers like the ability to switch to a music program that is more moody and subtle on rainy or quiet days. Some stores hold in-store events that coincide with music events or conferences in the city. During those days, they like to adjust the type of music to fit the kind of out-of-town walk-in customers specific to each event. With a large population of Millennials, many stores love the occasional 2000s throwbacks and party jams. Diversity and equality are up front for most of our customers, and programs like “Celebrate Women” and “Black History” allow staff to express solidarity.

We learned that store staffers really like the ability to adjust the music, tempo, and vibe as their traffic flow and atmosphere ebbs and flows. As the people on the ground, they are directly in touch with the in-store dynamic. We build a palette of curated playlists for each of our customers that accompany their scheduled music program. While the schedule works most of the time, having the ability to adjust for the unexpected (rain, sudden rush of customers, in-store event) with additional playlists is critical.
Here are a few comments that brought a smile to my face.

“Customers are constantly asking us what’s playing, so I just show them Curator’s Now Playing screen, and they’ll take a photo or add the song to their playlist on their phone.”

“I love our music; it’s the kind of music I listen to at home.”

“I’ve discovered so many new songs that I love since working here.”

“I’ve worked in retail for a long time…at a lot of stores, and Activaire is by far my favorite music service.”

The Reformation

As someone who has worked in retail, I know what it’s like to work a full day with terrible music playing in the background and what it’s like when the music was something I was proud of. Terrible music can make a six-hour shift feel like twelve hours.

It was a great week of retail immersion, and I’m looking forward to next year’s Shop! Marketplace and our customer check-ins.

Read more about how we use music and local culture.

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