On the second floor of the chichi-glam Hudson Yards Shopping Mall in NYC, there’s a new store that sells nothing but a few bro-friendly hoodies and a small number of merch tchotchkes. Images of Degen Ape Academy NFTs adorn the walls, but they are not for sale.
Instead, the goal of Solana Spaces, as the store is called, is to introduce the mall’s upscale, international shoppers to Solana, one of the newer, more climate-friendly cryptocurrencies. Store ambassadors, like Angel (seen with me below), aim to teach you how to open a Solana Crypto wallet and walk you through a sampling of blockchain-based apps. There’s even a visualizer wall that displays real-time purchases, using Solana of course.
Everything about the store is bespoke. Much like an Apple store, the vibe is clean, uncluttered, and brightly lit. Solana Spaces was conceived to help demystify crypto, but also to create a sort of ever-changing hangout for SOL-heads (Solana’s currency is called SOL) who are expected to keep exploring the store’s latest additions.
But even with an Angel on my side, getting onboarded onto any blockchain cryptocurrency is not for the faint of heart. First, you must set up your own secret phrase (in this case 12 words). And you can never lose it, because if you do you will never recover your wallet and its contents.
My already existing crypto wallets, Metamask and Bitski, won’t work with Solana, so I dutifully installed wallet number three into my life. It’s called Phantom. And once I started using it, each time I tried a new Solana-based experience or app I had to scroll down and accept a disclaimer that seemed biblical in length. I accepted terms and conditions I’m not certain I understood. Still, I was glad Solana had my best interests at heart.
At the store’s opening this past week, I worked to win USDC by completing three “journeys” through different Solana Dapps (decentralized apps). I played STEPN, the most popular Solana app, a game that rewards exercise, as you walk or run. I explored Magic Eden, an NFT marketplace, and Metaplex, the protocol for building NFTs on Solana. As a bonus, I got a look at the Solana Saga, the company’s new Web 3.0 smartphone that does what other smartphones do but is also a digital wallet and Dapp holder.
For completing my mission, I was awarded 2 USDC, the equivalent of $2 US dollars. (I suggest in the future the store’s ambassadors install some phone chargers in the store, though, since my battery ran down completely after downloading a wallet and a few apps.) Customers in the store will continue to earn USDC as they go through their own onboarding.
As fascinating as the store is, so is the CEO behind the company that runs it, Vibhu Norby. In pre-pandemic times, Norby ran b8ta, a company that operated a different retail store in that very same spot at Hudson Yards. It showcased quirky new technologies you wouldn’t find in a Best Buy or other tech store. Tech partners who rented space there got useful data — everything from leads to user feedback on where the product needed improvement. There were b8ta stores all over the world. That company did not survive the pandemic for a number of reasons, but Norby continues to be fascinated by experiential retail.
“Retail is hard to “get”, Norby told me. “There’s an energy that’s different when you interact in person with your customers.” An engineer and programmer by training, Norby says he didn’t want to lose all of the experience he’d gained in retail, but had become fascinated with crypto’s potential. Solana Spaces is the first permanent crypto store he knows of, he says, adding that “the whole experience was created from scratch with no template for anything like it.” Like b8ta, Norby says Solana Spaces will work with sponsored partners to offset costs. “But this store is different,” he adds, because “we can also can track how people continue their Solana journey once they leave the store,” When I spoke to Norby after his first day in business he reported curiosity was high and that many families (especially ones with crypto-hip members) were exploring the store together.
Solana, according to Coindesk, is by no means the most popular crypto. It was invented as an Ethereum killer, but is still trailing that blockchain by most metrics. It has fewer node operators, fewer holders, and a smaller market cap.
Physical retail in general is experiencing something of a moment. Online retail was a big winner during the “stay-at-home” phase of the COVID-19 era. But many stocks of companies for that era, like Peloton or Chegg, are now being unwound in a big way, reports Axios.
Venture capital investment in retail tech generally more than doubled from $46.7 billion in 2020 to $108.6 billion the following year, according to CB Insights. Can a retail store make it if it sells almost nothing but is an ever-changing experience center for the crypto-curious?