Are In-Store Classes the Future of Retail in Boston?

Knitting! Baking! Bike-repair lessons! Is this really the future of retail in Boston? We follow the scent of money to find out. 

Illustration by João Fazenda

It feels weird to make small talk while I’m swirling my fingers around in a bowl full of raw eggs—yet it’s almost weirder not to. So, hands dripping with yellow slime, I ask the stranger across from me whether she’s done this sort of thing before. She’s similarly indisposed, greasy palms coated in stringy gobs of gooey gluten, mixing up our buttery bread dough. Christina is my classmate and partner at the Kitchen at the Boston Public Market, where—in between buying organic coffee and local cider doughnuts—I’m taking a two-hour crash course in French baking.

Sixteen of us—all decked out in aprons, four to a table at gleaming stainless steel workspaces—are learning to make a rich brioche and a crusty baguette on a Sunday afternoon. In full view of the passersby on Congress Street, we plunge our palms into poolish, send flour flying in all directions, and later taste our creations. There’s a lot of hand-washing involved. Our ebullient instructor, Chef Cleo, gives it her all, sharing with us everything she can cram into two hours, from techniques and tips to chemistry lessons, and even some sourdough starter to take home. Because bread needs time to rise, we’re on a tight schedule—but there are still a few moments for wine tasting, courtesy of the market’s Massachusetts Wine Shop.

With dark hair and glasses, Christina has the grad-student look of a thirtysomething Cantabrigian, but she’s actually a recent transplant from New York City. She says the last time she baked bread from scratch was as a kid, at a farm camp upstate. But she’s been on a learning streak of late, hitting up all kinds of classes since moving to Boston—including some at retail locations, such as a learn-to-sew workshop at Gather Here, in Cambridge, where she stitched her own tote bag.

I’ve been binge-learning on the boutique circuit, too: “Essential Breads” is just my latest foray into shopping-centered self-improvement. Like a middle-aged college senior crushing a course load jammed with frivolous electives, I’ve spent the past two weeks attending classes and workshops all around Boston—not in schools, but in stores. I haven’t earned any credits, but my consumer curriculum has taught me how to knit a scarf, tile a backsplash, and change a bicycle tire, among other skills. But what I’m really trying to learn is whether these classes are more than just a gimmick.

What I do know is that I may be looking at the future of the in-store experience. Part of a larger trend toward experiential retail, on-site classes can do the impossible in the age of Amazon: get people off the Internet and into a physical store. What’s more, such experiences can also create a deeper bond between customer and retailer, says consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow. “The more time we spend with a retailer, the closer we feel to them,” she tells me. Just being in the store for an hourlong workshop fosters a favorable familiarity. Some businesses hope these courses can create bonds among customers, too. By fostering social connections, they can help build a sense of community that includes—or even orbits—the shop.

So hosting workshops clearly benefits the retail industry. But what about the customers themselves? Susie Brown, executive director of the nonprofit Boston Center for Adult Education, says BCAE’s students are increasingly interested in the “social adventure” aspect of learning a new skill with a group of like-minded people. “You can come here and have a great evening out,” she says, “and it’ll cost you a lot less than if you went to a restaurant or a bar, and there are some really fun activities you’re engaging in.”

As retailers wade into those waters, I’m curious to see what I can really learn at a store, and whether these classes actually offer a new and meaningful way to meet people in Boston. Do in-store workshops impart valuable skills and spark social connections, or are they just a new form of consumer catnip, the latest bullshit sales tactic to lure millennials who prize experiences over possessions? I load up my class schedule, aiming to hit as many of these sessions as possible in two weeks. I’m ready to learn, or buy trying.

I decided to dive right in with the kinds of things I’ve always wanted to do—or at least do better. Knitting has long fascinated me. It’s the ancient motion of the needles: the fluid dips and dives, slowly birthing a piece of clothing from strands of what used to be a sheep’s fleece—it’s hypnotizing. It’s also exceptionally hard to learn by yourself. I sign up for a two-hour workshop at Third Piece on Tremont Street.

I always assumed I’d learn to knit in the presence of grandmotherly tchotchkes and a crackling fire—maybe Mrs. Weasley would be there?—but Third Piece has a clean, modern feel, with whitewashed brick and a sleek high-top table in back where our class of three assembles. We start by choosing a big ball of chunky yarn (the store’s own line of merino wool), and then learn basic techniques—slip knot; casting on; knit stitch; binding off—on a practice project the size of a bracelet. Our animated instructor, Jin, makes it look effortless as she demonstrates the moves in slow motion with an encouraging grin. But learning the stitches is a bit like mastering different types of knots, and keeping track of moving string has never been my strong suit. “Cursing is allowed in my class,” Jin jokes. I take her up on it.

Once Jin is satisfied with our initial efforts, we choose a larger project. I pick a slim scarf, figuring a deadline six months from now is far off enough to be feasible. At first, our brows are furrowed, with heads bowed in quiet concentration. We’re all trying to build muscle memory without missing a stitch—though Jin likes it when we make “good mistakes” so she can explain how to remedy common blunders. But as we fall into our separate rhythms (mine is decidedly slow; winter 2021 might be a more realistic timetable), the class evolves into a conversation circle, and I began to feel an easy kinship with my knitting partners. Soon I literally feel my blood pressure plummet as I sink into a state of serenity. And I’m not the only one: We’re all loosening up, as if someone’s passed around a bottle of red wine.

When I work on my “scarf” over the course of the next two weeks, a similar pattern repeats: I begin with some frustrated, focused frowning as I try to recall the stitch sequence, then slowly settle into blissful meditative reverie. Between the soothing, rhythmic needle motion and having a soft ball of merino wool in my lap, it feels like curling up with a purring cat. The $48 class fee included our yarn and a set of needles ($33 total value), but best of all, it taught me a whole new way to unwind.

Alas, it isn’t all wool scarves: My schedule takes me from the South End to the slick, steely shopping center that is the Seaport District for some business and biology courses. I’ve signed up for a one-hour class on budgeting at the paradoxical Capital One Café, a two-story coffee shop that’s actually an online bank. I’m the only one who shows up, and it’s…awkward. The instructor takes me into a tiny conference room upstairs, where we run through his PowerPoint notes and I’m able to pick his brain on various saving strategies. That’s all well and good, but I was expecting a class full of people, not a personal consultation. It’s way more intimate than I bargained for.

It’s also more common than I expected. During my two-week shopping semester, I’m often the only student, and without a group to share the conversational workload, I find the one-on-one interactions tax my social stamina. At a clinic on tick identification across Seaport Boulevard at L.L. Bean, which offers outdoor-themed classes from paid kayak excursions to free safety sessions, I’m again the only attendee; in fact, the student-teacher ratio is actually 1:2. But the instructors are fun and knowledgeable without pushing any products on me, and with my wife’s birthday approaching, I buy her a gift (not to mention some tick repellent). Then, the following Saturday, I’m the only person to show up for a tile workshop at Home Depot. I end up getting a leisurely one-on-one tutorial from an older guy named Jim, whose knowledge is staggering. When I ask him if he used to work in the trades, he laughs. “No, I actually have an MBA,” he says.

Like Home Depot, a number of national chains offer workshops. You can find a cluster of them at the Derby Street Shoppes in Hingham—call it a satellite campus—where there are cooking classes at Williams Sonoma, makeup tutorials at Sephora, and dozens of device-driven workshops at the Apple Store, one of the earliest adopters of in-store learning. As part of the STEM portion of my curriculum, I sign up for a learn-to-code class led by an Apple “genius.” It’s basically a guided walk-through of an iPad app designed to teach the basic concepts of programming—nothing I couldn’t have done at home, really, but the instructor’s high-octane, high-fiving enthusiasm and the relentless stimuli of the store help me stick with it longer than I might have on my own.

Across the lot at REI, I join a free 90-minute intro clinic on basic bicycle maintenance. About 10 of us gather in the bike shop at the back of the store, where tools, spare parts, and stickers claim every bit of wall space. Our amiable instructor, Nelson, shows us how to properly clean and lubricate a bike, remove the wheels, replace a flat tire, and adjust the brakes. Sure, it’s sort of like watching a live instructional video (“YouTube: The Play!”). In fact, a lot of the free workshops feel that way. But you’re in the video, too, so you get to ask the host questions in real time. And the IRL upgrade has one more benefit: In our chaotic, wired world, these classes offer a moment of relaxed focus away from the distractions of Twitter and multitasking. Does it really matter that it still comes with built-in ads?

As I prepare to graduate from my little experiment, shopping bags in hand in lieu of a diploma, I start to reflect on what I’ve learned, the people I came across, and what it all says about who we are and how we shop. I’ve matriculated with customers of all ages, but overall the crowds definitely skew younger. Given the state of online distraction we live in—and the fact that performing even basic grownup tasks now merits its own preposterous verb, adulting—perhaps that’s no surprise.

Yarrow, the consumer psychologist, says that while almost everyone likes picking up new skills, millennials and members of Generation Z are especially open to guidance. “They’re less likely than older generations to shame themselves for not knowing things, which opens their minds to learning,” she says. I also ought to mention that, of the 16 people in my baking class, I’m one of just three guys, a pattern that repeats at nearly every course I attend, to the point of absurdity. Virginia Johnson, owner of Gather Here, says her store’s classes draw mostly women, too. “The demographic is solidly in the twenties/thirties age range and 80 percent female and female-identified,” she says.

Only bakers outnumber bikers in my whirlwind of workshops, and with good reason: Essential Breads is easily the best class I take, and not just because I get to devour a warm baguette at the end. Although, let’s face it, that is a large part of it—it’s no wonder food-prep classes are everywhere. You can learn to make mozzarella from scratch at the Boston Cheese Cellar, bake your favorite pastries from Flour, or master Mediterranean recipes at Eataly or Sur La Table.
Beyond edible instruction, I went into this experiment hoping to learn some new skills and engage with the city while bracing for sales pitches and in-person infomercials. But I actually learned some very cool stuff. Our kitchen smells like a Parisian bakery now. I’m able to knit, but whether I ever finish my scarf doesn’t really matter, because it’s just so damned relaxing either way. I delighted my daughter by making a pendant from one of her random rocks, a skill I picked up at Bead + Fiber in the South End. I finally gave my bike some much-needed attention.

For those who might be looking to pick up more than a warm loaf of bread or some pointers on bike chains, I found the social aspect to be hit-or-miss. Not that I was hoping to make friends—I can barely keep up with the ones I have—but learning alongside other people is fun and adds a bit of peer-powered motivation. That’s one reason I think I’ve gotten more out of the informal-but-still-quasi-official classes I’ve taken at places like Boston Building Resources or the BCAE. It’s partly because there’s no ulterior sales motive to worry about at those places—education is the product. But it’s also just because there are reliably more people signed up.

From the retailers’ perspective, nearly all of the classes had the desired effect: I showed up, bought stuff, and left the store happy. Yarrow says lessons and classes help establish the authority of a retailer in our minds, making us more likely to take their recommendations and buy their gear. There’s also good old-fashioned guilt: Gratitude gooses sales. “It’s the rule of reciprocity,” Yarrow says. “When we get, we feel more like giving—or buying, in this case.”

In the end, though, I feel like I came out in the black, even with all the stuff I bought along the way. Is it a gimmick? Sure, but compared with the data-scraping empires of the online shopping world, which sell you things and then sell you to data brokers, the notion of getting you hooked by teaching you something—for free, even—seems downright quaint. “It’s an outstanding strategy if it’s done well,” Yarrow says. And if not, well…you can always go shopping after.