The Line Hotel in Los Angeles does not have a traditional Tylenol-and-toothpaste hotel store. In the lobby, instead, is an outpost of Poketo, a small west-coast boutique chain whose website promises a “carefully curated…collection of design-conscious goods meant to cultivate a creative lifestyle.” On a recent visit to the hotel, I wandered into the store and found teepee-shaped incense burners, jute-fiber tote bags and primary-colored stools. The only thing for sale that I could actually have used during my four-day stay at the Line was a toothbrush, a sleek black one that made the Oral-B in my bag seem awfully pedestrian.
When it comes to lobby stores, hotel have been forced to adapt dramatically since the Howard Johnson 1950s, or even the ‘90s. No one sends postcards in the texting age. Snow globes have devolved into chintzy tchotchkes. And a Diet Coke? Why there’s a minibar for that. Today, in an effort to stay relevant, many lobby shops around the world are closer in spirit to upscale boutiques.
W Hotels helped pioneer these rejiggered hotel stores when it opened its first at its Times Square location in 2001. The store was “the complete opposite of what a hotel convenience store had been in the past,” explained Anthony Ingham, the global brand leader of W Hotels. It sold a “curated range of fashion” as well as W branded items. Today 90% of W’s hotels have such a store. Though each location’s stock varies, it can include anything from a throw pillow screen printed with a tiara to a shrimp-patterned swimsuit. “People buy more adventurous things when they’re travelling than they do at home,” said Mr. Ingham, adding that W nevertheless still does brisk business in classic branded items like bathrobes and sheets, which are also available through the W’s online shop.
Whereas guests once purchased Ritz Carlton sheets to relive the opulence of an overnight stay, some visitors today are buying hotel-branded clothes in lobby stores in a more showy, “I was there” sort of way. A McKinsey study released last year found that millennials are spending more money on experiences than products, and hotels have found a way to offer both. A T-shirt from Hotel San José in Austin, a ball cap from the El Rey Inn in Santa Fe, or a sweatshirt from Chicago Athletic Hotel show off that you’re a worldly traveler. Or perhaps that you were savvy enough to buy that Chicago Athletic Hotel sweatshirt on the hotel’s website. Cosmopolitan status, without the expense of a plane ticket.
“It’s a way to align yourself with a brand that speaks to you as a traveler person,” said William Matalene, 26, a marketing manager in New York City who purchased a branded bathrobe from the Ace Hotel during a visit to its Shoreditch location and candles from the Hôtel Costes in Paris. “It could be a small humblebrag,” said Mr. Matalene, who has also taken to giving those Hôtel Costes candles as presents to friends. “It’s definitely alluring. It says, ‘Oh I’ve been there.’”
Earlier this year, when Landis Smithers became the chief creative officer of the Standard, a cluster of chichi boutique hotels in New York, Los Angeles and Miami, he dispatched a team to each location to find out what items guests asked for most frequently. The number one answer was a logo T-shirt. That inspired Mr. Smithers to develop a full line of clothing and accessories that launched late last month at the hotels and online. The clothes often riff on items found throughout the hotel: A “Privacy Please” placard inspired a sweatshirt with that phrase printed along the hood while the hotel’s black key cards were converted into wallet-sized bottle openers. Mr. Smithers acknowledged that he is “not reimagining the wheel” and that much of the appeal of, say, a T-shirt that just says “The Standard” comes from the hotel’s “sexy” image. “You wouldn’t be as comfortable wearing a Marriott logo anywhere on you,” he said.
The Ace, a Los Angeles-based hotel chain with nine global locations, has long been in the merchandise game, primarily through partnerships with existing companies. This tradition began when the Ace opened its Portland location in 2006 and collaborated with Converse, of sneaker fame, on uniforms. Since then, the chain has teamed up with the insider-y Canadian fleece brand Wings + Horns to sell a boxing robe, eco-conscious label Everybody.World on a recycled tote bag and Japan’s Hender Scheme on $120 natural leather slippers.
Often, hotels collaborate with local companies or sell their wares, as a way to integrate guests into the neighborhood, so to speak. The Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles has partnered with shoe designer George Esquivel, photographer Gray Malin and the hat maker Nick Fouquet—all of whom are based in the city.
A lobby store that sells a range of fashion and accessories from local designers lets guests “almost shortcut that process of discovering something new in the city,” said W’s Mr. Ingham. For the recent opening of W’s Hotel in Barcelona the chain collaborated with Barcelona-based artist Ricardo Cavolo and local shoe company Muroexe on a sneaker. So what if you’re staying at the W Barcelona and all you really want is shaving cream? “You just to have call [the front desk] and they’ll bring it to your room for free,” said Mr. Ingham. “You don’t have to buy anything.”
Write to Jacob Gallagher at Jacob.Gallagher@wsj.com