Markus Heckhausen, Founder and CEO of Ampelmann Image: Ampelmann

“Berlin is bubbling with creativity and Europe’s new capital for Start Ups”

Markus Heckhausen founded the Berlin iconic brand Ampelmann and is a member of the city’s next retail platform: “First Store by Alexa”. In an interview with ACROSS, he explains why the German capital is fertile ground for start-ups in bricks-and-mortar retail.

ACROSS: Please outline Ampelmann’s history.

MARKUS HECKHAUSEN: When I came to Berlin immediately after the German reunification, the city was in transition. The Ampelmännchen (lighted “walk” and “don’t walk” figures in pedestrian traffic lights) immediately caught my eye as symbols of the former GDR. They attracted my interest as a designer and I wondered how to “put them back into use”. My first business idea was to produce lamps out of glass from pedestrian lights. A huge plus was and still is that the history of the GDR traffic lights created a great background story. This was, very roughly, that we should preserve parts of the GDR’s identity—such as the Ampelmännchen. That sparked extensive media coverage well beyond Germany.

ACROSS: What happened next?

HECKHAUSEN: I opened my first shop in Berlin-Mitte in 2001. After the wave of GDR nostalgia ebbed, my idea was to present the Ampelmännchen in their own world. To bring them to life, so to speak. To do this, we introduced t-shirts, household products, and more to the market. Ampelmann then became a Berlin icon. At the same time, the German capital developed into a vibrant European metropolis. We successively built our range, which was very popular with tourists, and now have 150 employees, eight stores, a café and a restaurant.

ACROSS: Why is Berlin a good place for start-ups in stationary retail?

HECKHAUSEN: I came from southern Germany to the German capital and immediately noticed that it is much more open-minded and that the place is buzzing with creativity. That inspired me a lot. If you have an idea, Berlin has a large market. A further essential point is that failing with a shop is not frowned upon here.

ACROSS: You recently opened a shop in Alexa. How is the store there doing?

HECKHAUSEN: Alexa is the first Ampelmann location where we are consciously attempting to tackle a target group that consists largely of the local population. We otherwise rely primarily on tourists. In Alexa, we’re selling Berlin products to Berliners. That’s an important step for us—more or less unknown territory. We’re therefore feeling our way along.

ACROSS: You are on the jury for “First Store by Alexa”. What’s special about this competition and what will you be looking for in the candidates?

HECKHAUSEN: I see this competition, which opens up opportunities for new ideas, as a good initiative. It will also enrich Alexa, which will benefit from this fresh wind. As a jury member, I will pay close attention to the originality of the ideas. In addition, as an entrepreneur, I will have a close look on whether the new store can be commercially successful.


About “First Store by Alexa”

Image: Sonae Sierra
Image: Sonae Sierra

Alexa in Berlin is celebrating its 10th anniversary in September 2017.

That’s reason enough for Union Investment, Sonae Sierra, and 21media to launch “First Store by Alexa,” a retail casting competition. Four words are enough to stir up interest: six months base rent free.

This is the prize that awaits the winners of the retail competition “First Store by Alexa” in the two categories “Best Brand” and “Best Newcomer.”

The two stores will naturally open in Alexa—with 16 million customers annually one of the most successful malls in Europe. Participation is possible until November 30, 2016.

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