Design Seminar: The new showcases of experience

What impact will emerging technologies have on how we shop? How will virtual reality, augmented reality and the increased interest in wellness and sustainability impact on retail design? And what design strategies can help traditional retailers survive? Our retail design experts got stuck into the big issues at the latest in FX’s series of design seminars.

Report by Pamela Buxton
Photography by Gareth Gardner


Taking part were

Theresa Dowling, (chair), editorial director, FX magazine

Doug Butcher, lead design, Beyond Communications

Linzi Cassels, design director, Perkins + Will

Tracey Hopkins, group specification manager, Formica Group

Mark Pinney, founder/director, Mark Pinney Associates

Ethelinde Radloff, interior architect, Arcadia Group

John Regan, creative director, Fitch

Abbie Thomas, project director, Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands

Catherine White, director, Catherine White Interiors

Experience vs Convenience

After more than 20 years of co-existence between physical and internet shopping, traditional retailers are still grappling with the implications for their business.

According to Fitch creative director John Regan, retail is going through a massive period of change, with a split between those stores that can offer a memorable customer experience and online retail outlets driven by efficiency and convenience.

‘Internet shopping will potentially destroy retail shopping on the high street unless brands find new ways of selling products, and most of our clients are figuring out how they can move forward as the impact becomes more significant on their retail outlets,’ added Mark Pinney of Mark Pinney Associates. ‘People are looking for an experience now. It has to be about the point of difference between what they can do online, and the physical reality of something like touching a piece of fabric or trying on an item of jewellery. They have to be dazzled, to be entertained, to be made to feel part of the family. There is a whole series of experiential devices that brands are trying to use.’

John Regan, creative director, FitchJohn Regan, creative director, Fitch

He added that his company spends a lot of time talking about how to achieve this sense of theatre with clients, even down to details such as how the product is wrapped at the end of the selling process. ‘It can be anything that engages the customer so that they feel it’s been worthwhile going there rather than sitting on the computer at home.’

The retail designer can support this desire to create a sense of theatre by creating an environment that encourages a long stay by giving somewhere to relax and hang-out so that the consumer can spend more time interacting with the brand. Some stores of course have been doing this for a very long time – Regan pointed out that when Selfridges opened [back in 1909] it was conceived as a showcase store of experiences. This was a place where shopping was for pleasure – somewhere you could take your time rather than simply making quick transactions.

Linzi Cassels, design director, Perkins + WillLinzi Cassels, design director, Perkins + Will

Perhaps, he says, things are turning full circle. So, how can stores create a sense of theatre and make it worth the effort for customers to visit rather than just clicking online? For some, it’s all about building anticipation. Perkins + Will design director, Linzi Cassels, recounted her experience of the buzz created both online and in-store by a skateboard brand. At its shop, there were queues outside with entry controlled by a bouncer but once inside there was little product available to buy. Instead, customers could purchase online through a closely controlled release of products available for a very short time – minutes only.

‘It makes you want to have the thing you can’t have,’ commented Formica Group group specification manager Tracey Hopkins. Catherine White, director of Catherine White Interiors, wondered about the potential of offering particular exclusive product lines at a particular in-store outlet in order to build more excitement and give a reason to make a visit. It’s all about creating the desire, said Regan.

The value of knowledge

As well as creating a memorable store experience, designers felt that retailers able to offer knowledgeable staff were far more likely to succeed. ‘Apple stores excel on the basis that their people know everything about the products. People will go there just to browse and be informed by the technical staff,’ said Mark Pinney.

Mark Pinney founder/director, Mark Pinney AssociatesMark Pinney founder/director, Mark Pinney Associates

This investment in informed staff is combined with a welcoming atmosphere. ‘You go in and there’s an openness. It’s not scary at all,’ said Arcadia Group interior architect Ethelinde Radloff.

‘It does come down to the quality of the product, the environment and the quality of the staff they use to sell the product,’ said Pinney. ‘They do know a huge amount about the products they sell.’

And while Apple with its staff of ‘geniuses’ was the name that came up again and again as excelling in this area, this was something that small, independent retailers could equally provide. Catherine White cited Vape Superstore, a store she designed in London’s Soho, as a place where the ‘vape geek’ staff could ably assist both those who were equally obsessed without alienating those coming off the street and trying vaping for the first time.

It’s all about finding ways to engage with the customer. ‘People love stories. They want to hear the story behind a product. It draws them in and gets them interested in that particular product and ultimately in the brand,’ said Pinney.

Catherine White director, Catherine White InteriorsCatherine White director, Catherine White Interiors

This interaction and knowledge, combined with the total store experience, is where in-store retail can still have the edge.

‘You want to know that you’re being heard by who’s selling to you, then you’ll buy. It’s all about the human interaction, not just the digital,’ said White.

Technology and retail design

Debaters were excited about the potential use of emerging technologies in the retail design experience. There was a lot of discussion about the newly launched Amazon Go store concept, which eliminates checkouts by using an app; cameras to know which products shoppers have selected. Shoppers simply put groceries in their bags and walk out of the store. Amazon then charges their account and sends a receipt.

Although Amazon Go does not use facial recognition technology, this is expected to have an impact on retail in the future according to Mark Pinney, who said some of his clients were already looking into it. This, and other technologies, could potentially help clients treat customers more as individuals by understanding their shopping preferences.

Doug Butcher lead design, Beyond CommunicationsDoug Butcher lead design, Beyond Communications

‘The Holy Grail is to find out what that person has come to buy and what else they might buy if it is presented in the right manner…the idea of VIP shopping will come down through the system. When you go face-to-face shopping, it will need to feel very special,’ he said.

Doug Butcher, lead design at Beyond Communications, thought that there was a lot that retail could learn from the world of gaming when it came to finding new ways to harness technology.

‘The gaming industry is driving all this technology. Maybe we should be looking at it more in terms of how we can use it in a retail environment,’ he said. ‘We should be having these experts advise us.’

There was a great potential, he said, to use technology such as Augmented Reality (AR) to help brands tell their stories and allow customers to engage more closely with their products. Companies such as Dulux and Ikea are already exploring this.

Tracey Hopkins group specification manager, Formica GroupTracey Hopkins group specification manager, Formica Group

Designers also discussed the increasing use of Virtual Reality (VR) in their own work, especially when there is an obvious benefit.

‘We’re using VR as a tool now. There’s a benefit to the client as they can see things quicker and change things quicker,’ said John Regan.

‘Twenty years ago we presented to clients in 2D. Now, everything we present is in 3D. In terms of selling in to your clients, VR is inevitably the next step. It is becoming more and more sophisticated and more and more accessible,’ said Pinney, adding that clients are now much more savvy. ‘It becomes a collaboration and it does allow them to participate in the process much more than it does with 2D drawings.’

The question of sustainability

With its often short-lived shop-fits, the retail sector has to ask itself some hard questions on the subject of sustainability. A quick survey around the table identified that while several designed shop-fits were for a 5-10 year lifespan, others were looking at projects with a lifespan closer to two years. Pop-up stores were another trend, with Fitch’s John Regan expecting more clients to use these in the future. As Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands project director Abbie Thomas commented, retail is a throwaway culture.

Both clients, and designers, said Linzi Cassels, need to take some responsibility for the sustainability implications of their work.

‘As designers, this is an area that we’re becoming more conscious of in terms of our responsibilities,’ she said. ‘The whole industry needs to actively start identifying which products we should and shouldn’t be using, and question why we might be going to a far-flung part of the world to get a product when we can get something else locally. I would like to think that we are leading on this. Our clients are becoming more responsible. More and more of the enquiries we get are around wellness and sustainability, and how clients can incorporate those things. It’s a dialogue that is increasing.’

Theresa Dowling (chair), editorial director, FX magazineTheresa Dowling (chair), editorial director, FX magazine

But ratings such as BREEAM are not easily applicable to retail design as a lot of the point criteria is not relevant to retail fit-outs. Mark Pinney thought that clients are starting to realise that their sustainability credentials do matter to customers, and that it can impact on their bottom line.

‘In the past two or three years it seems to be hitting home that in order to sell the lifestyle, you also have to convince your customers that you do care about the environment,’ he said, adding that the emphasis was on creating an interior that could be flexible and adaptable over time. There was some optimism that attitudes could change quickly, fuelled by the popularity and impact of programmes such as David Attenborough’s recent Blue Planet II.

Suddenly, people have realised that they should stop buying non-biodegradable plastic straws, for example. ‘It’s amazing how quickly people’s behaviour and attitudes can change,’ said Doug Butcher.

If they want to strengthen brand loyalty, retailers need to think beyond simply selling their product to what they stand for.

‘There’s a real opportunity for them to start having a voice and start channelling change for good,’ he says.

In pursuit of imperfection

Creating a memorable brand experience doesn’t necessarily mean that the store should look like you’ve blown the budget, even if you have. Sometimes, it can be quite the opposite, as shown at the exposed concrete of stores such as Issey Miyake’s Pleats Please in Brook Street, or the raw industrial vibe of Apple, with its connotations of honesty and integrity.

‘A lot of high-end retailers will spend a lot of money making it look stripped back when it’s all entirely new. It’s been concocted to start off a train of thought that will appeal to a certain customer. You’re stimulating emotions. You want them to react in a particular way,’ said Mark Pinney.

There was also some discussion about the honesty of retaining historic facades while building a brand new building behind it.

Have we reached digital overload?

Despite the huge technological advances and the scope for their use in retail, designers identified the negative impact of digital technology that didn’t work as it should on retail environments. Designers suggested that clients should opt for tried and tested technology, such as iPads, rather than developing special screens for use in their stores.

Ethelinde Radloff interior architect, Arcadia GroupEthelinde Radloff interior architect, Arcadia Group

There was also some unease at the way that technology could be used by companies to monitor and market to customers across their devices.

Doug Butcher wondered if the possibility of digital overload might present an opportunity. Perhaps there is space for designers to facilitate an escape into a calmer, tech-free zone?

‘Talking to real people, flipping through books and scrapbooks in stores – is there space for that? Is this an opportunity we should be grabbing?’ he said.

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