A paradigm shift for the future of retail design

Four of the leading design consultants specialising in retail consider how creative concepts will develop in the future

Retail has had three phases, according to Katelijn Quartier, who heads the Retail Design Laboratory at Hasselt University in Belgium. ‘In Retail 1.0, the manufacturer was in charge and no designer was needed. Retail 2.0 was a phase where the retailer was in charge but hired an architect or interior architect to design the store following the brand’s or retailer’s ideas,’ she wrote in Retail Design, Theoretical Perspectives (Routledge). We have entered ‘Retail 3.0, a time when the customer is more and more in charge… This asks for much more from a designer than to translate a retailer’s identity into a store design and goes beyond mere functionality and efficiency – even more so now that a commodification of products, brands and retail is occurring’.

The Gensler Research Institute says that this now means that ‘retail is no longer about products; it’s about the relationship between a brand and its audience,’ insisting that ‘to thrive, bricks-and-mortar stores should be programmed with the same level of targeting and personalisation offered online’. In many cases this will mean using artificial intelligence and predictive analytics to convert customer data into personalised experiences. At the same time, though, ‘retailers should create more human interactions between automated processes and customers – artfully combining human and digital engagement.’

‘Retailers are realising that the biggest impact that digital can have on their business is in store,’ says the accountancy giant Deloitte. ‘Some of the most innovative and compelling stores make digital a core part of the physical experience.’ Meanwhile, ‘online retailers are turning to stores to help them grow their businesses and help service their customers. But these are very different stores, ones that look to replicate the online experience in the offline world.’

With this in mind, FX asked four leading retail design consultants to comment on how the role of the retail designer is likely to change in the next decade: whether, for example, designers will work even more closely with members of other disciplines; what is likely to change in terms of the customer or buying experience, and what new skills designers will need.

Activate your service

A contemporary retail store ‘is no longer just a space with product rails and shelves’, says Karen Byford, MD of Brinkworth

Karen Byford, MD of BrinkworthKaren Byford, MD of Brinkworth

The domination of online and social media platforms has affected the interior designer’s role in delivering retail environments. With retail heavyweights calling on the government to introduce a tax on online sales to combat the death of the high street, we were forced to ask, what is missing or holding the consumer back?

It is not simply that people are moving from one form of retail to another. At the end of 2018, the media was full of reports of spending down on previous years, from both online or physical stores. ASOS, which has a purely online presence, reported low-profit warnings in December 2018, while Primark, a recent client of Brinkworth, has consumers continuing to venture out to the physical stores to pick up a trolley-full of bargains that fit with its ‘amazing fashion, amazing prices’ tagline. There is no online store fallback position and therefore no alternative but to travel.

So, what is the face of future retail, and what does the existing audience now demand of it? At Brinkworth we have been designing retail spaces for 28 years, and in recent years we are definitely seeing a transience, following a state of flux. In particular, the age of roll-outs as we knew them seems to be over. Instead, retailers who engage with us ask what can we add to make the retail experience or customer journey a better one so that people will return again and again.

Adam Brinkworth, the founder and CEO of Brinkworth, has spent the past three years studying this exact question, becoming the first person to gain a doctorate in retail design. His thesis thoroughly examines recent changes and explores future trends, including the emergence of retail in what we call an activation retail environment, where a space simultaneously facilitates retail, hospitality, brand and product education and events.

Brinkworth, with The Mighty Mighty and Four One Four created The Bowl, the first in-store skate bowl for Selfridges’ menswear departmentBrinkworth, with The Mighty Mighty and Four One Four created The Bowl, the first in-store skate bowl for Selfridges’ menswear department

When in 2018 we won a pitch to design ‘the store of the future’ for the fashion retailer Browns, it had already found a site in East London, Browns East. Browns had also recently been bought by Farfetch, whose online platform for highend boutiques delivers purchases within 90 minutes, something it wanted to replicate within a store experience.

The site Browns had signed up to had an events lease, not retail. Rather than see this as a constraint, Browns chose to use it to its advantage by developing a new retail typology. Browns wanted the flexibility to launch and reinvent on a weekly basis with the integration of all the latest digital technology. The space and its flexible sculptural furniture successfully combine these with an element of surprise for the consumer, they can buy apparel, art and coffee from a wholly ‘Instagrammable’, agile space.

This, then, is an activation retail environment in which the consumer becomes an integral participant in the activation, linking not only with the brand but also to the consumer community that is the key to its locality and cultural demographics. From this authentic seed, the consumer is linked to the wider global community through the online presence.

The future of retail design cannot be prescribed, but it is clear that a contemporary retail store is no longer just a space with product rails and shelves. It is a living and evolving space that breathes vitality and activity into its stores’ community, and communicates beyond its walls.

Fusion drive

Simon Kincaid, partner at Conran and PartnersSimon Kincaid, partner at Conran and Partners

The shift from transactional to relational retailing in the high street is making designers and stores rethink the way they use space, says Simon Kincaid,partner at Conran and Partners

Retail is being reshaped and redefined; as buying habits change, the role of shops and malls as places where goods are stocked, put on show, sold and taken away looks increasingly shaky. The cost of doing business on what’s left of the high street, coupled with a dwindling inclination among shoppers simply to shop, means that canny retailers are looking for ways to use precious space wisely and differently. Conran and Partners’ designs for Marks & Spencer’s M&S Home stores is an example of one trend: miniaturisation. This is not just the placing of convenience stores such a Little Waitrose or Tesco Metro in local or even ‘hyperlocal’ locations, but also designing retail spaces to be more efficient and to reflect the effects of online browsing and the home-delivery habit.

Miniaturisation is about reducing the amount of actual stock in-store because fewer people are likely to take goods away with them. You can save space or be more creative with it by not having so much stock on the shelf, especially with goods that people are going to have delivered anyway. We’re pushing that idea with clients, helping them to make their stores work harder at inspiring customers rather than just stacking them high.

With fewer goods, though not necessarily narrower choice, on offer, ‘exchange’ as defined by Adam Smith, is giving way to experiences, engagement and entertainment, freeing retailers to shift the emphasis from turnover to footfall and linger time. You’re still in the game, but you’re doing it in a smarter way.

Retailers now think less in terms of markets and more about customer tribes and individuals, and retail itself is getting less generic and more focused with design. In hospitality design we cater for, say, Mr and Mrs Apple, and retailers are doing much more of that too, thinking specifically about the person or at least the narrower group. Focused design is a display of confidence. In the Nineties, retailing was about white boxes; now it’s about having a strong identity and turning up the volume on the immersive, lifestyle environment. So, if you go into a wellbeing store, you’ll see natural materials and planting, and it won’t be a token effort, it’ll be like you’re in a greenhouse.

The shift from transactional to relational retailing allows designers not only to think out of the box but also to open other boxes and mash up the contents to create fusion retail, a crossover with other forms of selling from restaurants to real estate. The marketing suite for a block of flats is a shop with a two-bedroom product, after all, and you’re still designing to aspirations.

Showrooms for speaker manufacturer KEF, Hong Kong, designed by Conran: ‘The design had to be about getting people into the right frame of mind to engage – it’s like a members’ club, more like going into a hospitality environment than a store’Showrooms for speaker manufacturer KEF, Hong Kong, designed by Conran: ‘The design had to be about getting people into the right frame of mind to engage – it’s like a members’ club, more like going into a hospitality environment than a store’

A case in point is the KEF showrooms in Hong Kong designed by Conran. KEF is a speaker manufacturer with a specialist audio product. So it’s quite a difficult thing to retail because you’re buying the audio quality as well as the physical aspect of it. The design had to be about getting people into the right frame of mind to engage. Some brands would go very techy and fast-paced, but our design was about taking people away from day-to-day ‘noise’ and focusing on a luxury product, with a welcoming, inclusive, comfortable, lounge-style environment and surroundings that include a collection of historic vinyl records and pieces of art. It’s like a members’ club, with a library and lounge space, and much more like going into a hospitality environment than into a store.

Prepare to engage

Doug Barber, founder of London-based multidisciplinary agency Barber Design, foresees a transformation of retail spaces that will call for new skills

A retail revolution – or re-volution, as I like to call it – is happening in front of our eyes. Retail designers will need to become more aware of other disciplines and collaborate with a variety of other specialists to deliver engaging environments. I say environments rather than retail because who exactly knows what the retail future will bring? I see a mix of experiential designers, lighting designers, events specialists and 3D specialists collaborating to bring exciting shopping solutions together.

Doug Barber, founder of London-based multidisciplinary agency Barber DesignDoug Barber, founder of London-based multidisciplinary agency Barber Design

We know that the internet revolution is taking sales away from the tills of the traditional retailers. Convenience is key and the brands that are disappearing from our high streets probably deserve it. Lack, both of vision and investment, has also led to a lot of fat cats destroying what were the staple offers on our high streets. Dinosaurs die out and nimble new retail beasts rise to the surface.

However, we have been working with several online brands who now want to expand into physical spaces. Their requirements are far different from traditional retailers’ perception of shops. They see the physical spaces as environments in which to express their brand personality, engage with a customer and – wait for it – not get worried about selling from.

Their typical aim is to enable customers to engage and then go online to shop. I talk with many retailers who still see their online and offline businesses as separate cost centres. Both need to support each other to drive one P&L for a retail business. But showrooming will become ever more relevant as more customers browse, touch and feel… and then buy online. One of our client’s sales went up over 25 per cent online in each area we opened shops; retail exposure drove incremental online sales.

As the re-volution takes hold, the visitor experience will become paramount, with customers taking away a ‘brand memory’ and becoming advocates of a brand. Invest in your retail experience and customers will invest in you. Even better if they can ‘do good’ or help save the planet with every purchase.

Well-designed products that enhance quality of life will become more important. Throwaway items are becoming less desirable. Quality and sustainability will become paramount as part of a long-term shift away from consumerism to more minimal and eco-friendly living. Service offers will become related to lifestyle-enhancing shopping. In the near future consumers will ask ‘what can this brand do for me, my environment and the wider planet?’ Design has a huge role to play in this global mind shift. We must design products that enhance people’s lives and save the planet at the same time.

Technology has driven changing working habits. People can connect from almost anywhere but while this can increase productivity and efficiency, it can also create isolation. Something similar has also been lost with consumerism. Yet, we all crave a ‘real’ connection with people and nature. Retail destinations that fulfill these simple human desires will attract and engage shoppers.

Shopping centres will grow to become earthly destinations that offer a wider experience than just physical shops. Engagement centres might be a better term for these future retail spaces. We need to create more places in which to meet and engage with one another, have fun and try out new products and experiences.

The lagship store for Angels, a luxury childrenswear brand in Dubai, by Barber Design: jars of sweets and video screens set into the tables engage youthful customers in a luxury, open-plan seating areaThe lagship store for Angels, a luxury childrenswear brand in Dubai, by Barber Design: jars of sweets and video screens set into the tables engage youthful customers in a luxury, open-plan seating area

Besides the obvious 3D requirements, designers will need to fully understand people’s needs. Designers will have to keep updated with the changing customer habits across all lifestyles to ensure that retail experiences are matched with customer demands. Understanding the psychology of shopping will become essential to allow customers to fit in shopping requirements around their other lifestyle choices. Designers must crack the total mindset of customers’ lifestyles before they put their digital-touch-pen to digital paper and create mindful future shopping experiences.

Explore Possibilities

Maaike van Rooden, senior retail brand consultant at leading Dutch consultant SVT Branding & Design Group, explains how a ‘skeleton and skin’ design enables real world retailers to keep refreshing the customer experience

Maaike van Rooden, senior retail brand consultant at leading Dutch consultant SVT Branding & Design GroupMaaike van Rooden, senior retail brand consultant at leading Dutch consultant SVT Branding & Design Group

Retail is a part of everyone’s lives. As retail designers, it is our job to make shopping as engaging, convenient and meaningful as possible. At SVT we believe retail is therefore not so much about shops and shopping centres, but more about the one-to-one relationships between companies and real people. Retail design is not only about how it looks and works, but also about intangible interactions and experiences.

Ecommerce and globalisation are changing consumer behaviour, putting tremendous pressure on traditional retailers. But if retail has to reinvent itself, designers are the ones to drive innovation. The growing demand for ease of purchase means that customers expect to come to a decision faster. Retail design can help with efficient and clear layout and communication, enabling consumers to recognise the service concept quickly and find what they are looking for during their omnichannel journey.

Physical retail can learn from ecommerce, where heat maps, A/B tests and continuous improvement are the standard. Ecommerce thrives on our desire for convenience, and so uses technology and client data to evaluate the results of innovations. Physical stores too, can be optimised continuously towards customer-centric experiences and design. As well as store layout and product range, the choice of store location becomes important, based on factors such as local traffic.

Amazon 4-star, a new physical store where all products are rated four stars and above on Amazon.com, is a great example of smart retail. The assortment of goods in these stores is purely based on client data gained from Amazon. com: what customers are looking for, what is trending, and client reviews and ratings. Collections are clearly segmented, for example, ‘books to read once in a lifetime’ and customer reviews are positioned at shelf level to aid decision-making. The benefits of online shopping, but with instant fulfillment: you don’t have to wait for delivery.

People’s busy lives keep them in an always-on mode, hungry for external impulses and entertainment to keep themselves occupied. We believe that here lies a big opportunity – or actually more of a task – for retailers.

The ANWB Café, part of the new multidimensional store concept in the city centre of Utrecht for Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB)The ANWB Café, part of the new multidimensional store concept in the city centre of Utrecht for Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB)

Retail must create great experiences: to attract, surprise and engage customers every time. To do so, retail concepts must be flexible so that retailers can change and renew store elements and create different dynamics. We call this the ‘skeleton and skin’ principle: in our view a contemporary retail store should contain a rather basic, flexible system (the skeleton), enriched with inspirational elements (the skin) that can be easily changed.

In our whitepaper, Towards Explorative Spaces, Alexander Grit, Maaike de Jong and I introduced a new sort of retail space: these have multidimensional retail functions and are meeting points for kindred spirits, leading to unexpected and memorable encounters. Blurring the boundaries of retail is a current, well-known concept, but this is just the beginning.

The Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB) is one of the largest brands in the Netherlands supporting all modes of travel. It wanted to expand by attracting younger consumers. While its stores are on the periphery of cities or in smaller towns, we developed a new, multidimensional store concept in the centre of Utrecht, close to the boutiques, bars and cafes popular among the target group.

In addition to ANWB’s regular store offering – its clothing, and mobility and travel services – we designed the ANWB Café and new services such as themed workshops and in-store digital experiences. The workshops have been fully booked since the store opening, and the cafe is popular for meeting, working and relaxing.

The ANWB Café, part of the new multidimensional store concept in the city centre of Utrecht for Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB)The ANWB Café, part of the new multidimensional store concept in the city centre of Utrecht for Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB)

In addition to convenience and experience, brand personality and authenticity is key to standing out in the competitive retail market. Brand stories should be true and unique, and it is essential that they will resonate with your target group. Needs and desires may differ with each sort of purchase and type of retailer, and underlying standards and values vary from generation to generation. The honesty of brands, sustainability and being part of society is particularly important to Millennials and Gen Z. They identify themselves with brands that comply with these values – often local and craft companies.

Retail has become complex. The retail formula is the cumulative effect of all customer touchpoints; more and more, designers must be able to unravel this complexity, analyse functions and design each element individually, yet consistently and coherently, to create a strong, recognisable brand. So at SVT we work in multidisciplinary teams and in close cooperation with our client to perfectly understand their brand, business and processes. Retail designers need to understand their field of expertise in depth, and at the same time be able to communicate with other disciplines. They need the ability to act as a sparring partner for the retailer and to explain why certain design decisions will lead to success, ROI and customer happiness. Not an easy task, but in my and my colleagues’ opinions, the best job there is. Every day we strive to improve how people shop and spend their time.

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