IRDC 2013: Technology Tips the Scales

By Michael Bodziner

Originally published on GenslerOn

The Hudson Grace store in San Francisco offers customers a thoughtfully curated collection of house wares that emphasize the beauty of simple design and the warmth of a welcoming home. Photo by Matthew Millman, © Gensler.

I often find Fall to be the busiest time of year, and the activity is invigorating. The conversations with colleagues and clients that I’ve recently been a part of underscore the fact that the retail industry is continuing to evolve in dramatic fashion. Last year and even the year before that, technology was a major undercurrent to the conversations, but this year its position as the primary impetus for change is firmly rooted.

Technology was a bigger topic at this year’s International Retail Design Conference (IRDC) in Vancouver than it has been in previous years. You can’t talk retail without talking digital, social, mobile; it’s now part of almost every experience. Brands simply can’t afford to be average anymore, and a seamless connection between digital and personal is often what sets the innovators apart.

Five IRDC sessions reinforced the strategies that retailers need to consider if they want to stand apart from their competitors:

  1. David Kepron’s session called “Brands, Brains and Buying: How Your Brain Goes Shopping and Why it Matters to Store Design” fascinated me. A designer by training and a retail consultant by trade, David focuses his work on the intricacies of customer behavior by applying principles of psychology, sociology and neuroscience. These are influences that are unfortunately easy to overlook, but are increasingly important to consider as our reliance on digital technologies literally changes the way our brains work. As humans, we pick up on the emotions of people around us (when one person yawns, we all do), so retailers need to be aware of their energy. Clutter is one example of an energy killer – it makes it hard for our brain to distinguish between products. Too many options can stifle our ability to choose. Hudson Grace, illustrated above, is designed on the premise that less is more and curation by retailers with credibility is a good thing.

  2. In his session, “The Future of the Retail Store,” Doug Stephens stated emphatically that retail is not dead, but rather that we’re entering its golden age. I agree! We’re entering an era of massive customization, as he called it, where technology empowers shoppers to buy anything they want, made personally for them – and empowers brands to provide those custom products as efficiently as they have rolled out the cookie-cutter versions for years.

  3. Our friend Paul Loux presented “The Beauty Behind Sephora: Innovation and Strategy at Work in an Omni-Channel Brand.” Here’s a brand that is closing the gap between online and in-store better than most others, and they did it by jumping into a multi-channel strategy head-on, and keeping their customers’ wants and needs at the core. A seamless experience across the brand’s website, mobile app, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Apple PassBook, and brick-and-mortar channels focuses on making customers’ lives easier, and Sephora reaps the rewards in high levels of engagement and sales.

  4. Another retailer getting it right is Starbucks, so it’s no surprise they were featured as VMSD Retailer of the Year. Not only is Starbucks a leader for its mobile-fueled in-store experience that tightens the bond with individual customers, the brand is also forging great relationships with the communities it’s entering – especially new global markets – by adopting a design strategy of localization that acknowledges local cultures, traditions and flavors in each adaptation of its global prototype. Their willingness to experiment with materials, fixtures, finishes and entirely new formats is something that other brands should be paying attention to; as I said before, you can no longer afford to be average, and certainly not stagnant. Change is good.

  5. I must give a nod to my colleagues Irwin Miller and Alan Robles who co-presented with Florin Gale from Microsoft and Yahav Ran from The Hive on Technology Rich Experiences in Retail. This session also fascinated me. Many designers and brands are so focused on technology as a tool that enhances customer experience, the content delivered by that tool is often an afterthought. Here though, the team used Microsoft’s brick-and-mortar stores and their collective 4,500+ screens as a case study to illustrate how software can be used to model dozens of stores and the digital content within each location – ensuring that the messaging is consistent, clear, locally relevant, effective and engaging.

  6. I said there were five best sessions, but I have to give out one more Honorable Mention: I always love the Iron Merchant session, and this year was no different. I was thrilled to see that the event organizers moved Iron Merchant to the opening night. It’s our best chance to roll up our sleeves and be designers, after all, and to break the ice with our colleagues and competitors with whom we brainstorm for the rest of the conference. This year’s challenge was to design a display that tells a story, featuring a male mannequin dressed as a Mountie (we were in Vancouver, after all). So much fun. During events like this the air of camaraderie comes out, and always makes me proud to be a retail designer.

Michael Bodziner is a leader of Gensler’s global retail practice and principal in our San Francisco office. Constantly researching retail’s interrelation with society, economy and human emotional response, Michael is an advocate for authentic experiences that enrich the lives of both consumers and retailers. As a convergent thinker, he incorporates lessons learned from Gensler’s hospitality, branding and entertainment practices to create holistic retail environments.

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