Under the Hood: Retail

By Mimi Zeiger

Originally published in Dialogue 23

Retailers are on the front lines of consumer trends. To understand how they keep their edge, we got “under the hood” with five designers with deep roots in the sector: Aaron Birney, retail design director, Gensler Los Angeles; Andrew Bornand, digital experience director, Gensler San Francisco; Owain Roberts, retail design director, Gensler London; Alan Robles, experience designer, Gensler Los Angeles; and Kate Russell, retail design director, Gensler New York.

How is the focus on customer experience changing retail?

Kate Russell: Retailers address the whole experience of the customer’s life. That has many implications. For example, the categories of specialty retail used to be much more defined, but that’s not true now. You have to understand the products that are typically shown together, but also suggest how they might merge and what happens when there’s a bit of everything in a space.It’s not just that categories that don’t seem to go together are converging, but that the experience components of art, food, and fashion are also starting to come together.I see a lot of department stores that abandoned food 40 years ago and are now thinking of how to incorporate it. They’ve seen the success of many different purveyors of experience in food, such as Eataly in New York and the Mercado in Spain, that have large gourmet departments of kitchen things and fresh food—quick, chic food on the go. American department stores are starting to look at food in a new way because they see successful examples in Japan and South Korea of how to incorporate fresh food and make it part of the experience. In London, they see Harrods—the classic example of a department store with a gourmet food hall. But they also see smaller US retail establishments that make the café and fresh, organic food an integral part of the design—distinguishing them experientially from other stores that just put a coffee shop inside and call it a day.

What’s the place of technology in today’s retail experience?

Alan Robles: The realignments between online and in the store are the most significant change I’m seeing in retail right now. Can customers check themselves out? What’s their online experience in the store? Some retailers limit what you can buy with soft checkout, using your smartphone, but others let you buy anything you want—you can wait and it will be there in an hour.

Owain Roberts: It’s very hard to impress people with technology nowadays because it’s omnipresent. It’s tempting to put smart devices or their content in stores, but the customers already have it on their phones. Technology works best when you don’t see it, when it’s intuitive, when it helps the retail experience but it’s not shouting at you. When you incorporate it in a retail environment, it can’t be just a gimmick.

Andrew Bornand: The thing about technology is it becomes obsolete quickly, so the cost of creating an experience that depends on it has to pay for itself in a very short time. That’s why most retailers would rather let customers use their own smartphones as the point of interaction, rather than have to install something in the store. But a smartphone can only do so much. It doesn’t lend itself to viewing luxury products or high-ticket items. For those, you really need to see a bigger picture or greater detail to be engaged.

KR: I advocate using technology only when it does something that you can’t do in another way. If you can do without it, you probably should. I agree that the best technology is seamlessly integrated, enhancing the experience without people noticing that it’s there. If there’s an interactive component, it needs to be unique—something you can’t experience anywhere else. That’s when it becomes interesting.

Andrew B: Uniqlo’s new San Francisco store has what it calls a “magic mirror”—while looking in it, you put on a jacket, for example, and you use gestures to change the color. And that jacket, in all those colors, is just a few steps away. In a sense, it’s replicating what you could do without a “magic mirror,” but it’s engaging—something newer and better than you could find elsewhere. It positions Uniqlo as the technology leader. That mirror was all over the media when the store opened—it was so out of the ordinary.

Aaron Birney: Retailers often want to localize their stores, which can be prohibitively costly. Technology can help with that, providing a way to create a place-specific or personalized message. Microsoft is a good example: the digital ribbon in its stores creates synergy with the online experience. It tells stories about the products, and—by incorporating local scenery and landmarks—helps tie each store to its community with locally relevant messages.

KR: The opposite of just adding technology for the sake of technology is addressing service as a really important component of any retail setting. Even more than a digital experience, service is a way to get a more personal experience into a space. And the expectation of service as a differentiator happens at every price point now.

What’s causing people’s service expectations to change?

KR: It used to be that if you were shopping at the high end, you expected a certain level of service because you were spending a zillion dollars. Today, people shopping at much lower tiers of retail expect service to be part of the experience. Because of the shift in the economy and the way people look at parting with their money, it’s no longer a tiered system. Instead of thinking, “I’m shopping here because this is all I can afford,” the attitude is, “If I’m going to give you my money, you’re going to give me something nice in return.”For lower-end brands, that expectation of service—providing a nicety like free tailoring, for example, or a personal shopping service—is new. Whatever that nicety is, the smart brands at that price point are separating themselves from their competitors by figuring out what’s right for them and how to offer it to their customers.

OR: As customers, we’re not only expected to invest our hard-earned cash on products, but now we have to invest our hard-earned free time. Everyone understands that online shopping is immensely convenient, that you can shop at any time of the day and anywhere in the world thanks to smartphones and technology. But shopping is more than just a transaction of cash for a product. It’s about meaningful connections.

KR: There has to be an experience that connects with the customer. The idea of drawing people into the theater of retail rather than having them do it online is something that every brand struggles with: what should that experience be? When I look at how a brand sits in the marketplace—how it compares in price with other brands versus how it’s actually viewed by customers at large—I look for what really differentiates the brand in their minds and how best to get that across.

As retail designers, how do you approach luxury and authenticity?

Aaron B: Luxury is always in the eye of the beholder, so defining it in a broader sense hinges on a shared sense of the difference between luxury and something less. Take leather versus vinyl: you can’t fake real leather, because it has a completely different message than vinyl, down to the scent. The way the seams are detailed and the sheer materiality of leather communicate luxury. As designers, we have to make sure that we’re speaking the same language as our clients and their customers. We have to arrive at a shared set of core principles.

AR: As the design develops and constraints arise, we often find clients fighting for the concepts that convey these core principles in the most authentic way. Authenticity is frequently how luxury differentiates itself.

Aaron B: Authenticity can elevate a brand at any price point. Take El Pollo Loco, the quick-serve restaurant chain. Its restaurants make the effort to cut their own fresh salsa and marinate their own chicken—the food isn’t coming frozen off a truck. Some of the grillmasters have been with the restaurants for 20 years. They have a following, like chefs at “name” restaurants. As designers, we look for these nuggets of authenticity—things that are as memorable to the people who work there as they are to their customers. If we can bring them forward in the design, the resulting sense of authenticity helps set the brand apart. Authenticity is really accrued experience. Experience of a brand is personal, yet communities of customers share it. What they share, stretched and pulled by every new generation, is what prompts reinvention. But it has to ring true every time.

Mimi Zeiger is a contributing editor at Architect magazine.

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