The complexity of retail.

Up front disclaimer:

Though I enjoy retail design, I hate shopping. The only kind of shopping I want to do in person, ever, is for groceries. I would rather clean the earwax out of the cat than go out for a day of “shoppies and retail therapy”. Ugh. Just the thought makes my skin crawl. But still, I really like *designing* retail space. This does eventually start to make sense, but it’s a long and winding road to get there, and it takes us through a bunch of concepts along the way that start to lay bare the way retail, and by extension retail design, has become much more complicated in the past 20 years.

Let’s start out with both the simple and obvious- the internet changed everything. If you don’t know that, I don’t know how to help you. The question is WHY, and how that change eventually is made manifest today, in how we design retail now and the things we have to consider when talking about retail design in the future. (It occurs to me this sentence is a grammatical trainwreck.  Then again, I never said I was a writer, either.)

Before the internet came along and shifted the course of history, if you wanted to buy something, you went out to a store and bought it. Comparison shopping was either limited by how much patience you had for bouncing from store to store, or done with the aid of consumer print publications like Consumer Reports. However, relying on publications like that had a downside- it took time. Time for the magazine to arrive, or to order the back issue you needed to research a potential purchase. I used to tease my father that he would research things for so long that by the time he got round to buying them a new model had already come out. Now, with the time between Old Model and New Model shrinking at a fantastic rate, that has only become even more true over time.

We also all know that once the internet came to be, that people began to be able to compare/contrast/access data much more quickly, and that they no longer were required to go to a brick and mortar store in order to make their purchases.

By now, my friends all know where I’m headed. I’ve done this speech before.

What the internet *really* did was level the playing field between extroverted and introverted people. This is not just true for retail, but for every aspect of life. The tyranny of the extrovert was over, and not a moment too soon, as far as I’m concerned. Because once you take away the requirement of having to physically go to all these different shops in order to purchase things, the introverts said Halle-fucking-lujah. No more do we have to deal with crowds, and lines, and screaming kids in the aisles! No more do we have to deal with the insipid soundtrack played over the speakers! No more do we have to deal with the inevitable “Oh, I need to get a price check on this… Hangon.” that always seems to happen to you. Nope. The internet was the best gift to introverts *ever*, on every level and for every conceivable reason. And all of a sudden, brick and mortar stores started having problems, because people were choosing to research and order their products at 3am in their underwear.

There’s a lot more introverts than they thought. We just never had a choice before.

As I type this, there’s a storm outside. It’s raining and very windy and I’m sure it’s cold and uncomfortable. But I can still order pretty much everything I could ever want right now without ever getting wet. Though there is some loss of time and no immediate gratification factor, unless I *need* something on an emergency basis, the delay in time is far outweighed by the lack of my having to deal with all the things I hate about shopping in order to get whatever it is I wanted.

Though it is undeniably true that there is a subset of people who actively enjoy the experience of shopping (I know, I read one retail design blog that is all about this and the main reason I read it so avidly is I have to remind myself that there really are people like this, even though I don’t get the mindset), there’s a lot more people for whom shopping is a necessity, not a sport, and the amount of time saved by shopping online is time that they then have to spend on other things they’d prefer to be doing.

Ok. So now we’re back to how this relates to retail design. I had said the last time I was talking about retail design that retail is about an experience, just as much as it is about the product. That’s no longer true.

Now it’s MUCH more about the experience than the product, because the product can almost assuredly be bought online, more conveniently, and for less money, unless you’re speaking about huge bargain chains like Wal-Mart (which we don’t have in NYC, and of which I am not a fan to begin with) So it is now much more about the experience of the store itself (hello, designers) and the service aspect (which was always important but more so now, since again, there’s a larger set of alternatives out there).

If you can’t wrap your head around this concept, you have a serious problem as a retailer, particularly if you a)aren’t a huge chain like Wal-Mart,( though K-Mart and Sears aren’t doing well) haven’t been around for a zillion years and have a huge built-in client base.

A very serious problem.

To illustrate how retail design can affect the shopping experience, here’s three examples from different industries, that show how this can be done.

Let’s go with the obvious first.

1. Apple.


I don’t even own any Apple products (not even an ipod. Mine’s a Creative Labs.), and I still think their stores are worth wandering around in. I think that they were perhaps the first retailer to really jump on the concept of redesigning the experience of retail in order to make it viable. That, and the fact that this store on 5th Avenue is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year (yes, you CAN buy a gift at 3am on Christmas eve and still manage to save the day come morning.) By the way, to give credit where due, they were designed by San Francisco firm Eight, Inc. If you want to take a virtual tour of the 5th Avenue location pictured above, you can do that too.

2. Prada


I don’t own anything by Prada either, and fashion is as far removed from me as an interest as you can get, but their *stores* are certainly interesting. The brand has embraced all kinds of technology, using RFID tags on clothes to create virtual closets and my personal favorite, the Magic Mirror, which captures images of you digitally so you can replay things back to yourself in the dressing room, trying on clothing at different angles. No need to bring someone with you to tell you how things look from the back- now you can look yourself. The SoHo NYC flagship store (above) was designed by Rem Koolhaas and the Office of Metropolitan Architecture, but the Tokyo Prada store, designed by Herzog and de Meuron is pretty cool too.

3. Kid Robot


Designed by Mash Studios, each Kid Robot store was designed with the regional location in mind. None of the stores look alike, and since the toys themselves are mix/match custom, the stores have that same aesthetic and functional quality as well. Dezeen had a good take on them a while ago. But going beyond that, what the folks at Kid Robot did were to understand that when one door closes you have to strike on opening another. When their SoHo NYC store had to go in for renovations, they opened a pop-up store, appropriately named the Kid Robot Pirate store to continue to generate buzz and interest while the main store was down. Not intended to last forever, but merely as as both a stop-gap and buzz generator/advertising move, this was *wildly* successful (and for those who want to know this stuff, designed by the fine people at AvroKo) because it was conceived as a shopping “event”. A “secret store”. And everyone wants in on the secret, you know?


The point in all of this is that in order to be competitive and to look towards the future of retail design and meatspace retail itself, you have to offer people a new and different kind of shopping experience. Because if you don’t do that, only the hard core shoppers remain. Everyone else will happily buy online (which is less expensive for retailers anyway since the overhead is lower). And since we are speaking about meatspace it all comes down to two things- design and service. The service part isn’t news and it was important 20 years ago too. But the whole concept of design being a real fundamental component of the retail world has drastically changed. It’s what we have to look at in terms of the future also.