Designing for Various Retail Environments

Recently Carrie Rossenfeld wrote and article for Globest.com dealing with current changes in the retail environment that are affecting how architects and designers approach a project. The title, The Changing Art of Designing Urban Retail Projects, is especially appropriate, not a little because retail store design is acknowledged as an art, but mostly because it offers a thought provoking comment on the current retail context near and dear to all of us working in the DC area; namely the shift from auto dominant to pedestrian dominant shopping. Anyone who visits this site knows that this is not the first time I have engaged this topic, it is though, the first time I am inspired to organize the various environments in which I work into a single picture as follows:

Past Trends

Urban Retail – This requires little description. It is Main street USA, whether in a big city or small. It is pedestrian dependent and spans American History from Colonial Willamsburg to Old Town Alexandria. It is an all inclusive spectrum of retail types and has become a model for current development.

Suburban Shopping Centers – Historically these followed suburban expansion after WWII supplying life’s necessities to newly mobile shoppers. A typical shopping center consisted of a grocery store, a drug store, some specialty retail, and a couple of out-lots. In time a big box was added, eventually becoming the force behind development until today we have acres of big box shopping centers. The type has come to include a range of retail offerings from outlet malls to ethnic centers merging into a sprawl-scape along major roads and axes, all depending on the car for shoppers.

 

Suburban Malls – These days almost relics, most of us have seen their rise and fall. The ones that are doing well are, some say, surviving because the others have failed. They are often in high income suburbs, connected with public transportation, draw international shoppers, boast multiple department stores, have expanded the types of anchor tenants they attract, and perhaps most important to this discussion, although dependent on the car for shoppers, the stores are designed according to a specialized pedestrian model. Local examples: Tysons Corner, Pentagon City.

 Present Trends

Mixed Use, also known as Emerging Urban, New Suburbanism, and the Mall Reborn (Don’t you love all the names?) – Of course, this is where the action is. From my standpoint – designing for individual retailers – it is where pedestrian vs. non pedestrian visibility collapses into complexity. David Kitchens, in the aforementioned article, drew attention to the challenges involved in designing for, and integrating multiple uses into a development project, telling us that “…residential, office or hospitality…needs to be intertwined with or added to existing retail..” The “repositioning” of Ballston Common and Landmark Mall were sited as local examples and in particular caught my attention because I have had inquiries from retail tenants being affected by the changes going on in these places. Architects and designers working in the mixed use environment must have confidence that they, together with stakeholders in the greater design environment, will produce a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. They must be willing to release some control, to admit a bit of “chaos.” Kitchens put it well when he said it is about creating neighborhoods. As an independent design firm working on retail projects in many different environments, I get this better than most.

Future Trends?

Industrial/Commercial/Business Parks – Defined by the National Institute of Building Science, Light Industrial “… can include but is not limited to spaces for printing, commercial laundry, photographic film processing, vehicle repair garages, building maintenance shops, metal work, millwork,..cabinetry work…” Think specialized showrooms, i.e., kitchen, lumber, restaurant supplies, catering, swimming pools, motor cycle accessories (Really, I had one inquire). Think those moving from online sales toward brick n mortor. Think those responding to “showrooming.” Recent experience has lead me to believe that this is an overlooked retail environment and as such an opportunity. From a store design standpoint, diametrically opposite to the complexity of mixed use, their retail presence is straight forward, direct and dependent on the car for shoppers. It is a sector starting to see the value of investing in professionally designed retail showrooms.

Describing these retail environments has been a fun exercise but I didn’t do it just for fun? I did it to make a point about designing a retail store to increase sales. Few would argue that designing a retail store is involved with issues of shopper behavior, in particular how it can be influence by a store design. I have accumulated an ever multiplying list of “Strategies for Designing Your Space.” and do a presentation on the subject. The article that started this survey, on the other hand, is about the other side of the issue, specifically how shopper behavior is influenced by the environment in which a store finds itself. Of course, real estate people would sum this up as “location, location, location,” a subject that shows up in business plans and marketing activities all the time. If, though, we understand the ideas set out in the article, the issue is more complex, suggesting that the current trend is for there to be little or nothing spontaneous or random about the macro environments in which retailers find themselves. Also, I have often found that in the process of macro planning developers have let go of micro constraints typically found in places like leases and tenant handbooks. This can be deceiving, leading a retailer to overestimate their control of a project. In local terms this means that a space in a planned urban environment like the Mosaic Retail District is a lot different than a space in Georgetown or Old Town Alexandria or in a strip center or industrial complex as well. I would urge any retailer thinking about their store design to consider responding to both the macro and micro point of view. It is what has motivated me to summarize the several retail contexts listed in this post.

Bridget Gaddis, is a Licensed Architect and LEED-accredited Professional practicing nationally, and locally in the Washington DC area. She holds professional degrees in both Architecture and Interior Design, and with a comprehensive background in commercial retail design, planning and construction has completed projects for such for such well known brands as Chloe, Zegna, and Bvlgari. Her career began in tenant coordination and site planning for two well-known Cleveland developers, followed by six years in store planning for a national retailer. After a move to New York City in 1997, she spent the next years working for architecture firms specializing in retail projects. In 2011 she started her own practice in Alexandria, VA. Ms. Gaddis is the author of two blogs dealing with architectural subjects.

Unbranding the Brand Part III

Main Street dress shop local brand

Above is a local “Old Town” shop, what would be called a “Mom & Pop” shop. The name of the shop is more about describing the product than creating a brand identity. The sign, though in a prominent location, is not graphically pronounced because there is little or no contrast between the letters and the background. In fact, the street address attracts more attention than the sign because it is outlined in black. Yet, there is no question that this is a dress shop. The product in the window is nicely displayed and says it all. A shopper, looking for something to wear to dinner or a night out, might choose this boutique thinking that she could find a one of a kind dress, something that would not show up on another guest. In this neighborhood, she might also expect, personal service, quick alterations and if she was a tourist delivery to her hotel.

Main Street Dress Shop, Well Known Brand
Main Street Dress Shop, Well Known Brand

The same shopper might see Chico’s, just down the street, and walk right by. After all, here she knows what to expect. They are in every mall. The clothes are nice, the price is ok, but maybe she is not sure about the service, alterations and delivery. She also knows she could end up in the same dress as her friend. She opts for a new experience in an unknown shop.

Unbranding

For the sake of this discussion, lets conclude that my observations are correct and the shopper prefers the unknown shop. Where does that leave Chico’s? If we look closely, we will see that there is a whole other level of information in these two storefronts that is being overlooked. The merchandise and window displays look very similar. Is Chico’s missing an opportunity to go one on one, product to product with the local merchant. Is the brand overpowering the merchandise? What would happen, if they lost the big black and white signs over the door and window and just let the small signs at the bottom of the window remain? Would that level the playing field?

I actually chose Chico’s for this discussion. They appear to be trying some new marketing strategies. They have a television advertising campaign that features the product over the the brand. I have been reading that they are doing well in these tough economic conditions. It would cost very little to try the same strategy on their storefront design where conditions warrant. As store planners and designers we are not often informed about the success of our designs. The measuring is done at the cash register and, we only know if our projects are successful when we are hired to do another location.

Bridget Gaddis, is a Licensed Architect and LEED-accredited Professional practicing nationally, and locally in the Washington DC area. She holds professional degrees in both Architecture and Interior Design, and with a comprehensive background in commercial retail design, planning and construction has completed projects for such for such well known brands as Chloe, Zegna, and Bvlgari. Her career began in tenant coordination and site planning for two well-known Cleveland developers, followed by six years in store planning for a national retailer. After a move to New York City in 1997, she spent the next years working for architecture firms specializing in retail projects. In 2011 she started her own practice in Alexandria, VA. Ms. Gaddis is the author of two blogs dealing with architectural subjects.

Unbranding the Brand II

Unbranding, it appears from my research, is a term used to describe a fix, meaning one or more of the following:

The brand has been somehow damaged. The Value Jet plain crash is an example of this. Photo used under Fair Use
The market is saturated and cannot support the same shop over and over again. Starbuck’s has been opening new locations named after the street address in an effort to capture fresh markets. Photo used under Creative Commons
The decision makers in the organization decide that the brand is in need of revision or update. Photo used under Pulic Domain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My idea of unbranding, in the context of this discussion, goes more to the question raised by John Freeman in the previous post when he said that he “hated brands.” The comment was made in the context of a discussion about storefront design. My interpretation of this is that he hated the uniformity, the lack of surprise, even the visual dominance of the well known brands. This describes a store design problem that is related too, but not the same as “unbranding” as a fix.

As an additional note I should say that bigger business brains than mine are describing this “unbranding” trend that I have seen coming for a while.  This article  in Harvard Business Review is important enough to retailers for me to reference it here.  Continued in Part III.)

Known Brand
Known Brand
Known Brand
Known Brand
Known Brand
Known Brand

 

 

 

 

Bridget Gaddis, is a Licensed Architect and LEED-accredited Professional practicing nationally, and locally in the Washington DC area. She holds professional degrees in both Architecture and Interior Design, and with a comprehensive background in commercial retail design, planning and construction has completed projects for such for such well known brands as Chloe, Zegna, and Bvlgari. Her career began in tenant coordination and site planning for two well-known Cleveland developers, followed by six years in store planning for a national retailer. After a move to New York City in 1997, she spent the next years working for architecture firms specializing in retail projects. In 2011 she started her own practice in Alexandria, VA. Ms. Gaddis is the author of two blogs dealing with architectural subjects.

Unbranding the Brand, Part I

Night View Down Bathesda Avenue, by G. Edward Johnson, 7/30/2008, Author: EnLorax, from Wikimedia, Creative Commons

At the AIA convention this past summer I attended an event entitled: Bathesda Row a Retrospective Look at a Retail Icon. For anyone not familiar with it, Bethesda Row it is a highly successful mixed use development project that took place over 17 or so years. It is a model of successful “main street” retail. The developer, John Freeman, made a side comment that may have been the most telling point in the event. He said, “I hate brands,” thereby moving an idea from a thought to a thing. He followed with a discussion of the tenant mix housed in the retail parts of the development, saying that 35% of the tenants were independent “mom and pop” retailers that were critical to the success of the project. I have thought for a while now that the newest trend in the built retail environment might well be “unbranding” the brand. If so, the implications for store design and planning are considerable.

It is probably important to say that the term “unbranding” as used here is inclusive, meaning: replacing an existing brand to escape bad press, re-branding in order to alter and existing identity, or putting forward an entirely new brand. However it is implemented, “unbranding” is expensive, and a great deal of marketing (as per this article  which may be more than you ever wanted to know, but nevertheless worth a read) has certainly gone into any such program long before it reaches the point of actual store planning.

That said, it might be a good idea for a retailer to take a look at it’s real main street competition on a location by location basis before designing the new store. (Continued in Part II)

Bridget Gaddis, is a Licensed Architect and LEED-accredited Professional practicing nationally, and locally in the Washington DC area. She holds professional degrees in both Architecture and Interior Design, and with a comprehensive background in commercial retail design, planning and construction has completed projects for such for such well known brands as Chloe, Zegna, and Bvlgari. Her career began in tenant coordination and site planning for two well-known Cleveland developers, followed by six years in store planning for a national retailer. After a move to New York City in 1997, she spent the next years working for architecture firms specializing in retail projects. In 2011 she started her own practice in Alexandria, VA. Ms. Gaddis is the author of two blogs dealing with architectural subjects.