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Behind the visage

In a bustling world of bricks-and-mortar stores, some retailers stand out from the crowd. Leigh Stockton looks at recent New Zealand store openings that have impressed both the industry and customers alike.

By Leigh Stockton | December 1, 2016 | Design

Once upon a time, if the racks were kept tidy and the prices relevant, your store was considered respectable.

But in today’s retail scene, companies are faced with competition on every street corner, and the design of their fit-out is a prominent way to stand out.

So what’s the secret to keeping your fit-out looking relevant, interesting and fresh to your customers? As it turns out, it’s not about slavishly following the latest global trends and refitting the store at the drop of the hat.

Here are four shop fit-outs that have impressed the industry, and advice from the experts for retailers wanting to learn from their success.

Bucking the trends

In a sea of blush pink, concrete and pared back fit-outs, so popular in the current high fashion market, boutique handbag label Deadly Ponies is swimming against the tide with the look of its own stores.

Katie Lockhart, an established interior designer and a retailer herself, worked with the label to fit out the two Auckland stores, the Wellington store and a concept store in Ballantynes, Christchurch.

The results are a true reflection of the Deadly Ponies brand: contemporary rather than trendy; playful in a grown up way, and quietly luxurious.

Deadly Ponies’ first permanent space opened in 2013 in Ponsonby, close to Auckland’s CBD, following the popularity of a pop-up store nearby.

Part of the merchandising display involved plinths, which Deadly Ponies’ creative director Liam Bowden found worked really well to show off their product.

This inspired Lockhart and Bowden to develop 12 redwood plinths, chain sawed from logs into different-shaped totems, for the permanent Ponsonby store.

The plinths, inspired by visionary sculpture artist Constantin Brancusi, met the team’s goal of setting the label’s store apart from what others in the area were doing.

With the personality of the store established, it opened the way for Bowden and Lockhart to build on and experiment with new materials and colour palettes – something both designers are known for.

For the concept store inside Ballantynes, Lockhart’s new interpretation of the plinth concept saw plinths of blue foam set against coral and gold. In Newmarket, the plinths form part of custom marble and rose-coloured displays, in a beautiful, cohesive and luxurious aesthetic.

The latest store, which opened on Wellington’s Ghuznee St in August, saw Deadly Ponies experiment with perspex as part of its fit-out. With large windows fronting onto a very busy inner city road, illuminated wall boxes make the right amount of impact from a distance and are just as striking up close.

“I love the level of experimentation that comes with these stores,” says Lockhart. “In essence it is as though they are prototypes, as we go through the entire process of learning about another material and making it successful – and then we leave it and move onto the next.

“This really keeps it fresh and fun for us.”

Lockhart’s advice to retailers wanting to stand out in the crowd is to achieve one cohesive look, not a scrapbook of references.

“The better brief a client can provide to their designer, the better informed they will deliver.” 

Capital gains

Earlier this year, Wellington architecture studio Tennent Brown was awarded the David Jones Wellington contract, designing the high-end department chain’s first store outside of Australia.

This project was different from anything the studio had previously worked on, says director Ewan Brown.

“It was a very fast programme with a client and part of the design team in Australia. It was a real challenge to keep up but at the end I have to say everyone involved in the design team did very well.”

David Jones was a good client, says Brown, because its team specified very clear and simple branding, especially in terms of colour – white everywhere.

However, Brown says, there was creative license when it came to designing the Wellington store.

“David Jones do have a strong aesthetic but we were surprised at how much it could and did change. Their fit-outs evolve from one to the next, trying new ideas at a small scale and evolving from project to project at the large scale.”

When it came to research, the design team and contractor travelled to Australia to meet the Sydney design team, reviewing the latest David Jones store at that time.

“We reviewed how the stores worked operationally and the quality of finish demanded,” says Brown.

“It gave us a fast introduction that fed straight into our work process and relationships throughout the team.”

Tennent Brown was involved from concept design, in coordination with the David Jones team in Sydney, all the way through to completion on site.

The Wellington flagship is the first David Jones store outside Australia. Of the company’s 41 stores, it is the smallest, which led to a smaller offering and a filtering of what products were to go into the final store.

David Jones liased with the specialist concessions, which Brown says were like fit-outs within a fit-out.

The design of the department store was kept very simple and refined as Tennent Brown’s work progressed, with an eye always on what made the circulation clearer and the products more visible.

Building on history

The David Jones Wellington site is housed in the former Kirkcaldie & Stains building, an iconic landmark for the capital. The mid-sized department store had been in the Lambton Quay location since 1868.

Significant alterations to the site in 1980s had left no heritage elements internally. This meant that Tennent Brown could have everything removed, leaving a concrete shell. Air conditioning was installed where it had not previously been. Stairs were removed and infilled, and new escalators installed.

Externally, it was a completely different story. The facade and canopy were tidied up and canopy repainted, with very little of the heritage facade altered above the canopy. New signage was installed and the entries reformed with bronze entry surrounds – all done simply to respect the original heritage facade.

One of the biggest challenges for the fit-out was the ceiling height, says Brown.  

“A significant difference apart from the small footprint [6,600m²] was the low existing ceiling height we had to deal with [three metres], compared with the David Jones typical height of four metres” he says.

“This was one of our biggest challenges – to give greater height wherever possible using Revit BIM [building information modeling software] to make the services above the ceiling as efficiently placed as possible, and below the ceiling to use lighting to give the greatest sense of height.”

Brown says companies can learn from big name retailers by thinking very carefully about their customers’ expectations.

“Always refer back to your core brand. Keep it simple, refine, and always refer back to the brand principles.”

For the love of food

“Our aim was to open an everyday fresh market, a one-stop shop for true cooks and food lovers to come and get everything under one roof,” says Janene Draper, who co-owns Auckland grocery store Farro Fresh with husband James.

“My idea was that if something was in a cookbook, Farro Fresh would stock it.”

It’s been 10 years since the couple opened the first store, in Auckland’s Lunn Ave.

Today, Farro Fresh has four Auckland stores, employs more than 380 staff and stocks product from more than 550 producers around New Zealand.

Customers have come to expect an everyday urban farmer’s market feel when they walk into any of the stores, and similarly to quickly find what they’re looking for, no matter the location. This is, by no means, an accident on Farro Fresh’s part, or the designers of its fit-outs, RCG.

The multi-disciplinary design agency has worked closely with the Drapers from the very beginning, with the focus of all of their shop fit-outs on the shopping experience.

“We want to make sure that customers have a really enjoyable experience and get as many touch points as possible to talk to our team about products,” says Draper.

Starting with the fresh produce section, customers work their way through all the essentials you need – grocery, meat, seafood and wine, with the deli as the central hub. Here they can grab a coffee or select from the extensive range of cheese and charcuterie.

Instead of having to traipse up and down rigid shopping aisles, the central deli creates a nice flow for customers to move around. This is something that’s been installed in each store, tweaked slightly to work with the size and character of the space.

The latest store opening, in Auckland’s affluent Epsom suburb, was recently a winner in the RIA’s Red Awards 2016, with judges commenting that it “feels right on brand with the other stores. As a customer it is predictable and reliable.”

In terms of design, the familiar details are certainly there. There’s a gleaming grind and polished floor underfoot; wooden crates overflowing with produce; rustic colour palettes; use of peg and twine; and other materials that help to soften the shells of the industrial buildings housing all the stores.

Most of the signage is blackboard, painted by an illustrator in authentic farmer’s market script. Merchandising is driven by staff, who create handcrafted ‘stories’ that show off the products.

In the new store, a special juice shack serves freshly squeezed juice for customers. This is a way for Farro Fresh respond to what’s happening in the global food scene, as well as having an extra way to merchandise its fruit and veges.

Andy Florkowski, associate director at RCG, says by spending time and money on the upfront planning, it’s meant the merchandising materials and other additions aren’t overly expensive.

“The core values are still very applicable and the same,” he says.

“This means when culinary trends change, we’re able to build on that with things like the juice shack.”

Draper says it's all about adapting your product range to fit the market and then looking at ways you can bring the trends into store with the architect.

“RCG have been with us since day one so they totally understand our requirements,” she says.

“This is our fourth store in Auckland so we feel we've been able to build on and learn from our experience to create an optimum layout and shopping experience for customers.”

For the love of food

“Our aim was to open an everyday fresh market, a one-stop shop for true cooks and food lovers to come and get everything under one roof,” says Janene Draper, who co-owns Auckland grocery store Farro Fresh with husband James.

“My idea was that if something was in a cookbook, Farro Fresh would stock it.”

It’s been 10 years since the couple opened the first store, in Auckland’s Lunn Ave.

Today, Farro Fresh has four Auckland stores, employs more than 380 staff and stocks product from more than 550 producers around New Zealand.

Customers have come to expect an everyday urban farmer’s market feel when they walk into any of the stores, and similarly to quickly find what they’re looking for, no matter the location. This is, by no means, an accident on Farro Fresh’s part, or the designers of its fit-outs, RCG.

The multi-disciplinary design agency has worked closely with the Drapers from the very beginning, with the focus of all of their shop fit-outs on the shopping experience.

“We want to make sure that customers have a really enjoyable experience and get as many touch points as possible to talk to our team about products,” says Draper.

Starting with the fresh produce section, customers work their way through all the essentials you need – grocery, meat, seafood and wine, with the deli as the central hub. Here they can grab a coffee or select from the extensive range of cheese and charcuterie.

Instead of having to traipse up and down rigid shopping aisles, the central deli creates a nice flow for customers to move around. This is something that’s been installed in each store, tweaked slightly to work with the size and character of the space.

The latest store opening, in Auckland’s affluent Epsom suburb, was recently a winner in the RIA’s Red Awards 2016, with judges commenting that it “feels right on brand with the other stores. As a customer it is predictable and reliable.”

In terms of design, the familiar details are certainly there. There’s a gleaming grind and polished floor underfoot; wooden crates overflowing with produce; rustic colour palettes; use of peg and twine; and other materials that help to soften the shells of the industrial buildings housing all the stores.

Most of the signage is blackboard, painted by an illustrator in authentic farmer’s market script. Merchandising is driven by staff, who create handcrafted ‘stories’ that show off the products.

In the new store, a special juice shack serves freshly squeezed juice for customers. This is a way for Farro Fresh respond to what’s happening in the global food scene, as well as having an extra way to merchandise its fruit and veges.

Andy Florkowski, associate director at RCG, says by spending time and money on the upfront planning, it’s meant the merchandising materials and other additions aren’t overly expensive.

“The core values are still very applicable and the same,” he says.

“This means when culinary trends change, we’re able to build on that with things like the juice shack.”

Draper says it's all about adapting your product range to fit the market and then looking at ways you can bring the trends into store with the architect.

“RCG have been with us since day one so they totally understand our requirements,” she says.

“This is our fourth store in Auckland so we feel we've been able to build on and learn from our experience to create an optimum layout and shopping experience for customers.”

This story originally appeared in NZ Retail magazine issue 746 October / November 2016

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