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Form and function

Customers may not always be consciously aware of design but – to misquote a famous phrase about art – they know what they like. Rachel Helyer Donaldson explains how retailers can use design to attract shoppers.

By Rachel Helyer Donaldson | March 29, 2017 | Design

Lisa Donaldson, retail experience consultant for The Retail Collective.

Design offers consumers crucial information about a retailer and whether or not its products are right for them, be it the window display that lured them in off the street, the website they checked out before visiting, and the general ambience and look of the in-store fit-outs.

The best design should distinguish a retailer from its rivals by “selling an experience, a mindset and a feeling,” says Lisa Donaldson, a retail experience consultant for The Retail Collective. “These elements bring the brand to life, enabling the store - both bricks and clicks - to engage with customers and sell itself, the ultimate silent salesperson.”

Turn shoppers into buyers, and hopefully even lifetime customers, by making sure that every single touchpoint on someone’s path to purchase is frictionless – from online to in-store design.

“Good design comes from understanding those touchpoints and developing design solutions to support them,” Donaldson says. “In doing that, you show you understand me and exceed my expectations every time. That’s what makes me sticky with your brand.”

Modern consumers no longer think about bricks and mortar versus online. They want a store to be both a brand experience and a convenient place to pick up orders, while integrating cohesively with the retailer’s digital channels.

Many retailers fail to realise the importance of this, says Studio Gascoigne head Mark Gascoigne.

“Retailers often think that people search on their computers at home, they write down the address and get in their cars and drive and then they do a retail thing. It doesn’t work that way: 60 percent of retail searches are by mobile devices and when people get into the store they expect to still be able to search and participate with the store on their phone or mobile device and it needs to be a seamless experience.”

Unless it’s a $20 million fit-out for a luxury clothes retailer, design is no longer simply about “putting in a fancy ceiling”, Gascoigne adds. “It’s the marketing, the branding, the way [customers are] greeted in the store, what the sales staff are wearing - all of that contributes towards the brand experience.”

“There is no one answer for design. It has to just go with the message of the brand and really support that and it has to be connected directly to the customer so their in-store experience is a continuity of the online experience.”

As a result, technology is now a crucial element of retail design, from personalised advertising to in-store iPads and ordering kiosks. Retailers should always offer free WiFi, says Gascoigne. It can be increasingly hard to get people to opt in with the amount of emails they receive, “but if you can, you can then continue the sales experience for them after they’ve left the shop.”

Overseas, the convenience of click and collect has transformed brands like British department store John Lewis, says The Retail Collective’s Donaldson. The service is becoming more common in New Zealand, with retailers from Countdown to Città now offering the service. Crucially, however, Donaldson recommends that technology should only be used “if it benefits my shopping as a customer, rather than just being there as a gimmick or a toy.”

Spaceworks chief executive Lizzi Whaley.

Spaceworks chief executive Lizzi Whaley concurs. On a recent visit to Europe, she noticed many retailers had technology in store that wasn’t working properly or displaying months-old material.

“Technology really only adds something if you’ve got the ability to maintain it.”

She argues many retailers are trying to put technology in gaps that could be filled “quite easily” by properly training staff. Don’t go down the technology route just for the sake of technology, she says, but “look at the way staff engage with people. A massive amount of brand loyalty can be gained [by this].”

Lighting is “one of the single most important things in any retail environment”, Whaley says. “A retailer will often think ‘more lights, see all the products’, but you’ve got to create a journey with the lighting where it’s higher in some points, lower in others so you can accentuate feature products or spotlight things.”

Design is not just about aesthetics – creating appealing spaces – it is about brand and bottom line. Good design takes people on a journey, essentially to sell products, says Whaley. “It’s all very well to design a very pretty-looking store that has no correlation to the brand or no correlation to the product that they’re trying to sell. It’s very important that the design aesthetic understands what the message of the brand is.”

Recently Spaceworks designed new stores for organic food grocery chain Huckleberry, with a brief to make organic food accessible and dispel the myth about it being expensive. First founded in the early 1990s as Huckleberry Farms, the company is a stalwart of the organic retail scene in Aotearoa.

Relaunched as Huckleberry in 2015, the new series of 10 stores across Auckland aim to be a modern, organic version of the local corner store. Many of the products are sold in brown paper bags while fresh produce is displayed on an angle for better visibility. Using organic and natural materials such as brick and weatherboard, and light-washed timber for the wall shelving and gondolas, the effect is contemporary and clean yet authentic.

While appealing aesthetics were crucial to inspire and engage customers both new and old, Whaley says it was important for the design to act as a backdrop.

“If our aesthetics screams louder than the product then we’ve failed. The product should be jumping off the shelf and [the fit-out] should enhance and support that… it’s all about creating balance and contrast.”

Store functionality was equally important, she says. Unlike supermarkets, Huckleberry stores do not have aisles and the counter is placed fairly close to the front. This allows customers to easily access the products they want.

From its hippy-esque beginnings, the new-look Huckleberry is still about ethics but also offers a wider-than-ever range of products and convenience on several different levels. Its website, which mirrors the stores’ fresh, clean look, offers a home delivery service. In 2016 its Parnell store began to stock ‘grab and go’ food such as organic pies. Meanwhile its New Lynn store, which opened late last year, is significantly larger and will act as a distribution centre for the chain as well as online deliveries.

In 2016 the wave of overseas heavyweights such as Topshop, Zara, H&M and David Jones arriving in New Zealand continued to bring multi-level, high-quality store fit-outs - light, bright and packed with fresh fashion - with new stores in Auckland and Wellington.

Making an understated but arguably far more innovative international entrance was that of skincare company Aesop’s first Kiwi footprint in Newmarket in September. Designed by local architects Patterson Associates, the store follows the Aesop ethos of letting the product speak for itself.

Aesop are “masters” at knowing that the physical experience is central to their brand, says director Andrew Patterson. “Rather than spend their promotion budget on two-dimensional branding and print, they concentrate on creating an environment.”

That environment, he says, is “essentially based around an experience of community and touching and feeling the product and engaging in the product”.

Each Aesop store is “finely tailored” to its physical environs, “right down to the very street that the store is located in”.

The site chosen for New Zealand’s first store was an old Victorian corner store bakery that was later used as a laundry. Pattersons chose to create a “clean and extremely utilitarian” Kiwi wash house – “the kind of room we all discover in our grandmother’s house, usually off an outside porch… with one of those top-loading washing machines with a wringer sitting in the middle”.

Patterson Associates used recycled rimu weatherboards and flooring, and galvanised steel sinks and countertops for customers to test products. Aesop products – in their signature modern apothecary packaging – are displayed on galvanised steel shelves.

Patterson says the response to the store has been extremely good. He says the store is designed “to be a backdrop for people” as well as products and environment.

“When you photograph it empty, of course, which everybody does, it’s missing [a] vital ingredient.”

There is nothing as powerful as a physical environment, Patterson argues. “It’s point of sale, and a much more powerful sales tool than a two-dimensional form [such as] direct advertising or graphics or branding. The three-dimensional form is a really powerful medium because it engages the whole body and the senses.”

For retailers of course, the ultimate issue is to ensure any investment in technology and store revamps pays off. A recent survey of British retailers by UK magazine Retail Week found that 93 percent of respondents said that stores they had refurbished performed better after being refitted.

While standard refit programmes are still required due to wear and tear, store designs need to become more flexible, says The Retail Collective’s Donaldson. This includes increased focus on more cost-effective overlays of brand elements, such as displays, POS and signage, and a lesser emphasis on high-spec finishes and fixtures. “The budgets won’t double - so the way the stores are designed to embrace newness will need to adapt.”

There is also a need for more considered store tiering, with flagship brand experiences becoming more important, she adds. “Not all stores are equal. There is not the time or budget to have every store in the network delivered to the highest specification. What fits one market will not fit all.” 

Aesop, Newmarket.

What trends and issues should retailers be aware of in 2017?

Pop-ups: These will continue to be important to retailers in 2017, says Studio Gascoigne head Mark Gascoigne, and this includes pop-up style fit-outs. Customers expect change and novelty and it is no longer enough to leave a fit-out for five years. A pop-up style fit-out offers retailers a budget-conscious option to freshen up their store.

“The principles of pop-up are getting much more dominant: very short duration fit outs that are temporary [or] change a lot, and I think even mainstream retailers are going to have to get used to that.”

Collaboration: Often done in the form of a pop-up within another retailer, collaboration is another emerging trend, Gascoigne says. Common examples are a café inside a fashion store, or the launch of a new wine label inside a luxury car showroom. “These give great social media coverage.”

Personalisation: Personalisation is the new luxury, says The Retail Collective retail experience consultant Lisa Donaldson. “Traditional luxury, for some people, is now everyday – you can get a Chanel knock-off online, it’s no longer real luxury.” Personalisation, she says, offers a consumer the chance to own a unique product, and feel like they are getting extra value. This includes Apple engraving names on the back of iPhones and watchmaker Nixon NYC’s ‘workshop bar’ that allows customers to build their own one-of-a-kind timepiece. 

Convenience: From the ubiquitous Uber to the rise of subscription services to WiFi connected devices such as Amazon Dash which reorders customers’ favourite products with the press of a button. “The brands that are being really disruptive don’t necessarily have a store front but someone’s identified a challenge and put a solution forward and people love it,” says Donaldson. “We are so time poor and we want easy solutions to things.”

Experience: Retailers such as Samsung’s flagship store in New York and Barkers in Auckland’s High Street are encouraging customers to stay longer in store without pushing product on them and making them feel at home with seating, coffee and WiFi for the digital nomad. “A relaxed store design allows discovery and exploration with the product,” says Donaldson. “Retailers [are] understanding their customers and catering for their needs in a more engaging way.”

Implementation: This will remain a big issue in 2017, says Spaceworks chief executive Lizzi Whaley, with the construction industry becoming ever more busy and expensive. “You never want to rush the design process because the design is what you are left with. [It] is what is there to sell your product and is there to last the distance. Nobody wants to refit too soon because it’s an expensive process.”

The design-led florist: Blush

It may have only blossomed onto the retail scene last year but new florist studio Blush knows how to give its customers a theatrical experience. With its stage-like brass counter, library ladder and white troughs of blooms, the 10-month old store provides Parnell passers-by and shoppers alike with an insight into the “chaotic and a little messy” business of preparing weddings and events.

As well as its beautiful interior - raw brass, white brick, white and blush linen, oak and marble - the Blush brand is reflected in its signage, van livery, website, Instagram and innovative handbag-like paper carriers.

Along with wedding and corporate clients the boutique is also a florist for walk-in customers, who buy ready-made bouquets, choose stems for arranging or purchase from an ever-changing array of luxury gifts and coffee table books.

Blush founder and creative director Kelly Karam had run her floristry business out of her garage for almost a decade for clients like Louis Vuitton and the Hilton Auckland. Opening a shop had never occurred to her until she happened to spot the perfect place for lease on Auckland’s Gladstone Rd.

Karam designed the 70sqm interior herself. “I knew instantly that we wanted a white backdrop for the flowers and that we needed to use the space well, so I thought up the idea of housing the flowers in troughs and accessing them on a library ladder.”

She commissioned Powersurge Metalworks to make the ladder, troughs and signage and DBJ furniture to produce the five-metre brass bench. Karam chose the light pendant from Douglas and Bec.

Hannah Design created Blush’s logo and colours while Think Pack created the florist’s iconic flower carrier and long pink and gold foil boxes. “I wanted a product that was innovative to set us apart and practical,” says Karam. She says that while the brand came first, “it [all] came together very easily and just played out like a story in my head.”

Blush’s website was also created in-house by general manager Megan Piper while Karam’s sister, photographer and stylist Amanda Thomas, shoots the store’s flower wall twice a week for the website and Instagram.

Karam says the shop has set the tone for Blush’s flower aesthetic.

“The space reflects what you will receive in the way of flowers. Modern, beautifully crafted and well-made with the highest quality product - and a little fresh and new.”

Blush, Parnell.

The store that design built: Città

Design store Città’s new flagship store offers customers a ‘home away from home’ environment where customers can try out different looks using the free services of trained stylists.

Originally a wholesaler when it started in 1989, Città - meaning ‘city’ in Italian and pronounced with a ‘ch’ - has since scaled back on its hundreds of global wholesale clients and moved into retail seven years ago, selling “well-designed, attractive products that you use everyday” says founder Margot Acland.

It now has 14 stores in New Zealand and one in Sydney. It still exports to a handful of overseas stores, including the Korean department store Casamia where it outsells the iconic Finnish design brand Marimekko.

At 600 sqm the Newmarket store, which opened in early December, is much larger than its other footprints but has the same white walls and polished floors. Formerly the site of Hammer Hardwares and Number One Shoes, Città inherited a “pretty clean shell”, says Acland, but the challenge was to make the huge space feel more intimate.

Città head of furniture and 3D David Moreland and Jonathan Goss of Paul Izzard Design used HardieFlex panels - concrete-like sheets – on the upper walls to add warmth. These, along with white walls and a new display shelving system, “help bring what is a very large space down to a more intimate scale”. Resene paints are colour-matched to Città’s seasonal colour palette – currently inspired by the landscapes of Bolivia – to create the spaces for room-setting displays.

The enormous footprint also offers Città the chance to try out its new service Style Your Space: three dedicated areas where customers work with Città’s in-house design experts to create a look that works for them.

Marketing and retail manager Katrina Glenday, who came up with the concept, says it gives Città the chance to build a community around its brand as well as offer customers a richer encounter. “We want the customer experience to end with having Città product in your home that you love, and the feeling that taking that product home with the confidence to style it is part of that experience.”

Glenday also hopes Style Your Space will help attract and retain good staff, “by empowering them to take that position of expert”.

Città began offering click and collect just before Christmas and the uptake has been “fantastic”, says Glenday. “We are also able to offer complimentary gift wrapping so other than customer convenience, we are able to draw the in store and online experiences even closer together.”

The Città brand extends to the design of its online communications including Instagram and a Style Your Space blog, written by the marketing team. However Glenday says Città will overhaul its website in 2017 to offer added functionality such as checking in-store availability, click and collect fulfilled in-store [instead of its warehouse] and a wedding register. Newmarket customers will be able to enjoy a flat white in the new in-store Città Café, opening in the next few months.

This story originally appeared in NZ Retail magazine issue 748 February / March 2017

Citta, Newmarket.
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