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Supercharge your store with design

As consumers turn to the internet for more and more of their needs, design has become more important in physical spaces.

By The Register team | December 9, 2016 | Design

Design is now a key drawcard for physical retail stores. Customers who are focused on grabbing their product and getting out can now buy it online with minimal hassle, so if they’ve fronted up in person, chances are it’s because they want something they can’t get at the click of a button – an experience.

Physical stores are an opportunity for the retailer to use design to translate their brand identity into a  real-world experience using elements like colour, texture, lighting, and even food and beverage offerings. The quality of that experience is determined by the many small decisions and processes which go into creating a well-designed fit-out.

When it comes to retail, good design has two main functions, says Affin Group managing director Gabriel Nicolau. Visually, it performs a marketing function by fulfilling your target market’s need for a real-world brand experience. On a practical level, good design performs a physical function by making it easy for you to work and customers to shop in that space.

The aim in completing a retail fit-out, Nicolau says, is to find a balance between these two functions. Recent experiential retail projects Affin Group has previously completed include a display wall for The Loop Duty Free at Auckland International Airport which is surrounded and enclosed by LED lighting strips. The lights create an enticing halo effect around the product.

“Light is everything,” Nicolau says. “Lighting is a very important aspect of fit-outs.”

A similar installation for The Loop Duty Free saw a wine display unit swathed in natural timber. It was complemented by a curved display table. Curved surfaces are difficult to fabricate and install as they don’t conform to standard dimensions of materials, Nicolau says, but studies have shown that people consistently prefer curved visual objects to those with a sharper transition in contour.

A study by the University of Toronto, published in 2013, asked participants to label 200 images of interior architecture as ‘beautiful’ or ‘not beautiful’. As Fast Company reported, the study’s test subjects were consistently far more likely to consider a room beautiful when it was full of curves rather than straight lines. Rounded furniture, oval rugs, and even floor patterns all got the thumbs up.

Nicolau says good design is an instinctual matter. It's about global perception rather than individual elements – you know the 'wow effect' when you see it, and so do your customers. Asked to define it, he says: “The 'wow effect' is a very good combination of materials and lighting with a nice balance of space.”

Nicolau’s favourite example of an innovative retail space is luxury giant Louis Vuitton’s Marina Bay flagship in Singapore. The striking ‘island maison’ features a nautical-inspired interior designed by award-winning architect Peter Marino. It goes to considerable lengths to incorporate art and cultural elements into the retail space – in the womenswear section, the 11m ceiling allows room for ships’ masts to be suspended in the air. Timber used for sailing ships and stone from harbours and slipways is found throughout the store, and a large-scale permanent art installation by British artist Richard Deacon also hangs in mid-air.

A bookstore houses a curated selection of books on travel, design, art and culture, and inside the tunnel which connects Louis Vuitton Marina Bay to the Marina Bay Sands shopping centre, a selection of historic Louis Vuitton luggage is displayed alongside a ‘cultural space’ for local art displays.

Nicolau, who has spent hours exploring the store, says it appeals to him because of its perfectly onbrand integration between form and function. Louis Vuitton Marina Bay’s material elements combine to balance visual appeal with high-performance retail capability, seamlessly incorporating the brand’s heritage.

He likens the customer experience to that of a museum or art gallery: “You don’t feel like you’re in a busy shopping environment.”

Technology has contributed to the Louis Vuitton store’s success, Nicolau says. Integrating technology into retail stores via initiatives like augmented reality dressing rooms and touchscreens can increase customer engagement and dwell time. In addition, Nicolau says high-tech manufacturing processes mean it’s now easier than ever for retailers to access materials which are highly efficient, increasing the longevity and effectiveness of their fit-out.

“Technology means materials are now available which retain a very good appearance and shape for a long time,” Nicolau says.

A little research prior to tendering will help retailers learn which shopfitters offer what services, and what designers can offer. Nicolau says the retailer shouldn’t “just turn up and start tendering”, but involve the designer from the conceptual stage. This means the retailer can temper their expectations in line with the designer’s guidance, and cut their cloth to fit their budget.

“A successful project is well-planned from the beginning,” Nicolau says.

Poor decisions at this stage can lead to situations where the client selects an expensive material with a low-quality manufacturing solution, leading to complications during the project and potentially an overall loss of quality in the finished result.

Nicolau says the design process consists of dozens of small decisions – for example, creating the joinery on a counter. Within this process are repeated choices between cheaper versus expensive materials, and more efficient but less visually sophisticated ways of achieving a result versus complicated options which remove “visual noise”. These choices add up to an overall experience.

Using technology, Nicolau says, it’s now possible to combine high expectations with a lower budget more readily. Better processes can reconcile “an A-grade product with a B-grade price.” He recommends that retailers educate themselves as much as possible on the technical side of fit-outs.

Another Affin Group project for The Loop Duty Free was a cloud-shaped gondola which holds sweets. Every aspect of this fixture was made in-house by Affin Group, from the manufacturing, the painting, the acrylic and the signage. Nicolau says engaging a “one-stop shop” like Affin Group removes the need for a retailer to appoint a project manager, placing the responsibility for managing the project’s many different projects onto the shopfitter instead.

The bottom line is that fit-outs exist to tell the customer what kind of retailer you are. Those small details combine to create a design language which the customer intuitively reads. Through quality fittings, materials and elements, your fit-out can provide an irresistable enticement to your target market, drawing them in and educating them about your brand.

So, what does your store’s design say about you?

Timeline of a retail interior fit-out

1) Share your whole vision with the designer early on so that they can help you reconcile your expectations with your budget. Make sure your designer or architect has all the relevant information: the dimensions of your space; the full scope of your concept, including any existing preferences you may have regarding materials; the required time frame for completion; and your budget.

2) When you’ve decided to move forward with your design, it’s time to approach a shopfitter like Affin Group.

3) If there’s an existing relationship between your company or your designer and the shopfitter, quotes are produced at this point. Otherwise, the project may go out to tender with several different shopfitters competing.

4) The tender is awarded or quote is approved, and the project starts.

5) A lead time, execution and finalisation of the project is decided.

6) The retailer works with the shopfitter as the installation is carried out.

How to make your fit-out more sustainable

According to a 2014 Nielsen report, 55 percent of global online consumers across 60 countries are willing to pay more for products and services provided by companies committed to positive social and environmental impact.

There’s a multitude of ways for retailers to convey eco-friendly warm fuzzies to their customers – they can plant trees; use recycled, recyclable, renewable or organic materials as packaging; and even signal their green credibility with interior decorating cues like chunky wooden fit-outs and indoor plants.

Affin Group managing director Gabriel Nicolau is a big supporter of sustainable fit-outs.“The life of a shop is five to seven years, so the wastage involved in renovating is huge,” he says.

“It’s great for the economy but not for the environment.”

The smart solution to this is to use recycled materials, such as reclaimed timber, or sustainable materials like fast-growing, easy-care bamboo. Nicolau says advancements in technology mean that it’s now possible to replace some environmentally costly materials with low-impact substitutes without significantly altering the visual impact.

“For example, rather than use solid, massive timber and destroying hundred-year-old oaks, we can use veneer, so with one tree we can cover hundreds of square metres.”

Soon, Nicolau believes, 3D printing will make it possible to produce eco-friendly materials which will exactly replicate the effect of traditional materials. Until that day, there’s plenty of options on the market.

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

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