November 15, 2001

The changing face of retail design

  • After Sept. 11, consumers are going back to the basics
    Callison Architecture


    The events of Sept. 11 solidified certain socioeconomic trends that have been brewing over the last couple years.

    As the American public’s priorities shift to the basics of safety, home and family, the retail industry is poised to respond with offerings that look a lot less Ginger, and a lot more Maryann.

    It is safe to say we are living in the shadow of what some social scientists call a “hinge moment,” an event so compelling it becomes branded by its date.

    While history has shown that it takes years to decipher the effects of such events, one consistent characteristic of hinge moments is that they tend to signal the apex of pendulum swings, reversing trends and crystallizing certain social, technological, economic, environmental and spiritual forces.

    Certainly, sudden events have an immediate impact on consumer spending patterns but, in capturing the attention of the public at large, they also serve as a gauge of social consciousness.

    Today’s consumer will increasingly trade the allure of glitzy destinations for the friendly, safe havens of lifestyle centers.

    As we catch our breath from a frenetic pace brought on by the rapid technological growth and bold entrepreneurial spirit of the last several years, we now find ourselves searching for comfort, stability and inner awareness. The events of Sept. 11 didn’t cause this shift in consciousness, but certainly, they have galvanized it.

    A recent Washington Post article noted the symbolic value of the New York firefighters ringing the bell for the first day of the reopening of the New York Stock Exchange. It was a moment that may very well be viewed as a passing of the torch in how our nation defines its heroes. Yesterday it was the free-spirited entrepreneur; today it is the selfless public servant.

    Following are three consumer trends that began to indicate this change of spirit during the last year or two, but have taken on new life in the wake of Sept. 11.

    About face: Luxury to basics

    The ‘90s were defined by conspicuous attractions such as the Bellagio and Venetian hotels in Las Vegas, winter ski trips to Aspen and Vail, and showy “must-haves” branded by Phillipe Starck, Gucci and Prada.

    The last two months have been damaging to the luxury market. A New York Times article noted significant drops in sales for Gucci, LVMH and Duty Free, all representing the leaders of ostentatious brand consumption. The article further noted that people “are buying less for themselves and more for their homes and families.” A shift has occurred away from brand-driven fashions to basics.

    The negative impact on luxury goods and the corresponding positive impact on the value-oriented big box concepts are obvious. A more compelling challenge lies with the retailers in the middle.

    This should be a prime opportunity for the Gap to re-stress its role as a leader of basics, but how might the promotion of Abercrombie and Fitch change? Can home lifestyle stores such as Pottery Barn and Illuminations create an appeal to the value shopper? Can their value-oriented counterparts such as Michael’s, Pier 1 Imports and Cost Plus seize the moment to capture the lifestyle-oriented and gift market?

    Simplicity and generosity are operative characteristics for retailers to capture.

    Facing (real) reality

    Though the fabricated, “reality-based” programming was likely running its course, the poor opening performance of the Survivor sequel “Survivor: Africa” and the cancellation of NBC’s “Lost,” suggest that today, real reality is more compelling.

    Similarly, the trials of our marquee entertainment destinations such as Disneyland, Las Vegas and Mall of America, which depend in large part on the appeal of their simulated environments, have been well-documented in our media.

    Disneyland suffered 40 percent cancellations in the month of October; shopping visits are down more than 30 percent at the Mall of America. Unfortunately for these destinations, the winds were already blowing away from their direction, as evidenced by the mediocre performances of the recently opened California Adventure at Disneyland in Los Angeles, and the Aladdin expansion and Desert Passage in Las Vegas.

    We now value what is tangible, sensual and emotional. The superficial nature of themed environments now strike us as unnecessary. Retailers that offer tactical, relevant and hands-on service such as Sephora, REI and IKEA are well-positioned to cater to the new values.

    Also, watch for previous fringe or emerging offerings such as spa and massage to come on even stronger. As Susan Paynter, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist noted, taking care of yourself physically and emotionally has become a priority.

    Key to success will be environments and offerings that activate the senses — live music, wood you can knock on, looking across the table and having a real conversation.

    Face to face: Entertainment comes home

    Advertising for American Airlines has shifted from promoting the traditional exotic allure of the sun and fun to the emotional appeal of returning home for the holidays. Southwest Airlines new campaign claims “you can’t e-mail a kiss, some things are just better in person.”

    Meanwhile, the newspaper travel sections are filled with vacation ideas that are close to home, while real estate prices in small, semi-remote communities such as Lake Chelan in Eastern Washington and Bethel, N.Y., are escalating due to increased demand.

    Participating in local, accessible and more frequent community-based activities are becoming the soft entertainment alternative to “institutional fun,” the immersion entertainment of the last decade.

    Social activities such as book groups and readings, friends video nights and coffee-shop jazz are increasingly popular. Bitters, the lifestyle store/wine bar in Fremont exemplifies this growing phenomena, sponsoring such low-key events as Tuesday cards nights, the occasional travelogue and Friday-night music and dance gatherings.

    These means of participating in a community culture are represented by what sociologist and author Ray Oldenburg first identified a decade ago as “great good places” or “third places,” public locales where people gather to socialize and hang out.

    Elliott Bay Bookstore is perhaps Seattle’s most beloved great good place, though there are many others, including ubiquitous coffee shops, as well as a community stage in Lake Forest Park called Third Place. (To its credit, Las Vegas recognizes it can’t compete with local offerings, and has deliberately distanced itself, billing the city as the ultimate escape with its current ad campaign: “Now entering Las Vegas, now leaving the rest of the planet.”)

    Crossroads Mall in Bellevue and Seattle’s University Village have both catered to this desire, offering a focal point for more casual and local shopping and entertainment, an alternative to entertainment destinations with a big “E.”

    We are increasingly designing retail centers as soft entertainment destinations, with a greater emphasis on food and beverage offerings. While food and beverage accounts for about 10 percent of the tenants at traditional regional shopping centers, we are seeing upwards of 40 percent in new centers.

    What we will continue to witness in these so-called lifestyle centers is an emphasis on creating opportunities for gathering. Today’s consumer will increasingly trade the allure of glitzy destinations for these friendly, safe havens.

    Retailers wrestling with an uncertain economy and a shift in consumer priorities would do well to consider how the trend toward value and the basics, the desire for sincerity, and the growing popularity of social and community-based activities can be reflected in their offerings.

    Places, products and services that respond to people’s changing view of how they fit in to today’s world are sure to hit home with customers.

    Stan Laegreid, AIA, is a principal with Callison Architecture and 23-year retail design veteran.

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