[design '97]

Form follows function... or the store dies

Satisfying the customer is the basis of successful retail store design.

The Retail Group

There is a distinct science to retail and a science to shopping. These sciences must serve as the foundation for store design and construction for retail stores to remain competitive.

The Beauty Bar
photos courtesy The Retail Group

This foundation should be based on margins, turn schedules, market position, and most importantly, the consumer. Retail's raison d'etre is to serve customers. Once a retailer has developed a business plan, identified the customer and established strategies, the store design must build on this foundation. The best store designs extend that service mission, build on retail principles and reflect the company's strategies, brand and purpose.

Too often, designers focus on their design first, people second. To succeed, fulfilling the customer's wants and needs should be primary in the mind of the designer. Serving the customer must always be the core goal -- not the "ta-da, look what we did" mindset. Ta-da is fantastic when it is deserved: when the store performs its function in transcendental fashion.

Even the grandest retail designs must dovetail with the store's strategies, market position and customer desires before they can win accolades. Consider Seattle's REI flagship store. REI is certainly one of the all-time greatest niche marketers in this region, but was the new monolithic store designed for REI's target customer? It's a beautiful place to visit, but I don't see the same folks in it who shopped the old store. Retail stores should serve as extensions not only of a company's image, but of what the customer truly desires.

In today's competitive retail environment, store design has the power to persuade customers to fulfill their desires at one store versus another. How do you prevail in the fight for fickle consumers' dollars? Create a connection between the store, the company and the consumer.

In many cases, successful stores sell lifestyle more than product. Why choose The Gap when you can buy jeans and a T-shirt at every other apparel retailer? Because Gap is Gap. It's clean, it's hip, it's simple, it's American. The Gap stores reflect the company's image in graphic design, finishes and a simple, easy-going layout. The Gap knows it's customer, knows what he or she wants and gives it to them.

Gap has become a transcendental, category-defining icon. These icons have elevated shopping to the next level. They become so much more than just an apparel, furniture or coffee store because they have reached the pinnacle of consumer consciousness.

Made in Washington

Stores like Seattle's Best Coffee, Eddie Bauer and Starbucks export Northwest culture to the world using successful store formulas of fit, form, function and good ol' behavioral action and psychology of shopping. Starbucks doesn't just serve coffee, they condition shoppers to desire coffee as a way of life.

The psychology of shopping relies upon consumers' senses. Obviously, what consumers take in visually is vital to prompting them to come in and buy. The eye moves horizontally and vertically, diagonal lines are compelling, usually drawing the eye from top to bottom, corner to corner. The eye is carried by bold, strong points, which, in turn, can be used to create interest and excitement in stores.

Touch plays a key role in customer interaction with merchandise -- they want to touch it, feel it and make it theirs. So let them! Forcing a customer to find a salesperson to open a case is intimidating, especially when they hover nearby as you look at the merchandise. Similarly, make food samples available to consumers when selling food products.

Store finishes influence consumers in a sensual way, even when they are not directly touched by the consumer. Shoppers tend to walk faster on hard surface flooring, slowing down once they feel carpet underfoot. Many stores use hard surface flooring for drive aisles, with transitions to carpeting within departments. In most cases, consumers associate plush carpet with luxury products, effective when a product requires a little extra oomph.

Think of the way that even a whiff of coconut suntan oil takes you straight to a beach on Maui. The intentional use of aroma in a retail environment can influence shoppers' emotions and behaviors. Both Mrs. Fields Cookies and Victoria's Secret use aroma to capture customers. One whiff and all of a sudden you're walking out with that milk chocolate no nuts, or that rose-colored silk camisole before you even know what happened.

Of course, sound is integral to successful retailing. The right music or sounds can help create the perfect shopping environment: love songs in a chocolate store, French lyrics in a European soap store, Big Band swing in a tuxedo store. Music creates a mood, an atmosphere that can either reinforce or detract from a retail store's image.

Music can be calming, poignant or upbeat, but one thing is sure -- it will affect the emotions of the customer. To serve the customer best, the music should be something they can relate to. Would a man in his seventies feel comfortable shopping in an apparel store featuring a raucous heavy metal soundtrack?

The stores that shoppers feel a connection with are most likely stores whose designs have been inspired by the consumer. Retail environments should never be unsympathetic or polarizing to the target customer. People gravitate toward what makes them comfortable. Consider the comfort zones of the different generations: baby boomers are aging, looking for service and comfort, while Generation Xers are attracted by fast, fun and fresh environments.

It's not always an "If you build it, they will come" situation. Sometimes it's already been built, and they're still not coming. Sometimes a store loses sight of its target customer, or, worse yet, never had a firm grasp of the concept in the first place.

In repositioning a retailer, store design is still key in hitting the new concept home. One such case that I was involved in, was the re-design of Magnolia Hi Fi. We took away the "men's den" of electronics atmosphere and lightened up the store. We added lifestyle graphics of women, kids and people of diversity to make everyone feel welcome in a more inclusive environment.

That is the underlying concept of designing a store that follows the function of retail: making the customer feel welcome and included. It is what prompts shoppers to enter a store and buy whatever it is that is being sold, and it is the most important deciding factor in whether or not they come back again.

Using the science of shopping in store design will not "manipulate" shoppers psychologically to make them buy products. A shopper may not buy a dress simply because a store smells like roses and plays music from her youth. If she feels better about herself and more comfortable in the environment, she is more likely to buy. This is the goal of a successful retail store design.

J'Amy Owens is president of The Retail Group, a Seattle-based retail consulting firm.

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Copyright © 1997 Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce.