Experience Design in Retail Spaces

Best Practices in Retail

In a world where anything can be bought online and delivered to your home in a couple of days, why would a customer visit a physical store? To draw customers to brick-and-mortar stores brands need to create rewarding experiences that enhance the shopping trip. In researching this topic I’ve identified six concepts or practices that are important for successful and engaging retail spaces.

Selfridges Fragrance Lab: Immersive experience to help customers pick a signature scent

Have a distinct brand personality

With so many options and easy access to information, shoppers can be incredibly selective when it comes to what brands they buy. They are also more demanding of those brands. It’s not enough to offer competitive prices and trendy or well-designed products, brands need to have a point of view. They represent what we believe in and how we want to be seen. This is shown in the success of brands like Everlane and Glossier; they don’t just sell a product but a lifestyle (which is carried through in their retail pop-ups). Millennial consumers are becoming more brand loyal to these types of brands. To connect to and be remembered by consumers, brands must have a distinct personality that is consistent throughout our contact with the brand, from messaging to packaging and in-store design.

Everlane Shoe Park. Photo by Ike Edeani

Streamline the shopping experience

We’re shopping all the time. We have automated and instant purchasing with Amazon Dash and subscription services like Dollar Shave Club and Birchbox. Every online store is available through our mobile devices 24/7. When the customer experience no longer has a distinct “shopping stage” in-store shopping has to be as easy and effortless as possible.

“People want to buy something as fast and as conveniently as possible with minimum fuss. That is the ultimate experience.”
Matt Hirst

Macy’s is trying to enhance in-store experience by integrating its app into physical browsing. Shoppers can scan items as they browse and have them taken directly to a dressing room. Then they can request additional sizes or options from a tablet in the dressing rooms. Several retailers, including Macy’s, Kohl’s and Bloomingdale’s, have been using Bluetooth beacons and trackable RFID tags on merchandise to allow customers to opt-in to location-based discounts and rewards.

The startup Oak Labs is creating products that bring together the digital and physical worlds of retail and make the shopping experience more intuitive. Their first product is the Oak Mirror: an interactive dressing room mirror that can recognize the products being tried on, make recommendations and connect the shopper to a salesperson.

Oak Labs: The Oak Mirror

Circulation, organization, and pace have always been important considerations when designing a retail space but now that shoppers have so many other options if they become frustrated, the stakes are higher. Some shoppers will have a specific objective while others will want to meander so it is essential to design for these different types of shopping behavior and needs.

Create hands-on product experiences

The ability to test a product in-store is an obvious opportunity for a brand’s brick-and-mortar to differentiate itself from its online presence. By giving shoppers the space to get hands-on with a product they are getting the chance to see how it will fit into their lives and make a more informed decision. In many Nike stores, customers are rewarded for visiting the store with not only a new pair of sneakers but with professional recommendations and an analysis of their running stride. This gives shoppers the added confidence that they are buying the right shoes and can help them improve their running style.

Nike + Run Analysis. Photo by Amillionminds.

Personalized service

If retailers want customers to share information about themselves or their preferences they need to offer a reward in return: personalized recommendations and service. For example, Sephora created a quiz for in-store customers shopping for perfume, a sometimes stressful process because of the multitude of options available, to give them custom recommendations. Customers enter their makeup and fragrance preferences and Sephora provides samples that correspond to their choices while collecting information.

Target has leveraged their customers’ in-store and online shopping history to provide recommendations through their mobile app Cartwheel. Cartwheel can only be used in-store and helps customers find deals and as well as see what their friends are saving on. Cartwheel users on average spent 30% more per trip to a Target store and visited more often.

Design for discovery

Speed and convenience might be king but shopping should be fun too, especially to draw customers to physical stores. By offering one-of-a-kind experiences and unexpected delight brands can generate enthusiasm and turn shoppers into advocates, returning with their friends. One new retail model embracing discovery is the flexible store where the products and interiors change on a regular basis. The retail space Story showcases different brands and trends and changes its theme every 4 to 8 weeks. This exposes customers to new products and emerging brands that are specially curated for each edition. Story also hosts events based on the theme and a #PitchNight that gives designers the opportunity to pitch their product to be included in the store, encouraging a collaborative community.

“If time is the ultimate luxury and people want a higher return on investment of their time, you need to give them a reason to be in a physical space.”
Rachel Shechtman, Story
Story: Art Story. Photo from Cool Hunting

Build a community and encourage advocacy

By creating ways for customers to come together around a brand experience or space it can encourage a deeper connection with the brand. With the power of peer-to-peer recommendations, a platform for customers to exchange ideas and reviews can build trust and gives the brand the opportunity to solicit feedback from their fans. The former Former Director of Culture Marketing at Red Bull, Matt Hirst, attributed Red Bull’s loyal fan base to events that “allowed people from certain tribes to come together and bump into each other to create those human connections.” Little Bits is a brand that encourages collaboration and invention through their retail spaces. Customers can play with and learn about Little Bits in their workshop-like stores and join their network of chapters and inventors.

Brand communities can be open, like when Vans opened a skate park for its fans, or more exclusive like Wingtip, a menswear shop with a members-only social club in its flagship store. Both are designed as extensions of the brand, to give customers a heightened experience, feel a personal connection with the brand and interact with like-minded people.

Wingtip game room
“Robust communities are built not on brand reputation but on an understanding of members’ lives.”
Getting Brand Communities Right, Susan Fournier and Lara Lee


  1. The Future of Retail 2016, PSFK Labs
  2. Holistic Retail Design: Reshaping Shopping for the Digital Era by Philipp Teufel and Rainer Zimmerman
  3. Harvard Business Review: Getting Brand Communities Right by Susan Fournier and Lara Lee
  4. Basics Interior Design: Retail Design by Lynne Mesher