Retail Forecast: Will the Department Store Survive? Part III

How will large stores adapt to changed customer behavior after a decade of online shopping?

In Part I of this series, I examined changed customer behavior today and how that has impacted their view of large, traditional department stores. Part II dealt with the effect on store planning and merchandising as a result of this changed behavior. This installment focuses on design solutions I am recommending that readers consider for large store design.

Here are some design strategies which address the perceived changes I see coming:

Strategy #1: Create a lounge in your store where everything is for sale. This is a design strategy which addresses both the current taste for an edited assortment and the need for a sense of discovery and immediacy in the store. I know that this suggestion is going to raise some eyebrows among department store merchants, but I am not suggesting the type of curated assortment that you would find in a specialty store. Which is why this is a design strategy. The idea would be to break down the assortment by mood, by areas of social interest into sub-categories in a way that looks and feels looser than stores do today. Instead of color and material strategies, fixturing and visual presentation that are consistent across broad areas of the store, there would be more variety within a larger area.

The lounge area creates the opportunity for social interaction which gives the customer a reason to come into the store.

Inserting areas specifically for socializing into the floor would contribute to this looser design feel as well. Look at the design strategies that have broken up work spaces today, even in large corporations, into loose areas aimed at promoting productivity and interaction. A similar type of “messiness” might in fact take the commercial strait jacket off large stores. Look at independent retail stores, and try to invent a personality and authority similar to this either for the store at large or for individual capsule areas of the store.

One very unique example is The Apartment at The Line. With installations in New York City, Amagansett and Los Angeles, this store breaks new ground for retail.

The Apartment by The Line — NYC, 76 Greene Stree, 3rd Floor, NY

The Line creates a complete home-like environment with merchandise ranging from gifts to home furnishings to fashion. The customer is immersed in a retail fantasy life. And everything is for sale. The current distaste for commercial emphasis is gone completely here. Changed seasonally, the store invites the customer to see themselves as potentially at the center of this much curated world, where most of the design decisions are made for them. They only need to decide on how congruent it all is with their personal style.

How would large stores adapt this?

Large stores could insert more than one area of this type to represent different personal style directions for customers. Even if there are still areas of conventionally merchandised selling floor, these areas would engage the customer in ways that address their lifestyle habits.

Strategy # 2: Make stores fun to experience visually. Move away from stream-lined, modern design. . For the past several decades large store have largely embraced a modernist esthetic. Partly this is a function of the design process. For a large store, the design esthetic will be something that is applied routinely over large areas of the floorplate. Typically stores use a change in design to identify separate departments. But, again the shopper today is more and more likely to associate this type of design with the commercialized retail experience that does not engage their interest.

What feels current today in terms of design is a more open design for the store at large, with design elements that communicate a sense of visual interest or an almost eccentric sense of personality for the store. Because the customer is not necessarily interested in seeing a large array of merchandise, there is less need for the types of workhorse combination fixtures which have typically crowded the selling floors in traditional department stores. True, it will take a skillful and innovative designer to pull off the type of looser design I am describing. But the store that can pull it off will have achieved landmark status with its customers. Older stores might want to go back to the store’s history and revive the look and feel of some of the elements of great department stores of the 19th century, for example.

10 Corso Como, Corso Como 10, 20154 Milano MI, Italy

A more contemporary approach would be to take some design clues from stores like 10 Corso Como in Milan . The way this store looks has been hugely influential over the past couple of decades. The “Corso Como” effect is to give a sense of immediacy and variety to the store. Visual strategies that promote discovery, surprising juxtapositions of goods from high and low price points and truly innovative trend stories are all elements that convince the customer that the store is an epicenter of current style trends. The design esthetic is that of an individual store, not the mentality of a chain. Just because a store is large does not mean that it cannot be a “concept store”

Strategy #3: Make the store more an extension of the customer’s social environment and less a purely commercial enterprise. One way to accomplish this would be to include creature comforts and categories of merchandise that promote browsing and thoughtful lingering. Examples would be book areas, performance spaces, café, bar and food service areas. I know that a lot of traditional merchants tend to emphasize the difficulty of including these types of spaces in the store. But a customer drawn into spaces of this type could well be convinced to extend their stay in the store and to include the store in a round of socializing. All of which builds subliminal top of mind awareness for the store and reinforces its authority with the customer.

Strategy #4: Make the Store More Like Home. The tradition has been that customers take elements of lifestyle merchandising home with them. But the reverse is true in new some new formats. Current examples similar to The Line include shops for The Row in New York and Los Angeles.

The Row, 17 East 71st Street, NYC

Designed like elegant urban living spaces for the economic and design elite, these spaces read more like an actual living space than a traditional retail store. Fashion merchandise is lightly inserted into three dimensional realizations of the designers’ artful taste in architecture and interior design. They embody this idea of the store as an expression of the designer’s ideas about art, architecture, design and fashion. The customer chooses to see themselves against this backdrop and is hopefully swept into the mindset herself.

The Row, 17 East 71st Street, NYC

The Row is less multicultural than The Line in the sense that it showcases only one line of merchandise. But it also presents a stage set for the customer to take away more than the apparel being offered. The store itself has a more fixed esthetic than the installations of The Line.

And there are environments that go one step further towards being home. You can live in them.

The New Road Residence, 33 New Road, London, UK

The high style version of this would be the New Road Residence in London The meticulously restored Georgian town house can be booked for up to six guests. Virtually everything in the house is available to purchase. This includes bed linens, housewares, table top items such as dinner ware and crystal. There is even a mini-store located inside the house for the restless impulse shopper. Other accoutrements include works of art, a curated wine cellar, fine furniture and a reading library assembled by a King’s College professor. The experience is obviously for the affluent, but the concept of a walk-in lifestyle experience is portable and extremely innovative.

Marine Layer Portland Airbnb, 828 NW 23rd Street, Portland, OR

Much funkier is the Airbnb spaces which can be reserved for overnight stays with the retailer Marine Layer. Purveyors of casual apparel, the company has stores in cities which would be reasonable vacation destinations for its young customer. The spaces which can be booked are not as steeped in design karma as earlier examples. But the store’s customer is presumably less demanding. And possibly less motivated by possession of a Wall Street bonus which needs to be conspicuously invested.

Skeptics will comment that the examples I’m giving are all from recent development in smaller stores. But large stores need to find the design strategies that will break bigger floor plates into spaces that today’s customer will find appealing as experiences. And, more importantly, worth the trip into the store. The strategy of creating an environment which is then almost subliminally merchandised is adaptable. It just flies in the face of traditional store planning disciplines. Designers are clever at adapting the design prototypes I’m presenting. But the real challenge is in defining a new set of metrics to measure productivity and guide store layout in terms of merchandising. Innovative use of technology will play a major role in this as well.

Stay tuned for the next two Retail Forecast articles on Department Stores — one on new uses for technology and defining new metrics to measure productivity in stores.

Read the original article: Michael Rock, “When the Shop Looks a Lot Like Home”. New York Times Style Magazine, August 2, 2016.

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