Is Retail Dead? Hell, not really! 6 ways in which design helps retail thrive.

COVID 19 and the exponential rise of online shopping highlights, now more than ever, the need for retail spaces that offer unique customer experiences and services that cannot be replicated online. The design of such spaces can help create real-time experiences that heighten the connection between customer, retailer, product and services, providing human experience and connection as an antidote to the loneliness of our online existence. 

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, where an increasing number of shopping malls are standing empty or have been converted, I came across the apocalyptically named ‘The Last Bookstore’, a cavernous treasure chest in Downtown L.A. If this was indeed the last of a dying breed, why is it still standing, celebrated as one of the largest independent bookstores in the world? I was told by a fellow traveler that visiting this shop is a “must”. I was not disappointed as I entered a carefully cluttered space filled with people shopping for and consuming books, art, records, obscure ephemera and the kind of super healthy snacks I came to associate with parts of gentrified L.A. What could attract crowds like this? Could it be the range of goods on offer, the genuinely enthusiastic staff or the incredible stage set-like design? One thing was for sure: visiting the store was an awesome experience and moving through the shelves felt like going on a journey of discovery that infected me with the same enthusiasm with which this world was created. Experiencing the smell of books and coffee, the surprising installations, angled bookshelves, tiny side spaces filled with handmade art, the always friendly, never overbearing, staff , lighting that creates mystery and spotlights that highlight special displays – all of this seemed to come together in a powerful magical world that was fully immersive and tactile and in which I felt special, part of a privileged community, let in on a well-kept secret.

What brought on my recollection of ‘The Last Bookstore’ was a recent request to draw up a proposal for a museum shop. This was followed by a reflection on three special retail spaces I was involved in as an architect and the strategies used in their design. The two Optical Centers were carried out in collaboration with San Francisco based Saitowitz Natoma Architects from whom I learnt a great deal about how, even the smallest detail, works in support of the overall customer experience. The main aim pursued in the design of both shops was blend out any distractions from the spectacle display and a large, comfortable sofa where customers could wait for their turn to be served.

This was achieved by grouping all the frames together into one area, creating an overview and choice for customers to find what they are looking for. The first design, a refurbishment of the original shop went on to win an American institute of Architects Award, but more significantly, the new layout led to an increased sales paying off the fit-out in the shortest time.

The third shop is more in the vein of the L.A. book store and was designed together with fashion designer / artist Clive Rundle. Whilst the optical shops where clinical, bright spaces, the Rundle Boutique is a mysterious treasure cave filled with curious objects forming part of Clive’s story from growing up in the working class neighbourhood of Vrededorp, Johannesburg to showing his collections on catwalks around the world. 

The interior of this space could be no different to the first two spaces described above. Walls are covered in mirror tiles or painted black to be drawn on by invited friends. 

Kitchen sieves and glass tubes were converted into light fittings by Clive’s sister and the only new piece, designed specifically for this space, is a large folded steel table with a mirror at the end. It forms an unobstructed center-piece inviting people to sit down, page through magazines and sketchbooks, start a conversation and enter into a different world. 

So, what makes these spaces, as different as the are, work?

1.     A clear layout and implied route over the retail floor keeps people moving from attraction to attraction, drawing people deeper into the space, inviting them to linger.

2.     The position of the point of sales is strategically placed so that customers are acknowledged upon entry and in constant visual communication should they require assistance.

3.     Careful lighting (both dim lights and spots) is essential to display the natural colours of goods and to make people feel comfortable to try on items.

4.     Distractions are blended out to allow goods to take center stage. This means anything that distracts from the experience of the goods and the intended ambience is minimized.

5.     Generosity is something unexpected in our world, especially in retail. In all three examples a central piece of furniture allows for customers to pause. It offers the fatigued a place to relax and those ‘on the hunt’ to take their time! A phone charging station and Wi-Fi can do wonders here.

6.     Layouts needs to be flexible to allow for changing of displays and events. This serves not only special sales, but also to showcase new arrivals and shipments. ‘The Last Bookstore’ hosts mini concerts, readings, pop-up dinners (pictured below) and talks using its movable book cases to create the desired spaces.

Careful experiential design, cognizant of the points above, can support an astute small retail industry. By making design work hard, creating moments, connecting people and recognizing the extraordinary we, as designers, can help retailers create customer experiences that are memorable and that stand out from the rest.

written by Thorsten Deckler, principal at 26’10 south Architects – making spaces that thrive.