What every owner needs to know about experiential retail design

By Drew Miller, Project Manager at Spacesmith

What makes a great retail environment? These days, it’s all about experience.

Online shopping offers convenience and choice, but consumers still seek out the hands-on nature of brick-and-mortar.

Successful retailers are capitalizing on this desire for engagement by embracing the notion of experiential retail design.

At essence, experiential retail design is about using the physical store space to provide an immersive, sensory experience.

A recent survey by retail leader Westfield showed the senses of smell, hearing and even taste are important to a growing swath of shoppers — not just sight and hearing. That’s not available online, and it opens doors to new ways to reinforce brand presence and identity.

For customers, experiential retail design creates a destination, turning the act of shopping itself into an event, allowing for tangible interaction with products.

How can retail properties and their retailer tenants create the most memorable in-store experiences? Here are a few strategies to keep in mind:

Slow the pace and engage the senses

When it comes to designing a successful store environment, there’s truth to the idea of “retail therapy.”

Brick-and-mortar is the only sales medium that engages all five senses, and one of the most powerful elements a retail property can offer is the experience of being in a physical space that’s designed to make customers feel good.

People have hectic work and life schedules, and entering a store is an opportunity to break a routine, slow down, relax, and become fully present in the moment.

The layout, colors, and material choices of the space and displays can encourage this feeling of engagement.

For example, in the design of a boutique space for Paris-based children’s clothing company Bonpoint, Spacesmith created an interactive experience for customers and their children, with different furniture, color palettes, and product presentation in the separate sections dedicated to boys, girls, and infants.

Similarly, sensory components like lighting, or even scent, can have a powerful impact on user comfort.

In a clothing store, good fitting room illumination helps a customer feel confident about choosing the right outfit, creating positive associations with the store and brand.

Engaging the senses and encouraging customer interaction is especially important when a brand’s products are about sensory experience.

As an example, Spacesmith developed a “scent library” boutique for a global fashion retailer’s perfume lines.

This prototype was the first of its kind for this European retailer, and it allows customers to interact with a full range of offerings and creating an immersive experience where shopping becomes a sensual event that’s unavailable online.

Reinforce the brand identity

Previous retail design strategies focused solely on the display of products, but online sales have changed the nature of brand and product awareness, and simply displaying wares is no longer enough.

Customers are often familiar with a brand’s offerings before they even walk into a store, so it’s crucial that the physical space also reflect the identity that’s been established online.

This helps create and reinforce a brand narrative that builds meaningful relationships, while also offering customers the critical ability to feel and touch items and make final purchase decisions.

The store environment is the perfect place to create or strengthen personal connection to what customers have seen online.

This is especially important for lifestyle retailers. When the French clothing brand Cremieux, which was previously distributed in the U.S. through department stores, decided to open a standalone retail space in New York, the design of its SoHo store was key, as it presented an opportunity to realize the brand identity in a way that consumers could actually experience.

The resulting space ties into the loft aesthetic with exposed brick and an industrial feel that matches Cremieux’s high-end, urbane aesthetic.

To attract tenants, understand their needs

To ensure your space remains successful, plan for flexibility and adaptation.

From a developer or landlord standpoint, leasing retail properties can be a difficult proposition. For retailers, finding an owner who understands their needs and the importance of the retail space itself is key.

Landlord-provided items are a major incentive, and especially so for a brand taking a risk by renting a space in a new market or area.

Delivering infrastructure elements that may not have been part of the deal in the past, such as HVAC or custom storefronts, is a big benefit to today’s retailers and can incentivize them to sign longer leases.

For retail properties with multiple tenants, using these kinds of design and infrastructure incentives to attract a major brand can be a powerful strategy — brands follow each other, and when renting groups of retail spaces one anchor tenant can truly drive the attraction of the rest.

Times change, and trends move quickly. It’s crucial to design a retail space that allows for quick shifts of specific product and merchandising displays, or on a longer time scale to easily reconfigure for larger renovations.

For retail operations with multiple locations, using prefabricated items and standard finishes lowers costs and saves time. This flexibility also gives designers an opportunity to be creative in addressing the customer experience in a way that aligns with strategic goals.

For example, the intended customer interaction with brand-specific merchandise can drive the design of displays and the store itself, allowing the customer experience to be unique to a given store yet contain a continuity throughout a brand’s global locations.

This allows users to feel a connection to each shopping experience that is different depending where they are.

As retail companies begin to branch out and partner with innovators in the tech and distribution industries, strategic thinking becomes more and more important for the retail properties themselves – what lessons can be learned from innovative companies, and what synergies can be found?

Take the concept of a personal shopper, developed by companies such as Trunk Club or Five Four Club. This type of curated experience is growing in popularity, so will future stores have a component of membership for these services?

Or events to gauge what style customers with membership would prefer to wear? Could this model be adapted by brands catering to babies and toddlers, since young children grow out of clothes so fast?

The retail world is changing, and how retail properties and their tenants address these kinds of question, and how adaptable and open to change they are, will impact their success and longevity.

The common thread is that it’s all about the end user. In order to continue drawing in and retaining customers, retail properties need to place an emphasis on a physical environment that creates a positive experience, and that can adapt to continue providing an environment that speaks to customers.

The most loyal customers connect with a retailer on an emotional level, and by focusing on the individual’s interaction with the store space and ensuring the experience is a memorable and positive one, forward-thinking retail properties can stand apart from the crowd and keep people coming back.

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