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Humanizing Retail: Five design trends likely to loom large in 2014

David Weinberger, branding expert, CBX

By David Weinberger, CBX

Looking ahead at a year that will most certainly see a continued evolution of what retail is and what it does, I am excited at the prospects of participating in, toying with and influencing that evolution. For this forecast, I am concentrating on physical retail since I believe this is where the innovation will — and indeed, must — occur. E-tailers and hybrid-tailers will continue to make transactions easier and safer while adding algorithms that suggest products and services tailored to the individual. Online purchasing will become more intuitive and smarter, connecting you with various electronic devices, apps and, soon, even your refrigerator and closet.

Because of this, retail designers will focus on humanizing the in-store experience. The goal is to give consumers a reason to get out of their pajamas and walk into a store. Here are five trends likely to influence the evolution of retail in 2014.

1. ‘Pop Up’ turns to ‘Drop Off’
Pop-up stores have traditionally taken advantage of empty storefronts for short periods of time and have been used to promote products and generate buzz. This year we’ll see a dramatic increase, not of pop-ups, but of “drop-offs”: storage container-sized retail spaces dropped off in the middle of public spaces. If successful, these concepts will stay for months or even years.

In the shadows of the Flatiron building in Manhattan are two examples of this trend: Flatiron Green Cafe, which offers a wide variety of natural, local and organic foods, and Ilili Box, which bills itself as “inspired Mediterranean takeaway.” Both are small and placed in the tourist oasis where Broadway crosses Fifth Avenue. Keep an eye on highly trafficked parks, urban gathering spots and similar locales in the coming year you’ll likely see more concepts dropped off in 2014.

2. Enhanced person-to-person interaction
Cash wraps are getting smaller or being replaced altogether by roaming sales people armed with iPads. Apple instigated this “death of checkout,” and many other tech-related retailers have followed suit. We also see this in smaller retailers where two or three associates cover the store. The trick with larger stores is having enough associates, otherwise, shoppers are forced to jockey for position and form impromptu queues in the middle of the aisles.  Burberry recently opened a technology-enhanced store with no checkouts, and larger retailers such as Nordstrom and The Home Depot have offered mobile POS checkout for a couple of years now. This trend will continue in 2014.

Removing the sales counter allows for more human interaction — the feeling that you’re in this together. Thanks to this trend, sales associates are becoming more knowledgeable. The best of them become de facto consultants. Why is this important? The proliferation of underwhelming, online review sites is part of the reason. Consumers are waking up to the reality that the likes of Yelp are only as good as the mass of people participating in them (“Hey, this dish stinks. How can @slickharvey57 have been so wrong?”). Little wonder in-store help will come back into vogue in 2014.

3. Use of emotion
Retro versions of consumer packaged goods — throwback Pepsi, old Doritos and Miller Lite retro cans — have grown increasingly popular over the years. CPG companies have learned this is a way to reconnect with consumers through emotion. I see retailers trying their hands at this game in the coming year. It is much more costly to build a retro store, but the gamble might just pay off by creating nostalgic spaces that consumers want to linger in. RadioShack, for example, recently opened CBX-designed retro stores in Texas and New York. They play up the retailer’s history and all the fun stuff we remember about technology.
 
4. Wasting real estate
“Stack it high and let it fly” has long been the battle cry of retailers. Walk into your local grocer and chances are this applies (unless it is Mrs. Greens or Fresh Market). In 2014, we'll see more retailers devoting space to things that don’t sell: Art-like exhibits, entertainment and lounges will all find their way into retail spaces in order to draw people in and connect. One example of this is Uniqlo. While the international retailer does have massive amounts of product in its stores, it also devotes huge areas to art exhibit-like sculptures.

With online saturation of gorgeous product photography from Instagram and Pinterest, consumers also have elevated expectations of presentation. Because of this, more and better propping is being used in stores. One example is Brumby’s Bakeries, one of Australia’s largest franchise groups, whose new stores bank heavily on attractive visuals.
 
5. Unexpected use of materials
Building on your brand strategy is the right place to begin for store design, but I see the physical design of many retailers zigging and zagging in 2014. This will be true, not just of retro stores, but also of unexpected use of materials.

A new Pep Boys concept store in Tampa made me do a double take when I drove by. The exterior makes heavy use of wood (or, more likely, an aluminum panel that looks like wood). I don’t know about you, but nothing about wood makes me think of automotive design, which focuses on sleekness, technology and the appearance of speed. And yet wood is a material that feels inviting. The Tampa store even includes wood in the interior — no doubt an attempt to make an intimidating selection of merchandise more palatable. This store even has a lounge, which could be an attempt to make this experience easier for other family members and, by extension, Dad.

Incidentally, Pep Boys also brought Manny, Mo and Jack out of retirement for the new stores. Quite nostalgic.

All of these trends relate in one way or another to a basic imperative in retail today — humanizing the shopping experience. Some of these efforts will fail. Others will conquer. But take note of both the winners and losers as they emerge in 2014. After all, this amounts to a glimpse into the fast-changing future of retail.

David Weinberger is a branding expert at CBX who has designed and directed innovative retail experiences around the world. He can be contacted at dave@cbx.com.


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