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Now Trending: Design Sells


“Now Trending” is an exclusive online series to, featuring trending topics that impact the retail real estate landscape.

At a time when retail is exploding with new concepts and big ideas, the biggest idea of all remains anything but new. Around the world, design remains the single most important priority for any new brick-and-mortar retailer. At a time when innovation and experimentation are everywhere, we are reminded once again that great design is not an accent or an aesthetic luxury, it is an essential ingredient in the retail recipe.

Consider department store retailer Bealls Inc., which recently opened its new Bunulu concept in Florida. Bunulu, a specialty concept targeting Millennials and outdoor enthusiasts, is designed to reflect the distinctive stylistic nature of its offerings and the preferences of its target demographic. As Chain Store Age's editor-in-chief Marianne Wilson explains, Bunulu “… has a casual, relaxed feel and a coastal-inspired look. Water and beach images abound throughout the space, which features deep aqua resin concrete flooring, driftwood beams and walls clad in whitewashed and multi-colored wood planks that are worn and weathered.” From custom surfboards, to oversized artwork in the fitting rooms depicting scenes from Florida’s iconic coastal locales, it is apparent that no attention to detail has been spared.

Creative and strategic retail design is hardly limited to themed décor and carefully chosen materials. Concepts like F21 Red have been designed with accessibility and convenience in mind —presenting a smaller footprint along with its selection of affordable fashion staples. TargetExpress has made a number of strategic design decisions in order to fit into a range of nontraditional locations in more urban environments.

If you look closely, it’s clear that creative design elements feature prominently in new retail concepts that are popping up in market. And great design is not just about the way a store looks, it is also about the way it feels. It’s not just about the visual elements, but about the experiential ones, as well.

Ice hockey equipment manufacturer Bauer Hockey, opened its first-ever store this summer in the Boston suburb of Burlington, Massachusetts (with a second location scheduled this fall, in the Minneapolis area) is taking that literally. The new Bauer stores include an actual indoor ice rink where shoppers can try out equipment before purchasing it. That same sense of activity and engagement will be present in a high-profile new Jins locations. One of the largest eyewear brands in Japan, Jins is making a grand entrance into the U.S. market with a new 4,900 sq. ft. flagship location in San Francisco. In addition to an exceptionally large collection of styles, Jins will feature an on-site lab that creates prescription lenses–making it possible for customers to receive their customized glasses from start to finish in approximately 30 minutes.

Stitch, a new concept in clothing alterations and design services, is making creative use of both artwork and experience to accentuate its offerings and help its stores stand out. Stitch, which has opened a flagship location in West Hollywood and has plans to expand across the nation, features a lounge decorated with for-sale paintings by local artists, and a rotating pop-up boutique with clothing for sale. The seamstresses at Stitch are centrally located in the store, allowing customers to watch and interact.

There is a great deal of (understandable) attention being paid to the growing influence of digital commerce and the rise of omnichannel retailing. But as influential as online and mobile sales has become, it still represents a comparatively small percentage in terms of overall industry sales. And, while the significance of digital commerce should not be underestimated, its still-evolving role as a place to virtually browse and check stock availability makes it a sometimes-complementary piece in the commercial transaction process.

With that in mind, the influence and importance of brick-and-mortar design trends remains critically important, and we are likely to continue to see exciting new design trends featured prominently. In many ways, the sleek simplicity of the Apple Store represents a prototype example of what many younger consumers are looking for in their retail experience: simplicity, ambience, clarity and a lack of clutter. It is clear by its many imitators that Apple has inspired an entire generation of retailers to pursue a more streamlined, pared down aesthetic.

Interestingly, many town center-style developments have embraced a retro design aesthetic, with a thematic focus on the literal and figurative main streets of yesteryear. While that model (when designed and developed correctly) has been deployed successfully to capture the human energy of the streetscape, younger consumers — most notably those members of the influential millennial generation — tend to prefer urban over suburban, and are generally more comfortable in smaller, denser urban environments. More retailers are using sophisticated lighting and the integration of new interactive technology features to enhance the shopping experience.

Integrating non-retail uses into retail environments in new and creative ways is another design and development trend we are likely to see more of going forward. Food and beverage in particular is an extremely active area for innovation right now. While it is happening more overseas than stateside so far, many retailers are bringing food and beverage into the actual store. TOMS new California flagship store features a coffee service, and several new cinema and entertainment concepts are bringing a wide range of food and beverage options to the movie theater.

In Canada’s West Edmonton Mall, Sport Chek sporting goods is using innovative design to break an enormous new store down into a series of branded environments. Each area in the store is individually designed, and consumers move through the store experiencing smaller, more intimate spaces that use distinctive styling to convey the feeling that you are moving through a series of “rooms.” Bass Pro Shops has been doing similarly innovative things with the depth and experiential detail of the retail environment very successfully for some time now. At Bass Pro Shops, it is very clearly all about the experience. In a way, the sleek simplicity of the Apple store and the engaging ambience of Bass Pro are two sides of the same coin: two different ways to reinforce the brand and present consumers with a compelling reason to visit.

Ultimately, it all comes back to the ability of design to deliver a powerful and memorable sense of place. No matter how “connected” we are, we are still creatures of our environment. And no virtual landscape could ever truly supplant the sights and sounds and experiences of the physical environment. New concepts are the lifeblood of retail, but great design remains the beating heart at the center of a vital, vibrant and always evolving commercial landscape.

Roy Higgs, FRICS, is founder of Roy Higgs International, LLC, an extensive network of specialists providing development consulting services — including design and planning — for retail, entertainment, leisure/resort, office, residential and mixed-use projects in cities across the United States and around the globe. To learn more, visit or connect with Roy at [email protected].

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