Retail Design Looks to a New Era

Marianne Wilson
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Trying to predict the future about anything retail related is always a bit risky, particularly now when the rules of shopping — of retail itself — are changing at a quicksilver pace. But while it's impossible to predict exactly how COVID-19 will impact retail store design, there seems to be little doubt that it will have at least some long-lasting effects.

Chain Store Age asked several design experts for their opinions on how COVID-19 will shape in-store environments in the future. Their answers point to some dramatic changes. One constant, however, remains: The store experience, however altered, will remain crucial to consumers.

Melissa Gonzalez — CEO/ Founder, The Lionesque Group, and Partner/Stakeholder MG2
We will see stores adapt to a more technologically advanced consumer base. Stores will need to seamlessly be able to serve numerous customer journeys — one that is more transaction-based where the store serves as a fulfillment channel, one where the in-store experience is more experience-based and one that satisfies a unified commerce experience where a customer can easily transition from online and offline experiences. 

The average front of house may decrease in square footage, while the average back of house will increase and logistical/operational planning will be even more important than it was before. The cash wrap experience will evolve as checkout becomes more mobile and aspects like augmented reality will be more widely integrated. 

Jamie Cornelius — Executive Creative Director, ChangeUp
I see two strategies moving forward — a stop-gap strategy to implement for the here and now [see sidebar] and one of innovating for the future.

Looking at the long-term, we will need to re-evaluate the moments along the customer journey and adapt to new consumer priorities, behaviors and expectations. 

Consider how to use the outside space and entry point more effectively, or even bring the outside in with more natural cues to put shoppers at ease. If your business is (or is moving to) an appointment-based model, consider adding chairs for an outdoor waiting area. As a first impression, it will be more critical than ever.  

Rethinking the drive-thru is also a prime improvement opportunity. There’s so much potential for efficiency, experience, contactless payment enhancements, but also drive-thru only locations could unlock even more potential.

Bright lighting will be critical — primarily because dark, moody spaces have the perception of being unclean. Brightly lit areas will play a key role in creating open, more welcoming environments. 

Also, expect a boom in post-pandemic materials and finishes born out of necessity. There will be new takes on anti-microbial and hydrophobic surface finishes applied in new ways to new mediums. The key will be a balance of conveying to shoppers that they are in a pristine space, but without feeling sterile. Be intentional about where customers are placing their hands and rethink how those spaces might come to life with a focus on materiality.

Color and pattern always help bring people out of a funk. Use it to communicate the joy of shopping, infuse personality, and get shoppers out of the survivalist mindset. 

Alastair Kean — Development Director, Dalziel & Pow
There will be some practical elements that brands will need to consider in order to ease anxieties and safeguard the health of customers and staff, and this may mean a more ‘hands-off’ shopping experience.  

We may see contactless processes and technologies extended further, self-service wherever possible, the introduction of wider aisles, one-way systems and more curbside pick-up and return options. Touch-screen technology in stores is likely to be reconsidered, perhaps in favor of voice-activated experiences. 

Brands will need to innovate and remain agile in order to serve in a safe and secure way, whilst still delivering the convenience and magic that consumers are after.

Having said that, consumers are likely to still want some element of a personal experience to contrast the loneliness of lockdown. Having a friendly face to discuss requirements with will arguably be more important than ever, and experiences driven by some form of human connection — perhaps on an emotional, rather than a physical level — will be key.

Joseph Nevin — Senior VP, Development, Big Red Rooster (a JLL company)
There are going to be dramatic changes — a result of overcompensating to accommodate immediate needs — that will overhaul current shopping environments and experiences. Some changes will be temporary, as society eventually adjusts to the most effective and intuitive systems, but the need for catering to customers’ sense of safety and comfort will likely remain. 

Retailers must demonstrate and share their core values to empower both their shoppers and employees while appropriately addressing all touchpoints in the customer journey to ensure long-term future success.
Ken Nisch — Chairman, JGA
I’ve heard many people say that COVID marks the end of the experience era. I would disagree. Yes, there will be more precautions. Expectations will rise on operators, whether they be restaurants, museums, theme parks or cruises, to operate under a higher standard, which will increase operating costs. Consumers will want to be reassured by the symbols, if not the realities of heightened care and responsibility.

In the Short-Term…

From social distancing signs and one-way only aisles to plexiglass partitions at checkouts and closed fitting rooms, retailers have been quick to adapt their in-store environments in response to the crisis.  Here are some recommendations on what other actions retailers can take now to inspire trust and confidence in shoppers. 

Justin Hill — Principal, MG2
Focus on making shopping fun. Messaging should be in your voice, not simply clinical instructions. Graphics and signage can be encouraging while also informative. Look to create smiles and surprises along the journey.

Also, iron out the kinks in your BOPIS and curbside pick-up systems.

Joseph Nevin — Big Red Rooster 
Right now, it’s all about providing visual cues that reinforce retailers’ commitment to safe shopping environments. It’s not enough to tell shoppers what you’re doing — they need to see how the measures are actively being implemented in order to feel comfortable and develop a strong sense of loyalty. 

Editing assortments and lightening the sales floor to provide an open, intuitive space will be key in retailers’ expressing their editorial point of view across the store environment, products, and experience to secure confidence and credibility with their customers.

Melisssa Gonzalez — CEO/Founder, The Lionesque Group; Partner/Stakeholder, MG2
Utilize clear signage, but don’t forget about brand voice — layer in soothing and comforting tones and elements with instruction copy. Have a queuing management system in place (for both curbside and in-store transactions) and leverage technology to power touch-free interactions. 

Jamie Cornelius — ChangeUp
In the short-term, look at the current design and rethink how to break down barriers to put shoppers at ease:

• Keep the exterior and entry moment clean with clear messaging. This first impression will set the stage for the customer’s shopping experience.

• Make the space feel larger and open. Take out fixtures and declutter, but also give shoppers signals of cleanliness — transform sanitizing from a must-do task for employees into a positive, memorable moment for the customer. 

• Use digital interactions to be transparent with customers about how busy the store is and great times to come in. Is there a way you can make your business more appointment-based? 

• New in-store signage is going to be essential, but don’t become overly reliant on it. Be sure to not program shoppers to go on autopilot while in the store. Instead, make their experience a breath of fresh air and remind them of the joy of shopping. 

• Look for high-impact areas within the store to transform through materials, fixtures and messaging. These smaller reinventions will still create a freshness that will leave a lasting impression on the customer.

Ken Nisch — JGA
First, they need to take care of their staff and make sure they are healthy, equipped to stay healthy and help keep their guests healthy as staff confidence and satisfaction is the first line of communication to guests. Simple logistics such as flow control, distancing, and separation will be even more scrutinized by guests.  

Emily Albright Miller — VP, Strategy & Insights, Big Red Rooster
The most salient needs that retailers should adjust to now are the consumers’ need to protect their personal space and avoid unnecessary contact with people and things. This requires retailers to rethink traffic patterns inside and outside of their stores, to embrace outdoor spaces, and to optimize for a completely touch-free journey. 

Through the implementation of any new solutions, it’s critical that retailers empower the consumer and make them feel in control. The more in control they feel the more likely they will be to spend again.

[Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of Chain Store Age magazine. Check out the digital edition here.]