Designing the Next Generation of Retail Places (Part 3 of 5)

Guiding Principles for Place Design

In this article, we’ll examine a few recurring principles of (invented) place design that can easily be applied to the design process of almost any space, including retail ones. After all, if Disney Imagineers use them, why shouldn’t we?

These are more techniques than a magic recipe for creating a succesful place. Still, a magic recipe” is required -- it comes from the brand and character of the store, and it needs to be clearly defined beforehand. 

The key design principles for successful places are:
- Theme and Structure
- Sequential Experience
- Visual Communication
- Participation

1. Theme and Structure

This principle refers to organization of ideas and the way people flow inside a space.

Once the big idea for a place is defined, it needs to be broken down into smaller pieces. Unless a visitor is a subatomic particle, he/​she can not be in various locations at the same time. Therefore, different locations must be designed for different tasks and different experiences.

Mimicking the online shopping experience -- a user firmly sits in a chair, with all the options and shortcuts at his/​her fingertips -- is not a good way to utilize the physical space. And that is often the biggest mistake found in in-store retail today. The ubiquity of online retail is certainly a part of retail place design, but the place needs to offer much more. 

A store has got to be much more than a place to acquire merchandise. It’s got to help people enrich their lives. If the store just fulfills a specific product need, it’s not creating new types of value for the consumer. It’s transacting. Any website can do that. Ron Johnson, J.C. Penney CEO and former senior VP of retail at Apple 

So in a retail space, how would the big idea (the brand) manifest itself in the entrance area, in the shopping area, or in the checkout area? The retailer has to answer these questions, based on its brand and character.

In terms of layout, smaller stories or components are organized so that customer circulation is logical and uninterrupted. Recognizable patterns are often used to make the place designs as intuitive as possible. It could mean a circular path for people flow, clear grouping of elements, signage or products, proximity to related items and related tools, etc. All of these elements help the visitor feel more comfortable, safe and efficient within the space. 

2. Sequential Experience

Every successful place has a carefully planned chronological path that allows for the best experience. Even the simplest experiences contain a few substeps: awareness or attraction to the experience, the main experience itself, and post-experience events. 

If you go to Starbucks, you might be pulled in by a pleasant interior, by a teaser sampler in front of the store, or by the lure of beverages you have already tasted. Your main experience of consuming your coffee in a comfortable armchair, surfing the web on free Wi-Fi, chatting with friends can easily be followed-up by other other activities: entering a prize draw, downloading a free song from iTunes, or getting a Starbucks gift card for your friend’s birthday. 

On a larger scale, a theme park attraction can have similar elements: the facade and the queue (where the theme is introduced and serves as awareness/​attraction factor); the pre-show (which introduces the story or stories; the main show (rides, theatrical or live action performances that are mostly linear pulse experiences); and eventually the post-show (“exit through the gift shop” allows for further freeflow activities under the impression of the main show).

In the retail environment, a very similar flow can be applied, regardless of store size. Customers must be attracted to the store (by activities within the store, some promotions, new arrivals, live events, etc.); they need to explore products offerings (using the most convenient and effective tools); and they need to finish the purchase (providing efficient service and a speedy checkout at the point-of-sale).

The most memorable parts of the customer experience are the peak of the experience and the end of the experience. Having that in mind, planning the sequential experience when designing layout can help to not only deliver the best shopping experience, but to optimize resources as well. 

We’ll take a closer look at more ideas in the next two articles of this series. But keep in mind: The least attractive scenario is a store with a single counter, where all of the sequential experiences are merged into one… salesperson assisted. 

3. Visual Communication

The visual communication principle describes the need for legible visual elements and clearly defined media that provide in-depth, timely information in manageable way. Visual communication helps with people’s flow, enables clarity of actions, and prevents confusing or overwhelming the user. It is essential that -- from both a functional and a branding perspective -- these elements are incorporated into the overall store design elements. They belong to same family and are compatible and cohesive in function. 

Signage must be readable and strategically placed to provide key information. That itself, of course, needs to be within branding guidelines. Signage that stands out does not complement the primary content within the space. 

Physical space is a format where digital and interactive media are consumed in a limited time span -- as opposed to home and personal formats. Cutting down the learning curve, using recognizable patterns and familiar user interface elements, and repeating UI elements whenever possible allows visitors to be comfortably and safely engaged.

It might sound trivial, but staff is part of this principle as well. A distinctive outfit and/​or tags clearly identifies who the staff are and what their role is within the space. 

Nowadays, the virtual extension of the space is more important than ever. A website, an app, the social network or the in-store digital media must be treated as a clear extension of the space. It should offer, not just the same amount of information, but also complementary experiences that, because of the nature of the space, cannot be included in the space itself.

All of these elements should be intuitive and user-friendly. Any confusion or frustration is a barrier to creating a comfortable and safe environment where a visitor can be fully immersed in the primary activities, in our case shopping and buying.

4. Participation

Participation is a desired outcome of previous 3 principles. If our clearly defined place provides a safe ground” where all or most of our senses can be activated, the audience will participate in a number of ways. 

  • Providing a comfortable environment where a visitor can have some alone time.” Or time with his friends. Or, if he likes, time with staff.
  • Offering a variety of contextual activities within the space, using different media and levels of interaction. In the case of wireless retail, for example, the customer shouldn’t be presented only with product info (for mobile phones), but also the real life context where that phone could be used: home or on the go” scenarios, what apps can enhance his fitness routine or his involment with the local school community, or the local NBA team… There are thousand of ideas similar to these, but they need to be driven by retailer’s itself and its brand story.
  • Having friendly and knowledgeable staff available to advise, educate and build a relationship with the customer -- not to aggressively push sales for a commission. In-store tools can help establish that relationship -- transparency of information is a key to building trust with customers. 

So it’s not (department) stores’ size or location or physical capabilities that are their problem. It’s their lack of imagination -- about the products they carry, their store environments, the way they engage customers, and how they embrace the digital future. Ron Johnson, J.C. Penney CEO and former senior VP of retail at Apple 

Whether it’s 5 minutes passing by or a full-scale immersion, places designed along these lines will help provide a great experience and a reason to come back.

Part 4 of 5 - The Basic Areas of the Retail Environment
Part 5 of 5 - 5 Checkpoints for Next-Gen Wireless Retail Places

Part 1 of 5 - Introduction to Next Generation Retail Places
Part 2 of 5 - Qualities of Successful Public Places