Retail design is a creative and commercial discipline that combines several different areas of expertise
together in the design and construction of retail space. Retail design is primarily a specialized practice of architecture and interior design, however it also incorporates elements of industrial design, graphic design, ergonomics, and advertising.
Retail design is a very specialized discipline due to the heavy demands placed on retail space. Because the primary purpose of retail space is to stock and sell product to consumers, the spaces must be designed in a way that promotes an enjoyable and hassle-free shopping experience for the consumer.
For example, research shows that male and female shoppers who were accidentally touched from behind by other shoppers left a store earlier than people who had not been touched and evaluated brands more negatively. The space must be specially-tailored to the kind of product being sold in that space; for example, a bookstore requires many large shelving units to accommodate small products that can be arranged categorically while a clothing store requires more open space to fully display product.
Retail spaces, especially when they form part of a retail chain, must also be designed to draw people into the space to shop. The storefront must act as a billboard for the store, often employing large display windows that allow shoppers to see into the space and the product inside. In the case of a retail chain, the individual spaces must be unified in their design.
Retail design first began to grow in the middle of the 19th century, with stores such as Bon Marche and Printemps in Paris, “followed by Marshall Fields in Chicago, Selfridges in London and Macy’s in New York.” These early retail design stores were swiftly continued with an innovation called the chain store.
The first known chain department stores were established in Belgium in 1868, when Isidore, Benjamin and Modeste Dewachter incorporated Dewachter freres (Dewachter Brothers) selling ready-to-wear clothing for men and children and specialty clothing such as riding apparel and beachwear. The firm opened with four locations and, by 1904, Maison Dewachter (House of Dewachter) had stores in 20 cities and towns in Belgium and France, with multiple stores in some cities. Isidore’s eldest son, Louis Dewachter, managed the chain at its peak and also became an internationally known landscape artist, painting under the pseudonym Louis Dewis.
The first retail chain store in the United States was opened in the early 20th century by Frank Winfield Woolworth, which quickly became a franchise across the US. Other chain stores began growing in places like the UK a decade or so later, with stores like Boots. After World War II, a new type of retail design building known as the shopping centre came into being. This type of building took two different paths in comparison between the US and Europe. Shopping centres began being built out of town within the United States to benefit the suburban family, while Europe began putting shopping centres in the middle of town. The first shopping centre in the Netherlands was built in the 1950s, as retail design ideas began spreading east.
The next evolution of retail design was the creation of the boutique in the 1960s, which emphasized retail design run by individuals. Some of the earliest examples of boutiques are the Biba boutique created by Barbara Hulanicki and the Habitat line of stores made by Terence Conran. The rise of the boutique was followed, in the next two decades, with an overall increase in consumer spending across the developed world. This rise made retail design shift to compensate for increased customers and alternative focuses. Many retail design stores redesigned themselves over the period to keep up with changing consumer tastes. These changes resulted on one side with the creation of multiple “expensive, one-off designer shops” catering to specific fashion designers and retailers.
The rise of the internet and internet retailing in the latter part of the 20th century and into the 21st century saw another change in retail design to compensate. Many different sectors not related to the internet reached out to retail design and its practices to lure online shoppers back to physical shops, where retail design can be properly utilized.
A retail designer must create a thematic experience for the consumer, by using spatial cues to entertain as well as entice the consumer to purchase goods and interact with the space. The success of their designs are not measured by design critics but rather the records of the store which compare amount of foot traffic against the overall productivity. Retail designers have an acute awareness that the store and their designs are the background to the merchandise and are only there to represent and create the best possible environment in which to reflect the merchandise to the target consumer group.
Since the evolution of retail design and its impact on productivity have become clear, a series of standardisations in the techniques and design qualities has been determined. These standardisations range from alterations to the perspective of the structure of the space, entrances, circulation systems, atmospheric qualities (light and sound) and materiality. By exploring these standardisations in retail design the consumer will be given a thematic experience that entices them to purchase the merchandise. It is also important to acknowledge that a retail space must combine both permanent and non permanent features, that allow it to change as the needs of the consumer and merchandise change (e.g. per season).
The structure of retail space creates the constraints of the overall design; often the spaces already exist, and have had many prior uses. It is at this stage that logistics must be determined, structural features like columns, stairways, ceiling height, windows and emergency exists all must be factored into the final design. In retail one hundred percent of the space must be utilised and have a purpose. The floor plan creates the circulation which then directly controls the direction of the traffic flow based on the studied psychology of consumer movement pattern within a retail space. Circulation is important because it ensures that the consumer moves through the store from front to back, guiding them to important displays and in the end to the cashier. There are six basic store layouts and circulation plans that all provide a different experience:
Once the overall structure and circulation of the space has been determined, the atmosphere and thematics of the space must be created through lighting, sound, materials and visual branding. These design elements will cohesively have the greatest impact on the consumer and thus the level of productivity that could be achieved.
Lighting can have a dramatic impact on the space. It needs to be functional but also complement the merchandise as well as emphasize key points throughout the store. The lighting should be layered and of a variety of intensities and fixtures. Firstly, examine the natural light and what impact it has in the space. Natural light adds interest and clarity to the space; also consumers also prefer to examine the quality of merchandise in natural light. If no natural light exists, a sky light can be used to introduce it to the retail space. The lighting of the ceiling and roof is the next thing to consider. This lighting should wash the structural features while creating vectors that direct the consumer to key merchandise selling areas. The next layer should emphasize the selling areas. These lights should be direct but not too bright and harsh. Poor lighting can cause eye strain and an uncomfortable experience for the consumer. To minimize the possibility of eye strain, the ratio of luminance should decrease between merchandise selling areas. The next layer will complement and bring focus onto the merchandise; this lighting should be flattering for the merchandise and consumer. The final layer is to install functional lighting such as clear exit signs.
Ambiance can then be developed within the atmosphere through sound and audio, the music played within the store should reflect what your target market would be drawn to, this would also be developed through the merchandise that is being marketed. In a lingerie store the music should be soft, feminine and romanticized; where in a technology department the music would be more upbeat and more masculine.
Materiality is another key selling tool, the choices made must not only be aesthetically pleasing and persuasive but also functional with a minimal need for maintenance. Retail spaces are high traffic area and are thus exposed to a lot of wear this means that possible finishes of the materials should be durable. The warmth of a material will make the space more inviting, a floor that is firm and somewhat buoyant will be more comfortable for that consumer to walk on and thus this will allow them to take longer when exploring the store. By switching materials throughout the store zones/ areas can be defined, for example by making the path one material and contrast it against another for the selling areas this help to guide the consumer through the store. Colour is also important to consider it must not over power or clash against the merchandise but rather create a complementary background for the merchandise. As merchandise will change seasonally the interior colours should not be trend based but rather have timeless appeal like neutral based colours.
Visual branding of the store will ensure a memorable experience for the consumer to take with them once they leave the store ensuring that they will want to return. The key factor is consistency exterior branding and signage should continue into the interior, they should attract, stimulate and dramatise the store. To ensure consistency the font should be consistent with the font size altering. The interior branding should allow the consumer to easily self direct themselves through the store, proper placement of sales signs that will draw consumer in and show exactly where the cashier is located. The branding should reflect what the merchandise is and what the target market would be drawn to.
The final element of a well-executed retail space is the staging of the consumer’s perspective. It is the role of retail design to have total control of the view that the consumer will have of the retail space. From the exterior of a retail store the consumer should have a clear unobstructed view into the interior.