Shoppers are embracing physical retail post-pandemic…but only if it’s something worth embracing. Straight transactions are done more and more online, which means brick-and-mortar has to provide something other than a simple point of purchase. “We are encouraging our partners in the physical retail space to look past today and ask themselves, in a time of seemingly constant change, how can we plan for the future effectively?” says Philip Otto, executive director of design at KTGY. “We all seek to belong, and now more than ever, we need reasons to leave the house and enjoy our five senses.”
Otto believes today’s consumers are driven by new experiences and the desire to connect. With this in mind, spaces should be flexible, events should be frequent and retail should be purpose-driven.
“Giving people spaces to connect with others and the five senses attract the energy and activity we all need to see,” he continues. “By putting the emphasis on environments that host change well, retailers can spend less on fixed assets, freeing up the effort to address the needs of the desired audience. In this way, we can arrive at the creation of noteworthy destinations that are worth the trip again and again.”
Providing a sensory experience may be Retail 101 in this day and age, but it’s how brands and shopping centers appeal to those senses that matter. After all, today’s consumers priorities have changed. The transaction is often secondary or tertiary. Stimulation is everywhere, yet attention spans are shorter as people are ruled by the bright screen in their palms.
So, how do you take these facts and make something meaningful? Through the power of design. Let’s start with the visual: store design.
“Retailers and shopping center owners see the store experience as the top priority,” says Martin Potts, senior vice president of project and development services and Orange County lead in JLL’s Irvine office. “You have to wow the customer with exciting and inviting storefront displays. Some retailers have even changed their sales floor to a less inventory approach to provide the customer with more display.”
One such retailer is fine jeweler Brilliant Earth. Engagement rings, wedding rings and gems of all kinds are inherently visually stimulating, but that doesn’t mean the retailer can coast. With such big decisions (and dollars) on the line, Kathryn Money, senior vice president of merchandising and retail expansion for the company, knows it’ll all come down to the experience.
“Our showrooms operate with an inventory-light model while showcasing products that have been carefully curated to match the tastes of the local market and individual preferences indicated by customers,” she says. “Shopping for jewelry can often be intimidating. When we design our showrooms, it is important to us to create a space that feels welcoming, approachable and relaxing while still delivering an elevated, premium experience.”
Little extras can also enhance the visit, especially if they appeal to the other senses.
“Incorporate elements of surprise and delight — whether that’s a glass of sparkling water, branded chocolates or curating the perfect product assortment for your customer — a little bit can go a long way in creating that personal connection with your customers,” Money continues.
Christiane Pendarvis, co-president and chief merchandising and design officer at El Segundo-based Savage X Fenty, agrees the devil is in the details. The lingerie brand by singer Rihanna opened its first Los Angeles store at Westfield Culver City in February. Teeming with reds, dark purples and neons, the space is anything but ordinary.
“Our goal was to create a welcoming environment that draws people in as they walk by,” Pendarvis says. “We wanted to translate our brand voice and aesthetic into real experiences — neon lighting, upbeat music — you might hear a few Rihanna songs on repeat — playful messaging, diverse representation and more. Every little detail brings a unique flair to the traditional retail shopping experience, making it difficult not to take a peek inside.”
Otto appreciates this approach, though he notes there’s more than one way to draw people in. The Savage X Fenty store’s strategy is successful because it stays true to the brand Rihanna created — one that emphasizes fun, mystery and music. That may not be the story of all retailers, but all retailers can certainly increase the likelihood that a customer will pop in.
“People like to enter a store without making a big decision about it, so a minimum barrier approach is essential,” Otto says. “We as human beings have a need to gather with others and feel a sense of community. Letting this activity show through the windows, spill out of the entrance and invite people in effortlessly must be the goal.”
Joseph Scaretta, co-CEO and founder of CS Hudson, a facility, project and program management service provider, points to Guess’ recent transformation as an example of a little going along way.
“Guess has been transforming its remaining locations at a fraction of the cost of a traditional renovation,” he explains. “Their scopes included new paint, resurfacing older store fixtures and furniture with new vinyl finishes — wood grains, metal and gloss white finishes — and updated marketing images to create anew in-store experience and aesthetic. Guess has created excitement for their brand and driven both their core and new customers into their locations.”
Guess maintains 11 stores in California, including locations in Beverly Hills, San Francisco, San Diego and others.
Art walls can also be an effective strategy, especially when they add the sense of touch. Such was the case with Beyond Yoga’s first pop-up at the Grove in Los Angeles this past June. The 3,980-square-foot store featured a wall composed of hanging fabric panels, allowing guests to see, feel and discuss the apparel’s material and color schemes.
The art wall concept followed Beyond Yoga to its first permanent location, a 4,000-square-foot store on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, which opened in September. “Expanding into retail is an exciting moment for the brand and we cannot wait to meet more of our customers in-person,” says Michelle Wahler, co-founder and CEO of Beyond Yoga. “Santa Monica is an ideal location for us. Not only is it an iconic area of Los Angeles, but it also has a mix of locals and tourists and is home to many of our most loyal customers.”
Scaretta sees Beyond Yoga’s strategy as a way to build and foster loyalty.
“You have to fi nd ways to get in front of your loyal following and create brand lift with both retail and experiential activations,” he says. “You can truly connect with your consumer by utilizing platforms like pop-ups, in-store loyalty programs and events.”
Loyalty is certainly needed if a retailer plans to succeed in the physical environment today. Of course, not all of that loyalty is built on-site. Social media, the internet and omnichannel shopping experiences often kickstart a customer’s journey with a retailer. The brick-and-mortar can make or break it, however.
This is where the “sixth sense” of retail can come in — the sense of community. Many consumers still seek the connection and socialization provided by in-person shopping. Some realize they took this privilege for granted during the pandemic, and they’re hungry to reconnect. Still, venturing out when most goods can be ordered with a tap has caused retailers to rethink their role in consumers’ lives.
Instead of places of commerce, many now want to serve as places of community.
“It is no longer enough to offer a physical space for consumers to find goods,” says Mitra Esfandiari, senior principal at RDC architecture firm. “Physical retailers and shopping centers are successful when they offer consumers a more enriching experience that fosters a sense of community.”
CAMP, a shop-play hybrid experience for kids, had the community aspect front and center when it opened its first West Coast store, a 7,000-square-foot outpost at Westfield Century City, in April. In addition to its retail offerings, the space features its signature speakeasy “Magic Door," which leads to seasonal interactive themed experiences, as well as Base CAMP, an immersive summer camp-themed experience where kids go from cabin to cabin enjoying arts and crafts, sports, dance and theater as they form new friendships.
CAMP has also partnered with Barbie and RVshare to create one-of-a-kind experiences specifically for its Los Angeles community. These include a Barbie-themed disco cabin and an interactive RV campsite.
“When we open new locations we are doing more than just opening a store, we are entering a new community,” says Ben Kaufman, CAMP’s founder and CEO. “Families have very few places that become part of their routine where they can have fun, escape and build memories together. Los Angeles has been at the top of our wish list for several years, and we are incredibly excited to build our community on the West Coast.”
Some retailers have taken the community concept a step further, creating entire stores dedicated to the local residents, neighborhoods and cultures. Foot Locker’s “community power” store opened in Compton in August 2020. The 12,800-square-footspace includes custom store artwork by local artists and an activation space that hosts ongoing community events, such as neighborhood clean-ups and maintaining a community garden. Foot Locker’s “Home Grown” hyper-local product initiative also offers a curated group of local brands selling exclusive and limited-release product.
Events and opportunities to socialize are two ways to create community, but they aren’t the only two. Sometimes community is simply about inclusiveness and feeling comfortable in a store, regardless of who you are. Many retailers strive for this by offering a vast range of sizes and body-positive images/models. Savage X Fenty does this as well, but it’s gone an extra mile to eliminate a pain point that makes some consumers self-conscious: the dressing room fitting.
The company partnered with FIT:MATCH, which offers AR-powered body scans through a white label app that’s embedded in the fitting room wall. Typical fitting technology attempts to match a shopper with a product based on their measurements, while FIT:MATCH’s platform uses body shape data to recommend products based on that shopper’s personal “fit twin,” which comes from its extensive unique-size database.
Shoppers can enter a dressing room, remove their outer layers (keeping their undergarments and/or tight clothing on) and slowly rotate as the software does the rest. Once a body twin has been found, FIT:MATCH can identify the shopper’s appropriate size for that brand and, upon request, have an associate hand deliver product matches in their recommended size directly to the fitting room.
“For our retail concept, it was important for us to bring innovation and technology into the physical locations to create a seamless and positive shopping experience for everybody,’” Pendarvis says. “We partnered with FIT:MATCH to help eliminate the fit question for our diverse Savage X Fenty community and allow them to feel confident as they shop our products in store.”
The software not only eliminates inaccurate sizing, which can result in frustration and multiple trips to the dressing room, but the awkward encounters with “fitters” who wear tape measures around their necks.
It’s also been a boon for retailers. “For the brand, it’s a conversion tool as well as a new portal of data in which they can make better business decisions for their customers,” says Hillary Littleton, head of marketing at FIT:MATCH. “Not only are retailers set after customer conversion, but they can experience increased average order value and fewer returns [as the software sizes customers accurately].”
Though there are many ways to create a sense of community, they don’t all belong to the retailers. Shopping centers, of course, have their roles to play too. Becoming as close to a 24-hour destination as possible is one way to foster socializing and community. Otto points to Town Center at the Preserve in Chino as one example of this.
“This new center establishes itself as a day-to-night destination,” he says. “To do this, the architects (KTGY) created a center focused on community connectivity, from the shade structures and cabanas that host outdoor lounge seating and firepits to the vast walls in the plaza spaces designed to function as movie projection screens during evening hours and the bi-fold garage doors in the large restaurant façades that connect the indoor dining rooms and outdoor patios.”
Potts adds that appealing landscaping, signage and lighting also speak to a safe, comfortable and inviting environment. Farmer’s markets and community-gathering spaces can also help. Unfortunately, not every retail center has a central green or town square, particularly the older ones. Potts doesn’t see this as a problem. Instead, he sees a creative solution.
“One phenomenon that has begun to change shopping centers is transportation,” he explains. “Drive, park and shop, return and repeat. While most still do this, the introduction of Uber and Lyft have reduced parking demands. Vehicles are also getting smaller, responding to our global environmental challenges. Then you add online purchases, and the frequency of store visits has reduced, with parking demands diminishing.”
This isn’t a bad thing, Potts notes. Rather, it’s a great opportunity to turn those empty spaces into something active. Something compelling. Something… community-driven.
“All of this has had a positive impact on shopping centers,” he continues. “Less and smaller vehicles translates to smaller parking fields, and shopping center owners are figuring out ways to reduce parking fields and replace them with increased retailing.”
REI, for one, utilizes its parking lot for the famous Co-Op Garage Sale where used gear can find a second home (while shoppers save money). Patagonia also brings its Worn Wear Truck to its store parking lots, allowing patrons to make an appointment and get their previously purchased item fixed to keep it in circulation for longer. Parking lots have also been popular for spin classes and cycling club meet ups.
“The fitness and outdoor community is thriving and growing,” Otto says. “Attract consumers through purpose-driven retail and events and the rest will follow. Giving people spaces to connect with others and the five senses attracts the energy and activity we all need to see. This proof of traffic, in turn, attracts quality tenants.”
Speaking of traffic, the BOPIS craze has led to another parking lot trend — the dedicated spaces for online orders. Even this is an opportunity to do something extra for your consumer, Potts asserts.
“Target has been significantly remodeling their stores and providing enhanced curbside pick-up, including protective canopy structures for the comfort and safety of their customer,” he says. “We expect we will be seeing many retailers following this trend in the future.”
Whether spinning classes in the parking lot, customized chocolates with our jeweler or magic speakeasy doors will stay for retail’s long haul is anybody’s guess. The typical adage in retail is that the only constant is change, but Otto challenges this notion. Or, at least, prefers a modified version of it.
“The Greek scholar Thucydides said that ‘the one constant through human history is human nature,’” he says. “If we listen to that, and connect with people’s need to gather and belong to community, we can create memorable destinations that inspire.”
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