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Selling the Store

Forget the traditional divisions between “online” or “in-store”— consumers are now shopping where and when it’s convenient for them. Here’s a look at how designers are bringing down the retail walls and boosting their clients’ brands.

By Margie Monin Dombrowski

Forget the traditional divisions between “online” or “in-store”— consumers are now shopping where and when it’s convenient for them. Here’s a look at how designers are bringing down the retail walls and boosting their clients’ brands.

You’ve probably heard about the growth in online shopping, but what you may not realize is just how fast people are filling those virtual shopping carts. According to a recent forecast from Forrester Research, online retail sales in the states are expected to jump from $262 billion in 2013 to an estimated $370 billion in 2017.

While some may see numbers like these as the latest threat to the brick-and-mortar retail model, many leading retailers are beginning to see it as

an opportunity to collapse the walls that have traditionally stood between the digital and physical sides of their business. Whether it’s through the shrewd placement of technology within a store or the re-creation of a physical experience online, retailers are actively experimenting with ways to tie their online and in-store brands into a singular, compelling narrative.

The exciting news is that designers have a crucial role to play in constructing these experiences, but where does one start? We spoke with a few designers currently working in the retail sector, and present their suggestions for creating immersive, connected retail environments.

start at the end
Bringing a brand’s online experience to its stores can start at the point of sale (POS), says Nathan Lee Colkitt, principal of San Diego-based Colkitt & Co. The experiences of shopping in a store versus ordering from a website may seem diametrically opposed, but there are ways to make them work hand in hand—and generate more sales.

One solution Colkitt recommends is providing options for customers to make online purchases and interact with the company’s website while in the store. This allows retailers to connect their customers with the exact products they’re hunting for, even though the physical location may carry only so many size runs or colors of a particular item. “It really expands the menu,” Colkitt says.

Another advantage to this approach (for retailers, at least) lies in the inherent speed of e-commerce. Companies will be banking on customers to make instant purchases while browsing the physical selection, reducing the opportunity for them to change their minds.

leverage your tech
As consumers become more and more accustomed to doing product research online, it makes sense to carry that sensibility into the physical space. Designers are now scattering iPads throughout the store rather than in one specific area, giving customers multiple chances to learn about products before buying.

Colkitt recommends providing a variety of iPad setups, allowing users to stand at a desk or sit near the shoes, for example, in order to cater to different shopping personalities. “People will only interact with a computer when it’s placed in a particular way,” he says, whether it’s in the front or back of the store, seated or standing. It can also make a difference in whether a customer feels comfortable enough to pull out their credit card. “You want to make sure people feel secure and safe.”

For Jay Highland, vice president and client creative partner with Chute Gerdeman, the rise of the digitally savvy customer means that designers need to find even more creative techniques for leveraging technology and digital signage in stores. “We’re moving into a place with digital content that’s deeper and helps customers understand products and features in a more meaningful way without getting in the way of the shopper physically understanding how to shop the store,” he says.

Retailers, for example, can use technology to show customers upcoming collections, how products work or how they will benefit their lives—but it can also enhance the experience in simpler, more novel ways. When Chute Gerdeman redesigned a dozen Domino’s Pizza stores around the county, designers included a digital component to link the online and in-store steps of the ordering process.

With the new personalized “pizza tracker,” customers can place orders online and then check their pizza status before coming in to pick it up. In a low-tech twist, a chalkboard in the dining room gives customers an old-school version of social media, allowing them to leave comments and feedback. PageBreak

connect the dots
While some retailers are content to share elements between their websites and physical stores, others are looking to completely recreate the digital experience in-store. When Blu Dot decided to expand into Australia, it kept the scenes in its newly opened Sydney store virtually the same as its stores in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City. “The branding is identical,” says Brett Conroy, managing director of Blu Dot Australia and New Zealand. “You can walk into any store and have the same experience. You know you’re in a Blu Dot store.”

The space’s industrial-loft style with polished concrete floors and Douglas fir feature walls create an appropriate backdrop for the brand’s modern furniture. The overall aesthetic is taken straight from the company’s website, although that’s not the only thing it’s inspired by. Taking a cue from Blu Dot’s tongue-in-cheek marketing copy, even the accessories in the physical store have been humorously staged to convey the company’s brand; customers may stumble upon items like a life-sized plastic lobster relaxing on a sofa or a giant crab peeking out of a dresser drawer.

“There’s a level of fun and cheekiness in all of the seriousness of design,” says Conroy. “We’ve tried to replicate what’s in the catalog identically. I’ve tried to replicate multiple images on the website and reenact those vignettes in the store.”

Likewise, at the office and showroom in New York’s West Village, Edin Rudic, creative director of New York City-based MKDA, was sure to reflect the image and culture of the flash retail site that hawks wares from international designers. Bright bursts of rainbow colors are borrowed straight from the website, creating the same frenetic energy in the physical space. A wall of large foam blocks, some imprinted with the brand’s name, can be disassembled and turned into impromptu meeting or dining spots. “They take it down every day and build it back up,” Rudic says. “It involves people in making a micro environment within the larger space.”

Some of the furnishings sold on the site are incorporated in the office/showroom design, which can also be shot as vignettes for the website. “Furniture migrates all the time,” Rudic adds. “The space is dynamic like their website. They sell their products fast and they change their space fast. It’s a live space and it grows with them.”


Margie Monin Dombrowski is a freelance writer and interior design student based in Orange County, Calif. She frequently writes for interior design publications and creates copy for businesses on design topics. Find her online at