Revitalizing Retail: Design is Changing the Way We Shop

12/01/2016 By Louisa Fitzgerald

With holiday shopping in full swing, a familiar story dominates business news: Online retailers are capturing more sales as consumers opt to make purchases from their laptops and mobile devices.

But a closer look reveals that retail trends are far more complicated than the headlines suggest. In fact, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, consumers are blurring the lines between online and in-store purchases by visiting brick-and-mortar retailers to test items before purchasing online, doing research online before purchasing items in-store, and taking advantage of policies that allow shoppers to buy online and pick up or return items at a physical location.

Despite hybrid shopping habits, the picture isn’t entirely positive. Traditional retail experiences are contributing to stagnation in the industry, with e-commerce growth outpacing in-store growth by nearly five to one. These new dynamics are creating challenges and opportunities for retail designers. Here, two International Interior Design Association (IIDA) members talk about the design trends that are revitalizing retail.

Curating Culture

For Diana Pisone, IIDA, LEED AP ID+C, team principal at Ted Moudis Associates, which specializes in retail design with clients ranging from Tiffany’s and Hermes to Children’s Place and Foot Locker, creating an experience that connects shoppers to the culture of a brand is key to getting consumers into a store and keeping them there.

“Designers have to ask, ‘What can we give consumers in-store that you cannot get on the internet?’” Pisone said. “When designing for retail, the focus is on making it somewhere special that you want to go.”

To move beyond the transactional nature of retail, Pisone and her colleagues at Ted Moudis created a curated experience at Maille, a gourmet mustard shop that encourages its clientele to embrace its brand values, including craftsmanship and sustainability.

“At Maille, customers are encouraged to take classes and learn how to use the mustard in the shop, in addition to purchasing the product,” Pisone explained. “Customers are interacting with the brand on a different level.”

Real Estate Realities

The impact of online shopping combined with rising costs of real estate, particularly in densely populated metropolitan areas, mean that brick-and-mortar stores must do more with less square footage.  

“You can do all your shopping from your smartphone, which means that stores can have a smaller footprint and lower inventory,” said Brian Thornton, IIDA, a veteran of retail design, and principal and owner of Brian G Thornton Designs. “You don’t necessarily need a point-of-sale area or to queue and stand in line to purchase items.”

One way retailers are dealing with the reality of real estate costs while creating buzz around their brands? Pop-up shops are a win-win for retailers and real estate brokers who don’t want vacant storefronts.  

“Having the capability to relocate a standalone pop-up shop for a set period of time is smart from a real estate standpoint and allows retailers to
take pieces of their brands to create a unique experience,” Thornton said.

Minding the Generation Gap

Baby Boomers may still prefer to buy products in a store while Millennials are comfortable making purchases from their smartphones, but technology also plays a role in the brick-and-mortar experience, which can alienate longtime, less tech-savvy customers.

According to Pisone, it’s up to designers to bridge the gap. “The technology in stores has to be simple, obvious, and easy to use. It has to be visually appealing and exciting for Boomers because historically, the tech is for people who work there. Designers must change visual cues in self-service areas.”

Thornton noted that retailers must not only keep their loyal customers, but also engage younger generations by creating experiences that encourage shoppers to spend time in the store.

“Wi-fi, charging stations, comfortable seating—that’s not just for coffee drinkers. Stores are now catering to Millennials, and we are designing retail as a place to hang out,” Thornton said. “Researchers have noted that young professionals live at home or house share. They want to get out and retailers want people to spend time in their stores and spend money in those stores. More eyes on merchandise translates into more sales.”

The bottom line? Don’t buy into doomsday retail predictions. The industry may be changing, but the in-store experience won’t cease to exist.
“Brick-and-mortar stores aren’t going away—that’s never going to be the case,” Pisone said. “There may be a reduction, but there’s a need. People want interaction, and our job as designers is to exemplify that and raise it up for people to get the culture, the atmosphere, and the experience.”

Continuing the Conversation About Retail

“What Clients Want: Essential Conversations about Retail Design” is now available from IIDA, through the generous support of Tarkett. The third volume of “What Clients Want” explores our fascination with shopping, buying, and obtaining everyday items and precious objects of desire. This global journey takes you through the world of brick-and-mortar retail, everything from pop-ups to luxury shops, and provides the reader with insightful project commentary about creating brands, places, and experiences from the perspective of both the designer and the client. Find out more at