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Change in store: future-proofing bricks and mortar

Drapers explores how retailers can tempt shoppers to physical stores in the long term

Multiple retailer store closures in the UK rose by 79% in 2019 to almost 6,000, the Centre for Retail Research reported. Director Joshua Bamfield attributed the closures to high costs, low profitability, and the rapid growth of online, and cited the lack of investment in stores coupled with weak forward planning.

As store portfolios continue to shrink, and shoppers turn increasingly online, retailers have to change their strategy to keep bricks-and-mortar shopping appealing. Drapers speaks to leading retail design agencies and retailers, and finds that conveying purpose, creating community and embracing digital will be central in weathering the changing climate. 

Give it a purpose

Shoppers want to buy from a brand whose values are aligned with theirs, and this is becoming more relevant as issues such as sustainably shift further into the public’s focus.

“Stores give a brand the opportunity to demonstrate its purpose – something that’s increasingly important with today’s savvy and demanding consumer,” says Paul West, strategy director at retail design agency Dalziel & Pow. “Brands are putting less emphasis on the right flooring and lighting options and more emphasis on telling their authentic story.”

Adam Brinkworth, CEO of retail design agency Brinkworth, agrees: “The most significant change in the role of store design in recent years is the increased need for brands to build relationships with their customers and to offer [a space] that allows the customer to have a meaningful connection with both the brand, and each other.”

Timberland’s “purpose-led”, sustainable store on London’s Carnaby Street (pictured above), which opened last November, does just that. Designed in partnership with Dalziel & Pow, the 2,594 sq ft space brings Timberland’s CSR strategy to life with towering pillars in store referencing the brand’s use of recycled materials, community projects and technological innovations within its products.

Other features include a transparent “community table” in the centre of the store, which gives examples of how small actions have driven notable change in the communities such as the “urban greening” practice of planting trees in cities.

Olivela Aspen

Olivela, Aspen

Alison Cardy, managing director at retail design agency HMKM, says the “long-overdue embrace of sustainability is the most striking trend” in store design for the coming decade: “Our recent project with [US] charitable fashion brand Olivela is a good example of how to best allow customers to see in sharp detail the direct impact for good that each item in store can have in the world. As a customer picks up key products, a focused digital point of sale describes the product provenance.”

Olivela contributes funds to girls’ education and other charitable causes with every purchase, and the store in Aspen, Colorado, also creates an “Instagrammable” moment in which a wall projection thanks the customer by name and displays the number of school days paid for.

Retailers should consider also consider “brand frustration” to give their store portfolios longevity, says Adam Devey Smith, managing partner of creative design agency The One Off: “Valuable insight gained from customers [during work with Frasers Group] enabled us to really understand brand perception and frustration, meaning we were able to implement a strategy that would evolve the brand for a new generation of consumers.

“The nature of fast fashion and sport as a sector means that any one store design can no longer stay the same. Cookie-cutter stores will not stand up, and a flexible element is crucial to ensure successful future-proofing for the Sports Direct brand.”

Build it and they will come

With brand purpose also comes a focus on community for the next generation of retail stores.

There has always been a strong need to socialise as part of a store visit – beyond just going through racks of garments – but today, stores are not always providing this experience, particularly in the high street,” says Carlos Virgile, director at retail design specialist Virgile & Partners. Looking forward, as “the mere existence of physical stores seems to be challenged” Virgile explains store design will play a bigger role in “creating a new type of environment that provides stronger emotional interaction and create a sense of community.”

“A major factor for us is creating stores with a ‘neighbourhood’ feel,” Paul Horne, head of store design for H&M in the UK and Ireland, tells Drapers. “We want our stores to integrate seamlessly into the locations they exist in, and, most importantly, we need to make sure that they deliver on what a specific customer is looking for.”

This means being more selective in stock allocation, he explains: “It’s no longer about how many products we can fit into a store. It’s much more important to streamline what we make available and make it easier for the customer to find the things we think they’ll really want.”

The bigger a brand gets, the more beneficial it is for them to act smaller

Paul West, Dalziel & Pow

An example of this is the refit under way on H&M’s Oxford Street East store. The new concept will be a global first to focus on a younger customer group with emphasis on its Divided collections.

It follows the relaunch of the retailer’s Hammersmith store at the end of 2018. The concept store in Kings Mall tested initiatives such as garment repair service Take Care, interactive fitting room screens and a warmer tone for the fit out with greenery and a wrought iron staircase in the place of escalators to give “the look and feel of a modern neighbourhood store”.

For global heavyweights such as H&M, it is becoming increasingly important to approach store design in this “glocal” way, says Dalziel & Pow’s West: “The bigger a brand gets, the more beneficial it is for them to act smaller, offering a more personalised and localised brand experience.”

h&m hammersmith interior

H&M, Hammersmith

Anthropologie has taken this approach under managing director of international, Peter Ruis. In April, the lifestyle retailer unveiled its new local store strategy which will open doors in strategic, smaller “neighbourhood locations”. Since debuting in Tunbridge Wells in April last year, the concept has been rolling out across the UK with an opening in Winchester in December and an upcoming Oxford launch.

anthropologie tunbridge wells 20

Anthropologie, Tunbridge Wells

It is a change that has been driven by ecommerce, says Ruis: “In a world where you can get everything online, and your website is your bestselling store with your biggest amount of choice, you have to change your retail strategy to bring your stores and experience to people so that it feels like a part of their normal life, as opposed to a designated shopping trip into a specific place.”

Anthropologie’s new stores also embed local heritage into their design. In its Winchester store, it has incorporated the building’s history as the town’s first “talkie” cinema with vintage chairs and projections.

“There tends to be a local artist involved in some way in every single store,” says Ruis. “We build all the windows and our seasonal changes by hand using old-fashioned techniques like collage and papier mache. Historically, we would ship materials in from the US for the shop fit, but now we design all the stores individually and locally, so we are able to adapt to the architecture much more.”

Value retailer Primark is also focusing on the local. The retailer’s massive 160,000 sq ft Birmingham store has Brummie slang plastered on the walls, alongside maps of local landmarks, and customers can bag locally inspired products made specifically for that branch. 

Online partnerships

To survive the rise of ecommerce, retail store design should collaborate with digital channels, rather than compete.

Adidas’s London flagship on Oxford Circus is a good example of physical, human and digital integration, says Tahira Taylor, strategy director at retail and brand consultancy Fitch: “The wider shopping experience is digitally integrated to make shopping in store feel better than it would at home. The changing rooms use RFID (radio frequency identification) technology to recognise products, and the store’s ‘Bring It to Me’ feature uses in-store geolocation tracking to provide an uninterrupted browsing experience from the store to your app.”

Adidas London flagship

Adidas London flagship

The flagship also acts as an important source of marketing for new launches through features such as the current front-of-store takeover to celebrate the latest release of its Predator 20+ Mutator football boot, which was produced in partnership with Fitch.

“Today, stores are not only a vital tool for building trust and positive human relationships – they can also be used to drive traffic to online,” says Dalziel & Pow’s West. “Modern brands and retailers should be joining the dots and achieving connectivity across physical and digital channels. The most effective way to drive traffic online is by creating an environment that reflects the brand and gives people the right desire to discover.”

To futureproof their stores, retailers must cash in on customers’ desire for a sense of belonging and their new local shopping habits. Community-focused and detail-orientated designs will build lasting relationships and nurture omnichannel customers.

“To me [a retail store] is and always will be the perfect invention,” says Anthropologie’s Ruis. “It will obviously adapt and develop, and there might not be as many as there used to be, but I think it plays a really important life in the social fabric of every single town in Britain.”


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