Two leading retail design experts — Bruce Brigham, president-elect of the American Society of Interior Designers, and Brian G. Thornton, vice president of communications for the International Interior Design Association — were asked the same question: What is one of the most common mistakes made in retail design?
Both men answered the question with the same reply: clutter.
“If you know you only have a little bit of space to work with,” says Thornton, “please, at all costs, try not to clutter it. If a store is cluttered, the first thought is that there’s no focus. It’s hard to tell what’s being sold. Sometimes, the first-time visitor can be overwhelmed by a wide range of merchandise. Even if you sell only 50 items, you don’t have to put all 50 out. Hold something back.”
Both designers stress that shopping is an experience. It is not, Thornton says, just the act of the purchase. “If the space — or negotiating through the space — helps augment that experience, then it’s going to be all the better, and people will tend to stay in the store longer, purchase more in the long run, and return. That’s what you want: repeat business.”
Tell a Good Story
Brigham goes so far as to say that a store should tell a story: “The biggest mistake that poorly branded retailers make is they don’t tell a consistent, cohesive, clear, compelling, meaningful story.
“You can look at absolutely any successful retailer, and they’re telling a story about themselves,” he explains. “The way you can tell is if you took the label, the brand, the signs off that store and you walked into that store blindfolded then took off your blindfold, you would know right where you were.”
And that goes, Brigham says, for every well-branded, well-designed store, from Prada to Costco.
“You’ve just got to wipe a lot of the crap out of your store and think about what story are you telling over here and what story are you telling over here,” Brigham says. “A well-branded, well-positioned store unfolds like a good book. As you move into the space, you want a series of chapters to unfold. And you want something very powerful at the back of the store as sort of a climax to really draw people all the way back.”
There is a rhythm to good design. Think of it, Brigham says, as a “design vocabulary — the colors, the materials, the shapes.”
A bright color, Thornton explains, will draw a customer to the interior of a store. “Neutrals convey calm or static; pastels convey calm and comfort. Dark or saturated colors imply sophistication or refinement. And the use of spot color is always good.”
Two more key ingredients to a well-designed store, Thornton says, are graphics and lighting. “Even if a retailer is a single store, investment in good graphics and signage is imperative to communicating to the customer who you are and hopefully the caliber of products within the store.”
In 1992, Thornton had 10 days to put together a temporary store in Washington, D.C., to sell the leftover memorabilia from the Clinton/Gore presidential campaign. With an eye on their limited budget, Thornton and his team made a sign by printing out the campaign logo then enlarging it. They took the enlargement to a print shop where it was reproduced on heavy-gauge material. Back at the store, they placed it behind glass in the front window and dotted it with Christmas lights.
“It was so special.” Thornton recalls. “It looked like little stars with blue and white graphics. I think it cost $20.” The point: Even if budget is a problem, a creative retailer can create attractive, engaging signage.
Importance of Lighting
If there is one area where a retailer should be willing to break the bank, Thornton says, it is with lighting: “Not just good lighting; great lighting. There should be proper, lifelike color rendition and ample wattage on the merchandise. I know everyone can’t afford it and we’re trying to be energy conscious, but I am a stickler for halogen lighting, especially in boutiques where the color of the garment is critical. The place I would put my money is on the lighting system.”
Track lighting works well, he said, because it is adjustable. “If displays change, you can move it around.” During seasonal times, he adds, if retailers are going to put up holiday displays, they should turn off the overhead lights and let the illuminated displays be a feature.
One lighting trick from Thornton is to dim the lighting on the entry, and contrast that with higher light levels at the back of the store, signaling that there is something of importance at the back. “People are always drawn toward light.”
Retailers should also consider the circulation inside their store, Thornton says. “Nothing is worse than to get into a store and become frustrated at the layout even before you understand what the merchandise is.” One example of poor store circulation would be aisles that end in dead ends. Or store fixtures that are too tall and don’t allow shoppers to look across and understand how large or small the store is. Fixtures that restrict visibility through the space, he explains, kill the “spirit” of a store.
Here are some of Thornton’s design rules of thumb:
- Put valuables in glass cases.
- Display art objects and specialty items on high shelves.
- Use single feature displays for certain items to encourage demonstration or tactile interaction.
Consider these guidelines put to use in a bookstore: “They have their rare books under glass, maybe at the cash wrap. Books that they want people to be able to access and see are along the walls in stacks. And there’s always something on that front table that you didn’t come into the store for. This is for incidental purchases. You always look at that table.”
Connecting with Customers
A store really succeeds, Brigham says, when it creates a meaningful connection to people. The reason Disney can get away with selling a $40 Mickey Mouse T-shirt similar to one that can be purchased at Target for $7 is because Disney Store shoppers “are bringing home the Mickey Mouse experience, the whole Disney experience.
“When someone says, ‘Where should I go shopping?’ and you say, ‘Oh, you should go to Chico’s.’ And you start raving about Chico’s like you own the place. What you’re really doing is you’re taking ownership of these brands because when we are in these stores, they are a mirror of ourselves or — more to the point, a mirror of who we would like to be, a mirror of our aspirations.
“We go into stores and we buy things to take these feeling home with us and the feelings linger in our life,” says Brigham. “When they start to fade, we go buy more stuff.”
Multi award-winning Carol Carter has been a business journalist since 1978, when she was among the founding staff of Atlanta Business Chronicle, for which she served as editor, managing editor, reporter, and columnist. She covered retail news for the Chronicle for five years, wrote a column about retail stores for Southline newspaper in Atlanta, and was the consumer reporter for NBC-affiliate WXIA-TV’s Noonday show.