The current financial crisis has ushered in a new retail era which spells the end of shopping as we have known it; everyone's value systems are being re-set. Even those consumers who can afford to shop are forgoing purchases for fear of being wasteful or appearing frivolous, concerned that it sends a message that they are insensitive to problems of the world. Providing a compelling environment for this new consumer poses an exciting challenge for retailers.
Consumers have become very sophisticated in their tastes over the course of the credit bubble build up, and those expectations will not disappear any time soon. Shoppers still care about the perceptions they create based on what they purchase and right now what is appealing isn't the "latest and greatest," instead being drawn to longevity and quality. Critical at this juncture, all brands must communicate a lifestyle that is in keeping with the evolving value system of today.
The new consumer is drawn to a humanistic connection to their retail environments rather than Starchitects' hubris, glitz and glam. They want to feel that there is a purpose, that they are in some way making a contribution. Retailers and the designers that serve them can anticipate these needs in a variety of ways:
Breathing Room, Not Just Changing Rooms - Focused only on sales productivity many stores have crammed in too much merchandise, forgetting about the human experience that the consumer expects. One of the simplest things stores can do is provide more space for people to congregate and relax; in other words, just let people hang out.
Trendy is a Dirty Word - Retail design has recently charted a course of chasing one design trend after another. But this is expensive folly as most design trends don't last for very long and it sends a wasteful and frivolous message to the "new consumer." Instead of constantly reinventing surroundings, the shelf life of these environments will necessarily be longer due to increasingly scarce capital. It is doubly important to make sure the store's design is timeless, eschewing trends that have no durability.
Reject Rigidity - While it is important that the design has a disciplined point of view, flexible design is critical to the ability of the store to adapt and adjust to the shifting marketplace. For example, fixtures that allow merchandise categories to move from one part of the store to another will be essential to making the environment feel like a living, breathing organism.
Consumer, Serve Thyself - As retail locations continue to decrease staffing as a way to cut expenses, the design of the store should allow for and promote more "self-shopping," making merchandise accessible and easy to understand. Designers will have to be creative with graphics, technology, and visual display to allow the customer to clearly see and understand the product.
So Green. So What? - Sustainable and energy-efficient design has become extremely available and affordable over the last few years, and with future advances this approach will simply become the norm rather than a trait to tout. We will move beyond environmentalism-chic, by which brands promote a green agenda as a way to connect with consumers. Going forward, going "green" will be the ante just to get into the game.
Locally Grown - Stores can nurture and communicate a culture by connecting to their local community. For instance, use the space for events with a local arts group or a community service non-profit. Supplying a platform for these organizations to do their important work provides a real service and communicates a powerful brand message of altruism to consumers.
To create and run a successful retail operation, the design of the store is only one cog in the machine - but it is an important one. Using design as a means of anticipating the consumer's shifting desires and needs, retailers can provide a compelling invitation for these customers to make purchases comfortably. The power of good design will help retailers connect with their clients during this period of change, and ultimately produce better sales. Whether the design motif is modern or classic, minimal or ornate, the brand story needs to reinforce appropriate attributes such as comfort, altruism, community and a sense of significance.