The character of the places where we live, work, and, of course, shop, have a direct effect on our thoughts and emotions — whether we are aware of it or not. Everyone is reminded of this when we enter a majestic cathedral or a grand department store. Or when we feel so vulnerable as we navigate the unfamiliar underground passageways of a subway. It is extremes like these that make us fully aware of the impact of space and place. Our acute sensitivity to our surroundings is always influencing our behavior — often unconsciously. When we shop, every aspect of the store’s design is acting on our emotions — whether we want it to or not. One could argue that these largely unconscious emotions are no match for our conscious reasoning when it comes to guiding our shopping behavior and purchase decision-making. Right?
Not so fast. The growing and compelling body of behavioral research popularized in bestsellers like “Predictably Irrational,” “Nudge,” and “The Power of Habit” all point to the unconscious as the unseen master of our frequently irrational behavior. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, author of “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” argues that the unconscious is firmly in the driver’s seat. He says our “thoughts and behaviors may be influenced by stimuli to which you pay no attention at all and even by stimuli of which you are completely unaware.” Surprisingly, he found that in many cases we are, in fact, more strongly influenced by such subtle stimuli when we are not aware of them. He concludes, “The main moral…is that our thoughts and our behavior are influenced, much more than we know or want, by the environment.”
Space and Place
So what does this all mean for retail design? It tells us that every aspect of the retail environment matters because it directly influences behaviors and decision-making, and, therefore, has a direct impact on business performance. Yet many retailers do not consider the effect of store design a key metric. Consumers know the power of a place intuitively just by recalling various shopping experiences. Think how specific thoughts and emotions surface when shopping at edgy Urban Outfitters versus optimistic Uniqlo; or cheerful Target versus austere Costco; or at impeccable Chanel versus flamboyant Versace.
In each case, the retail environment is made up of a multitude of design components: light, color, materials, sound, scent, the shape and size of the space, etc. There is endless variety within each design element. Think of color, for example; each color affects us differently. To complicate matters, the ways these design elements can be combined is truly infinite. So how do we begin to make sense of the design possibilities?
The Power of Storytelling
Before we choose and compose the elements of retail design, we need a story to tell. For branded retailers, that story is an expression of the brand identity. Sometimes called brand vision, brand identity is perhaps the most important concept in retail design because it serves as the inspiration for, and framework on which, a retail concept is developed. It is key to the success of the design, but brand identity is a concept that is often poorly understood.
When you or I, for example, think of the brand Burberry, various impressions come to mind. Some of those impressions might be quite simple — like its signature red, black and tan plaid or its classic trench coat. Some of these impressions might be more complex, likely inspired by some notion of Britishness. All of the impressions that exist in our individual minds can be thought of as “brand images.” They are the images that form in our minds.
Brand identity, on the other hand, is what the brand is saying, or trying to say. It is based on the brand’s core values, fundamental substance, and essential character. Brand identity is that unique combination of attributes that define the brand’s aspiration, promise or dream. It is “the center of the universe” that serves as a frame of reference and inspiration for everyone who works on the brand, not the least of all the designers of the retail environment.
So does every brand have a brand identity that can serve as the basis of great retail design?
When a painter sets out to create a portrait of a mythical figure, such as an ancient Greek god like Poseidon, Aphrodite or Dionysus the task is already halfway done because there is so much existing material with which the artist can work. For example, the nuanced character of the wine-loving Dionysus has been richly revealed in countless stories. The artist’s task is to interpret and then depict the character and temperament of Dionysus in a recognizable form. In the same way, the task of the retail designer is to interpret the brand identity and bring it to life in many dimensions. While every brand has a brand identity, it is not always as clear and accessible as the legend of Dionysus. Sometimes it is concealed, or worse, misunderstood.
The character of the brand is also sometimes ignored by narcissistic retail designers who are intent on placing their own imprint on the store design, rather than serving as an interpreter of the brand. The first essential step in creating an engaging and powerful retail environment is a clearly articulated view and deep understanding of the brand identity.
Indeed, to maximize a brand’s economic contribution, all manifestations of the brand — retail environment, product, logo, promotion, service and even corporate policies — must reference the same “center of the universe.” In other words, the consumer-influencing power of the brand can only be fully realized when, as they say, everyone is singing from the same hymn book. Within luxury, we can see this coherence most clearly realized by Chanel, where a quietly elegant modern “less-is-more” sensibility is systematically applied across all product categories and promotional campaigns. The store is the physical manifestation of this sensibility where refined luxurious materials are consistently composed and applied with impeccable craftsmanship.
A different approach is Tommy Bahama’s brand identity. This brand is based on an idyllic, refined, tropical island lifestyle where one is more likely to wear silk shirts and tailored pants than Speedos and a T-shirt. The store design reflects and reinforces this vision through the use of sophisticated tropical references. In keeping with a refined aspirational aesthetic, there are no fishing nets draped across the ceiling, no faux pirate chests or Tiki totems. Instead, the island references are subtle, the materials refined — finely woven grass cloth, white bead board, wide-plank wood floors and ceiling fans. Caribbean wooden shutters are used throughout to evoke the memory of tropical sunlit days and balmy breezes. The store layouts are regular and ordered with a formality of design to reinforce the notion of a stately home. The result is pleasing, accessible and casual but also sophisticated.
At the Millennial end of the spectrum, Anthropologie’s bohemian “flea-market chic” stores have irregular layouts, mismatched furniture and fixtures, and authentic-looking folk-inspired art. The stores are celebrations of the strange beauty of imperfection. And, by inference, they acknowledge and allow you to celebrate your individuality. The coherent artisan store design actively brings the brand to life. It complements the eclectic merchandise assortment and helps imbue the product with cultural meaning — which ultimately justifies its price.
As consumers, we instinctively recognize retail environments as different as Anthropolgie, Chanel, Tory Burch, and Giorgio Armani, where the designs actively reinforce and reveal each brand’s identity. These retailers are exceptional. They have an integrated strategy that communicates their position and personality to consumers. Too many branded retailers fail to fully extend their brand identity to the store. This is a major missed opportunity. The store, as the center of the omnichannel universe, represents the most compelling opportunity to influence customer choice, leveraging consumers’ high sensory sensitivity to every aspect of their environment.
Solomeo, the Italian Medieval hill town surrounded by the fertile countryside of Umbria, is the headquarters of cashmere brand Brunello Cucinelli. The architecture, landscape, history and culture of this special place are a rich source of inspiration. This place, interpreted through a romantic philosophy, is at the center of the brand identity — which is beautifully revealed in the product and promotional campaigns — but not in the stores, which are generic gallery-like spaces. While the neutral retail environment focuses attention on the product, there is more to the brand than the product. And this is clearly demonstrated simply by looking at the rich Brunello Cucinelli digital presence. It won’t be easy, but it is time to bring this beautiful brand to life at retail.
Perhaps the most compelling reason for retailers to focus on using good design to bring the brand to life at retail is to satisfy the human heart and mind’s ongoing search for a coherent story. As humans, we are, to a fault, pattern seekers. We jump to conclusions and are wired to see a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. Our natural instinct is to connect the dots, making visual and emotional sense of the seemingly disconnected threads of a story. Retailers can make our job as customers infinitely more satisfying by creating an integrated plan with coherent design that touches every part of our experience with their brand. It is not just pleasing; it is profitable.