Retail: A Social Experience - July 2019

By Jessica Chevalier

The difference between successful and failing retail strategies is clear at first glance. On one hand, there are tidy locations with textural finishes that build a story around the product offering, flattering accent lighting to showcase the products, interactive elements that highlight their attributes, and enthusiastic employees to support customers in their exploration of them; on the other, dreary, run-down stores, packed with disheveled racks of goods under the unpleasant cast of fluorescent lighting and staffed with tired employees. In the retail landscape today, one of these strategies is wooing customers away from their computers and into brick-and-mortar locations, and the other is struggling to prove its worth against e-commerce.

Successful retailers understand that shopping isn’t just about peddling commodity goods-that can be done online-but about giving the consumer something more. Much has been said about the transformation of the retail environment into an experience-oriented space, which is about considering how people interact with the space and products. An equally important trend in the sector is creating spaces that support the social aspects of retail, which is about supporting how individuals and communities connect with each other in the space and through the products. Both are crucial to creating environments that engage consumers and keep them coming back for more.

The role that flooring plays in these spaces is critical. As the first surface that consumers physically interact with when they cross the threshold of a retail location, it must set the stage for the experience, communicating the quality of the brand. What’s more, it must endure. Retail establishment floors take a good deal of abuse under foot traffic, rolling loads, and the relocation of shelving and displays. Through it all-and often without comprehensive maintenance regimens-these floors must maintain a fresh face. It’s a tall order, but one that the floorcovering industry is increasingly able to fill.

SOCIAL SHOPPING
Shopping was once as much about socialization as consumerism. Families or groups of friends would spend long afternoons strolling the storefronts, admiring the wares; relax and laugh over lunch, coffee or cocktails; enjoy a sweet afternoon treat of a delicate little petit four or ganache-glazed éclair; maybe take in a movie.

Malls, those quintessential constructs of American commerce and convenience, and even high-end department stores featured luxurious décors made of longwearing, rich and textural materials. They included beautiful, dramatic fountains; lovely, seasonal arrangements of flora and fauna; well-kept powder rooms with attendants. At the holiday season, when Santa came, the central hubs were transformed into lovely winterscapes, wonderlands for children waiting their turn to sit on St. Nick’s knee.

Put simply, in its heyday, the shopping experience offered magic. It wasn’t simply a place seeking to pawn off as many pairs of poorly made $12.99 shorts as possible on indiscriminating consumers but a place to woo the shopper with a bit of luxury, escape and relaxation.

“I have watched retail change: from the golden age of the 1980s to the world of value engineering of Walmart to the retail renaissance of today,” says Andrew McQuilkin, retail market leader with BHDP. “While we were fighting Walmart, the Internet got hot, and the only way traditional brick-and-mortar retail can win is on experience, reinvesting in stores and giving consumers reasons to shop again.” BHDP is a Cincinnati, Ohio-based firm with offices in Columbus, Ohio; Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Atlanta, Georgia. The firm has been working with department stores since 1961, and they account for about half of its retail business. The company also works with specialty and grocery brands. McQuilkin, who has dedicated his career to retail sector design, is the son of a department store designer.

While we often lay the blame for brick-and-mortar retail’s decline squarely on the shoulders of e-commerce, the underpinnings of the deterioration are also tied to the retail sector’s turn toward commodity formats-think warehouse-style stores. The reasons behind commodity’s rise are, at once, simple and complex. Customers associate commodity atmospheres with low price and assume their dollar will go farther in a bare-bones store, stripped of anything resembling luxury or style.

So, blame Walmart and its conflation of a warehouse format with “value” for brick-and-mortar retail’s decline. Blame the sluggish economy of the early 2000s or the rise of e-commerce. Blame shortsighted strategies implemented by greedy private equity firms. Blame it on a combination of all of them. The fact is, somewhere along the way, retail stopped trying to woo consumers and started trying to sell them a quantity-based exchange rather than a quality-based experience. When that happened, the consumers’ interest in shopping largely died-and with it, many once-mighty brands.

 

GENERATIONAL MINDSETS ABOUT SHOPPING
McQuilkin is blunt about where blame lies among the generations with regard to retail’s decline. “Generation X did their best to destroy retail,” he says. “They looked at themselves as early adopters of the Internet. They were not loyal to brands. They said, ‘We will do everything online; we don’t want to go to stores anymore.’ Today, we know that most customers do both. We see that customers do want to shop again. We see that the end of the Millennial generation and Generation Z look for authenticity in experience. They will do research online, but then they want to go to the store and buy it. They want to meet the person who represents the brand. The next generations can save retail.”

CUSTOMER CENTRIC
Make no mistake, creating a successful retail experience today isn’t just about making a pretty space with cool technology. As McQuilkin points out, beautiful designs may win awards but that doesn’t mean they will sell products.

In fact, creating a design that sells products is about not only considering what is sold but also who is buying. “Brands need to understand that a store can’t be everything to everyone. It must be a targeted experience,” says Mari Miura, interior design director for FRCH Nelson, which is, by billings, the fourth largest retail design firm in the U.S., according to VMSD. FRCH Nelson has headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio with offices in New York, New York and Los Angeles, California.
McQuilkin considers the designer’s role in that process, “As a designer, I must understand the business strategy of the retailer and become an advocate for the shopper, then combine the two through planning and design. Take a business strategy, understand human behavior and put those two together. It’s a lost art.”

Larry Weeks, principal of buildings for Stantec, breaks it down further, “Our expertise is people, engagement, storytelling and making meaning out of enterprise.”

Weeks and his associate CarloMaria Ciampoli, senior designer of buildings for Stantec, believe that the best retailers today “are very good at understanding how their service or products fits into the mosaic of the community and the world. And they are fulfilling a genuine, meaningful need. Our job is articulating the value of what they are offering and creating environments that celebrate that.”

Ciampoli adds, “This is the opposite of commodity. It’s talking about the intrinsic value of something as it relates to others, creating resonance between the offering of the enterprise and those who use it.” Stantec, the eighth largest retail design firm in the U.S. by billings, according to VMSD, has its retail sector offices in Boulder, Colorado. In total, the company has 400 offices in the U.S. as well as locations on five continents.

As evidence of design’s power, McQuilkin points to an interesting trend: high-end stores, which generally offer more in the way of thoughtful design and brand engagement of a specific type of consumer, are typically the last to fall in a challenging market and the first to come back as it rebounds.

Drawing people away from their computers and into physical retail environments is the task at hand, and Ciampoli believes that effort can build more than strong sales, “We like to understand the community that surrounds a brand and how design can be a vehicle for strengthening that community connection. When I moved to the U.S., I hated shopping malls. In Italy, I saw them kill local retail, and they went against a healthy urban environment. Now, I love them. And the reason is that right now they are being resurrected as new town centers, places where people can meet, connect and thrive. As retail paradigms shift from ‘buy’ to ‘experience,’ people will be drawn to these spaces to be together and create community in the healthiest way possible.”

 

THE BUSINESS OF DOING GOOD
Ciampoli sees a significant difference between retailers who are working to build a community around their brand and those who see themselves as part of a community. The latter is the group that Stantec seeks to work with. “We pride ourselves on our ability to weigh ideas against the value they will yield in the hearts and minds of the people who use those spaces,” he says. “It’s an issue that we believe more of our clients are considering and building into their capital expenditures and operational forecasting.”

360 EXPERIENCE
So what are successful brick-and-mortar retailers doing today that the failing ones aren’t? McQuilkin says it’s about getting back to, what he calls, Retail 101. “A lot of retailers, when their CFOs became CEOs and had to compete against each other in an over-retailed market, centralized all decision making and forgot what it is to be a merchant. The best ones have never lost that, like the mom-and-pops. They form personal relationships. The owners meet the customers and get to know them.” The designer reports that when he speaks to audiences of retailers and asks how many have had their c-suite leaders work within a retail store in the last year, only two out of 1,000 will typically raise their hands.

In many ways, it’s remarkable to see that creating experience isn’t all about technological bells and whistles but is also about getting back to the basics: caring about the customer and working to meet their needs. And establishing holistic, top-down buy-in on these consumer-focused efforts is fundamental to their ultimate success.

Weeks and Ciampoli point to their work with iFly, an indoor skydiving experience, as an example of meeting customers on their level. Many individuals dream of flight, and iFly gives them a taste of that experience. With flights lasting only around 60 seconds each, it was important that Stantec build experience into all aspects of the consumer’s visit. Both Weeks and Ciampoli have been working on this project for the better part of a decade.

“They engaged us ten years ago to help them transition from a primordial state of retail to a more 360 experience,” recalls Weeks. “As you can imagine, helping the client deliver the dream of flight to everyone is a tall order. What we helped them do is rethink their buildings and overall architecture to create an iconic expression. All materials and graphics support the environmental idea that everyone can fly. It’s a very unique experience. We toned down all other elements of the retail environment and have the central flight chamber as the main character in the space.” To achieve this, Weeks and Ciampoli elected to have the flight chamber stand out as a sabre of light in the center with the surrounding walls, featuring dark-toned graphics, curved toward the chamber. This draws all eyes toward the flight chamber and makes for a dramatic and experiential first taste of iFly. Weeks and Ciampoli point out that non-structural elements, such as music selection and employee attire, are also important to adding layers of experience.

Miura recently helped Cover Girl develop its first retail concept, located in Times Square in New York City. The store features every Cover Girl product out of package, so customers can try them on. In addition, Miura incorporated technology that allows consumers to digitally try on makeup. “As part of the experience, we came up with different elements where they cannot just use and test the products, but do it in a fun way,” she explains. The designer adds that an important element in this environment, and others like it, is Instagram-ability, noting that visitors can “share images of the experience when they leave the store,” which is, of course, the new iteration of good old word-of-mouth advertising.

Miura believes that the key to designing landmark retail locations is not following trends but setting the next trend. “You have to offer something that consumers can’t get anywhere else-a service or education or inspiration component,” she notes. “Even if a consumer is not purchasing a product there, they need to be able to experience it in a tactile way.”

THE FLOOR STORY
Because experience is crucial to a successful retail space, it is of utmost importance that the spaces not read as museum-esque but as flexible and perpetually relevant.

Somewhat surprisingly, Weeks and Ciampoli believe flooring is an important element in that changeability. “The floor, if we’re not careful, can be immutable,” explains Weeks. “But we are seeing a lot of very simple floors with the ability to receive murals or paint that will change with wear or that we can paint over and refresh. The floor is one of the most powerful ways to impact story and movement, so we seek flexibility.”

He continues, “In two projects right now, we are creating a very inexpensive substrate-generally some sort of simple concrete-then allowing local artists to come in and, within the criteria that we apply, exercise creativity in a temporary way. In six months to a year, this begins to wear, and that patina is genuine and lovely as well. This is a way to incorporate flooring into the dynamic language of the space.” Weeks notes this is a somewhat “primitive” version of the concept and, in fact, is hopeful the flooring industry will innovate products that will allow for similar timely transformation via other means.

However, with lifecycles lengthening and maintenance programs minimal to nonexistent, there is a delicate balance in creating floors that look both timely and, in a sense, timeless. This has significant impacts on the floorcovering materials that specifiers are choosing.

While concrete continues making inroads in some retail applications, terrazzo, once frequently used in department stores and mall common areas for its durability and timeless appeal, has largely disappeared. “Terazzo was phased out a long time ago,” says McQuilkin. “It shuts down a site for two weeks and creates so much dust that nothing else can take place. We used to have two and a half years to build a store; today, we have 16 months.” However, if McQuilkin is renovating a space where terrazzo already exists, he is happy to utilize it.

As we have documented in other sectors, concrete is popular for retailers wanting to capitalize on its minimalist image. But that isn’t always achieved with concrete itself. Concrete-look vinyl and porcelain products offer the aesthetic, often with a cheaper price tag and added benefits.

When it comes to vinyl, for spaces being renovated, thicker products that don’t telegraph subfloor imperfections are highly valued. Weeks reports that he uses vinyl frequently in his retail sector work. “The products today are durable, often feel good underfoot and help somewhat with sound control,” he says. “And the range of visuals is quite amazing.”

Weeks typically has no preference for using an authentic material over one that mimics a natural material, “Oftentimes in our work, storytelling is key, setting moods and building stories that create desire, the unexpected; we place a higher premium on that than on being true to whatever architectural context the stories reside in. Something easy to install and with good vocal range is great.”

Miura frequently opts for vinyl, and most of that is glue down. She reports, “We have talked about click systems a lot with clients who are interested in them, especially for remodel projects, but we haven’t seen too many products out there that we feel really good about yet.”

Porcelain is frequently used in retail installations as well. Obviously, in addition to its strong performance and durability stories, the category’s minimal maintenance requirements are a boon. Weeks and Ciampoli appreciate the unique aesthetics that porcelain offers today. “There is a strong graphic component to our work, and porcelain is a good material for that,” says Weeks. “We can treat tiles as pieces within a large graphic expression.”

McQuilkin adds, “Porcelain is the new marble-and has been for the last 15 years.”
Regarding large format porcelain panels, Miura reports that while she appreciates their aesthetics and would love to apply them within her designs, she hasn’t been able to due to the cost of the material and the challenges they present in installation.

Weeks notes that both porcelain and LVT have become convincing in their ability to mimic the looks of more expensive and less durable natural materials.

And Miura adds, “Flooring has come a long way. There are so many options and opportunities now in terms of the material type and look. We’re no longer necessarily tied to one particular type of product. You don’t need wood for a wood look anymore. You can look at a space’s durability requirements first and then consider the aesthetic second.”

Carpet tile also plays an important role in retail design. With limited maintenance programs, the material enables spot replacement and design flexibility. Broadloom, however, still holds a place in high-end retail. Brands such as Louis Vuitton and Gucci will likely always opt for a luxurious broadloom and, says McQuilkin, “You want a customer to be trying on shoes on beautiful carpet.”

Stantec doesn’t often use wall-to-wall applications of soft surface flooring in retail but will use carpet as rugs atop hard surface. The company usually opts for carpet tile over broadloom for reasons of maintenance and versatility.

Retail designers report that the ability to customize floorcovering is highly desired, and they are eager for manufacturers to lower minimums for customization, so that they can more often create couture looks, even within smaller footprint spaces. Miura appreciates the industry’s efforts to create unique size and shape offerings in all product types, which she finds useful in creating unique installations, especially in spaces where a smaller footprint might not “qualify” for customization.
Weeks and Ciampoli desire flooring products that can be changed easily and quickly. “Refreshable is paramount,” says Weeks.

BALANCING BUDGETS
While flooring may have been replaced every five to seven years in “the golden age of retail,” as McQuilkin puts it, today the designer has seen the lifecycle extend; for hard surface flooring, that can be a useful life of 20 and 25 years. The good news, Miura points out, is that today’s flooring products are typically built to accommodate these lengthier cycles, and it isn’t uncommon for flooring to trend out before it wears out.

Regarding sustainability, McQuilkin says that retailers lean toward investments that offer benefits, such as ROI payback, over materials that simply have a sustainable story. “Green Globe and Energy Star are big with retailers,” he says. Brands with a sustainable story built into their brand, like Aveda and Timberland for instance, are more likely to opt for green materials.

McQuilkin also points out that brands today are taking more of a “big picture” view with regard to budgets, showing a willingness to invest more heavily in areas that will create a big impact with the consumer and value engineer spaces that the consumer won’t see. This, he believes, is a step forward.

Regarding their approach to maintenance, however, there is still education to be done. “Maintenance programs have all been eliminated as brands have decreased operations costs for stores,” says McQuilkin. “As a result, they have value engineered out all the experience. I think there is a whole generation that doesn’t know what great retail is. They don’t know how to fall in love with shopping because they don’t know what it can be. A retailer who shows them a lovely experience will blow them out of the water.”

THE GAINES EFFECT
When asked about the most significant design trends impacting the market today, McQuilkin replies with a laugh and an unexpected response: Joanna Gaines. “She has had an incredible impact and appeals to a multigenerational audience,” he explains. “Her use of subway tile and natural wood, the chic farm look, and the color grey have had such a broad impact. We used to do a lot of grey in high-end design, but nowhere else. She is really the Martha Stewart of our age.”

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