Trends in Retail: As retail evolves, flooring has an increasingly important role in wayfinding and branding - July 2022
By Jessica Chevalier
Building unity between digital and brick-and-mortar environments has been a key focus for retailers as consumers began emerging from the stay-at-home-and therefore shop-at-home-era of the pandemic. The role of flooring is manifold in these efforts: supporting brand identity, enabling ease of wayfinding, providing a safe and comfortable surface underfoot, and, ultimately, helping generate revenue for the organization.
All of this is especially important as the role of many brick-and-mortar retail locations has expanded, with spaces now serving as order fulfillment centers, return centers for items purchased online, and pick-up locations for online shoppers. With these varied purposes often retrofit into existing retail locations, it is key that flooring support movement through the space so that customers are not left confused and frustrated, and aisles are not clogged and impassable.
Experience and community building are also important components of present-day retail. And, to that end, spaces must accommodate events, which could range from an appearance by an influencer to a yoga class to a gardening tutorial. The best retail spaces today flex rather than remain static, with flooring enabling these transformations.
FLOORING AS AN ASSET
Flooring is either an asset to a retail space or a detriment. It is either supporting the goals listed above or subverting them. Kevin Tierney, vice president of Tarkett’s strategic accounts – retail, reports that, in days past, the potential for flooring to make a retail space more lucrative wasn’t largely considered, and space design was largely siloed rather than holistic-with flooring viewed as a static, largely functional material. But today, designers are considering how flooring works with other design elements to draw customers into the store, lead them through the location, increase their time within the store and thereby grow sales.
“Now more than ever, the consumer has a desire to experience, and that drives them to choose one store over another,” says Shannon Crider Langley, director of workplace and retail marketing for Shaw Contract. “Flooring might not be the number one reason that a customer goes in a store, but it enhances the experience. Flooring is often a part of brand identity. It creates a welcoming experience.”
Similarly, flooring plays an important role in attracting and retaining employees, a factor that has become crucial over the last couple of years, as job openings have remained high and applicants low. This is part of the overall role of design in creating a space appealing to and supportive of employee health-both physical and mental. For flooring specifically, this may mean providing a biophilic aesthetic that generates feelings of comfort and wellbeing as well as an ergonomically supportive surface for those standing and working atop it all day.
Tierney describes the store environment as a circular economy of sorts: a good one promotes happiness among employees and pulls in customers who are treated and serviced well by the team, leading to repeat business and longer tenures for service members; a bad one promotes dissatisfaction among team members, and those customers who venture inside are poorly serviced by a miserable team, making the consumers less likely to return.
“The use of flooring in retail locations has a significant impact on the customer experience,” says Pieter van der Toorn, president of Interface Services. “Flooring can be used as a way to aid in navigation, define an area, support wayfinding and more, while maintaining a cohesive look throughout retail spaces.”
The current trend toward experiential retail will continue, say the retail experts with whom we spoke, with the younger generations preferring mixed-use locations that offer living and shopping in a natural mix that supports community building.
To this end, the best retail locations don’t just offer a variety of components simultaneously, but may transform through the day to be, for instance, an event or cocktail space at night or offer cooking classes at particular times. These multi-pronged approaches are important, says Tierney, “as retail margins are razor thin,” so having multiple means of attracting consumers to a retail location is particularly useful.
Another means of pulling customers into brick-and-mortar retail is through business-to-business partnerships, such as Kohl’s accepting Amazon returns and other retailers hosting Amazon lockers. “The melding of those two buying experiences has created opportunity for brick-and-mortar,” says Langley. “It has fundamentally changed store layouts, traffic patterns and how we are integrating flooring for wayfinding so consumers know how to navigate to find specific locations.”
Collaborations to produce goods are another strategy. Target’s partnerships with famous clothing and home designers, for instance, pull consumers in for limited-edition releases and build enthusiasm for and expectation around the brand.
Jason Hitchcock, vice president of global accounts for Shaw Contract, reports that the pandemic largely accelerated consumer behaviors already in play. For instance, younger generations were already shopping online, but the pandemic expanded that behavior to older generations. And with less technologically advanced generations now making purchases virtually, retailers must ask themselves, “How do we pivot and create easier user experience?” notes Hitchcock. “And how does a traditional brick-and-mortar maintain consumer loyalty in a dual environment?”
The integration of technology into the brick-and-mortar experience was also accelerated by the pandemic. This includes marrying digital resources to tangible elements-a makeup station with virtual try-on options, for instance, or a kiosk that allows consumers to browse additional styles available online. However, retailers must make certain that these virtual elements don’t undercut the inherent value that brick-and-mortar offers. Hitchcock says, “We were talking to one of our large big-box retailers, who was saying they have another layer of competition in the post-pandemic world, so they need to define the things that delineate e-commerce from brick-and-mortar: experience and service. They must provide those to differentiate.”
He continues, “With the labor shortages in today’s market, the service piece is under equal pressure.”
And retailers cannot forget the role that ethics and values play today: consumers prefer doing business with those that share their values. Interiors carry a heavy load in communicating those values, especially with regard to sustainability.
When the economy is buoyant and consumers have extra cash to spend, higher-end stores do well. When the tide turns and consumers feel strapped, they gravitate toward discount retailers. With inflation as high as it is currently, those retailers that offer consumers the value proposition of more for less are the ones winning. That being said, for manufacturers serving the retail sector, the good news is that when one sector is struggling, another is generally thriving, says Tierney.
“What’s interesting is that, as we came out of pandemic, we saw all segments of retail rebound pretty quickly,” says Hitchcock, “but it was the two ends of the spectrum that rebounded quickest-luxury high-end and discount-driven stores. Big box discounts had a piece of demand aimed at them. Grocery has seen a big surge this year. Home furnishings has done well. Self-care and wellness have too, including boutique fitness, salons and med spas.
“[The search for] experience has driven all of us back to the marketplace. There were lots of virtual band-aids in the pandemic, but people wanted tangible and experience-able. The other side of the migration of transitioning customers back into brick-and-mortar is merging with online; online purchasing and curbside really integrated the online experience back into the tangible with an immediate-gratification opportunity.”
Heidi Vassalotti, national account manager for Crossville, reports that interior renovation of malls has slowed significantly as department store anchors have gone dark, and the facilities have had to focus their capital on repurposing those boxes. That often involves significant architectural changes, as the boxes are divided up or retrofitted as experiential space. “The biggest theme right now is non-traditional tenants going in-fitness, medical, entertainment facilities like skydiving experiences,” says Vassalotti. “In some cases, they are turning these boxes into multi-use areas. Some of these include residences and hotels.” Some malls are choosing to open their big-box stores outward, creating open-air spaces as locations for concerts or green space for kids to play in.
As for the department stores still in business, Vassalotti notes that many are struggling with staying current due to their large footprints and the need to fill those large footprints with inventory. To combat that, some are opting for smaller spaces or creating more focused brands that target specific audiences instead of trying to be everything to everyone.
“From a numbers perspective, discount chains are putting out high numbers of new locations, but many of these are opportunistic because strip centers have been struggling to lease space pre- and post-pandemic,” says Vasalotti. “Both strip centers and B properties were hit hard and are still struggling.”
Hitchcock reports that, in some cases, discounters are undergoing significant rebranding, adding, “Traditionally, discount was really based on a minimalist experience-wire shelving, concrete floors. Some of that was intentional; ‘We are providing value, and a minimalist space reflects that.’ But now, discount retailers are trying to attract people with a comfortable experience, asking, ‘How can we communicate value but give people a welcoming and inviting space?’ Flooring, lighting and fixtures are three things they look at.”
“In the past two years, activity among traditional mall spaces decreased, but there has been a rise of activity in the outdoor retail sector,” says van der Toorn. “Mixed-use retail space that provides customers with an all-in-one experience is becoming increasingly popular. Drug stores and pharmacies are also very active. With the demand for Covid-19 testing and vaccinations, these spaces saw a significant increase in foot traffic. Other sectors with high activity are retail spaces that offer electronic services or products, like walk-in mobile phone or cable company locations, as well as warehouse retailers that offer products for the home. Also, given the recent rise in inflation, dollar stores and discount retail establishments have seen high levels of customers over the past few months.”
“People like to say that ecommerce will kill brick-and-mortar,” says Vassalotti. “But it’s quite the opposite. Retail is alive. Who would have thought we’d see Amazon and Wayfair move to brick-and-mortar? Omnichannel is not optional. It’s a must to win today.”
The timelines associated with scheduled refreshes of retail locations aren’t as predictable as they once were. The changing concepts of retail and branding have altered that. Today, for example, a small store may pop up in a larger one for 30 days, and, in that situation, a click-together floor may be installed and uninstalled swiftly. Other retailers are opting for long-wearing flooring paired with inlaid area rugs, so that they can refresh a portion of the flooring easily and often. A general rule, however, is that retail locations refresh every seven years, though Tierney reports some retailers have narrowed that to three to five.
Franchise companies may sometimes be an exception to the rule. Hitchcock notes that maintaining a specification long term is particularly important for franchise organizations because they want to maintain the same standard between corporate owned and franchise locations and also because they want to be conscious of spending a franchisee’s capital.
Regardless of the cycle that retailers choose to remodel on, they are all grappling with supply chain issues. While some may like to take the opportunity of a slower period to remodel, rebrand, move or build a new location, with so much change afoot in brick-and-mortar retail, a good many retailers may have additional incentive to do so, but the shortages in building materials, microchips and other elements mean longer and more fluid timelines.
These challenges have led some to pursue a remodel in lieu of new construction, says Tierney. Whether flooring is an element of these refreshes varies from project to project and retailer to retailer, but as stores are reconfigured to accommodate new services and offerings, flooring is usually a component of that.
“America is a modular market,” says Tierney. “So, flooring specifications are predominantly tile-based. Of course, there are areas where sheet is required for health and safety-a doc-in-a-box environment, for instance-and in spaces like changing rooms. But it is predominantly a modular market with LVT-type products, carpet tile and ceramics most frequently used.”
As we have seen across the entire commercial market, hard surface has taken share from soft, and that trend holds true in retail. However, Langley notes a “play back into creating intimate spaces in the shopping experience, which brings in soft surface needs. It’s about creating an inviting space with a warm, comforting experience, a resimercial feel.” Make no mistake, though, that hard surface products continue to dominate retail specifications. In class A properties, ceramic is often required. In other classes, LVT is a popular choice.
“In recent years, consumers have shown a desire for the retail spaces they frequent to have a warmer, more residential feel,” says van der Toorn. “Recently, one of the most important aspects of retail spaces for customers is cleanliness. We’re seeing owners of retail spaces increasing their maintenance budgets to deliver a clean space for customers. The growing trend of creating commercial spaces that feel home-like and clean was only heightened by the pandemic. From a flooring perspective, products impact the way customers feel about a retail space and their shopping experience. At Interface, we are seeing an increase in LVT specifications due to its ease of maintenance and cleanability. LVT offerings create a perception of cleanliness within a space while also providing a more residential look and feel.”
Hitchcock notes that the ability to seamlessly mix hard and soft surfaces has become highly prized today. A retailer may opt for a soft surface in a shoe try-on area and a hard surface around it. Creating a seamless transition between these is key to achieving a clean aesthetic and a trip-free zone.
“Cleanability,” clarifies Hitchcock, “is achieved through the right products in the right applications, and, with customers, you have to delineate between perception and reality.” That doesn’t mean hard surface everywhere, but rather, hard surface in high-traffic and high-spill zones and soft surface in areas that are likely to see less abuse. In addition, Vassalotti has seen an increase in the use of porcelain slabs at the cash wrap rather than a material that is less easily cleanable.
The pandemic also generated a greater concern about human health in relation to material composition. “As we turned toward a focus on human health in the pandemic, people began to consider, ‘What materials are in the spaces I exist in? Do they carry contaminates?’” says Hitchcock.
In working with a retailer to choose new flooring, Tarkett begins by inquiring about their current struggles with regard to flooring. As flooring is so intimately tied to a brand’s identity and generally used across multiple locations, a relatively minor pain point in a single location can be a major challenge amplified across many.
Says Tierney, “Today, more retailers are looking at flooring as a revenue driver, a cost- and liability-reducer. They expect sustainability.”
He notes that the many challenges with sourcing have also driven many to look for single-source suppliers, if possible, to reduce complication and save money.
Hitchcock notes that the expectations are different depending on the type of retail space. “A big-box discount with thousands of customers daily has different expectations and targets for performance than a small boutique retailer with high-end luxury goods,” he says. “One has a priority of aesthetics with the expectation of performance. The other has a priority of performance with the expectation of aesthetics. In addition, what are the site conditions? What is the environment? These can dictate what product gets installed. And it’s all driven by how quickly they can refresh a space and not lose transactions. It’s about revenue points per hour. If we shut down, can we be ready by morning? Speed of refresh, installation, maintenance-all those things marry to a solution.”
“We continue to see carpet specifications in certain spaces that prioritize underfoot comfort and noise reduction,” says van der Toorn. “Although polished concrete remains present in warehouse facilities, we expect to see it used in fewer traditional retail spaces due to its lack of underfoot comfort and increased installation time.”
Vassalotti reports that many specifications today are driven by availability of product, with interior designers and end users wanting assurance up front that the product they are selecting won’t be discontinued anytime soon. Dynamic coefficient of friction, durability, cleanability, aesthetics and cost all have a significant impact as well.
Sustainability also plays an important role. “We are getting more requests from companies wanting full transparency-not only on ingredients but also on a product’s impact on the environment and social responsibility,” says Vassalotti.
The use of porcelain panels on walls is expanding as the distribution and installation networks within the U.S. become more familiar with handling and installing them. As panels can be used in both exterior and interior installations, this offers a unique opportunity for locations to create a unified aesthetic from the outside in.
“Tile panels help create a modern, higher-end visual with an experiential tone prior to entering a store. Panels are durable, easy to maintain and offer a plethora of visuals,” says Vassalotti.
Panels are also used to provide wayfinding in malls, to display lighting or logos, or even serve as an interactive social media wall.
Copyright 2022 Floor Focus