Trends in Retail: Mindful design is the differentiator for brick-and-mortar retailers – July 2023

By Jessica Chevalier

While the role of brick-and-mortar retail stores and specialty shops was in flux prior to the pandemic, largely due to the rise in popularity of online shopping, Covid cemented retail sector trends that may have otherwise taken years to solidify. That has led to less new construction in the sector overall but, to some extent, more mindful construction, as retailers seek to transition from simple buy-sell transactions to establish more meaningful relationships with consumers, made tactile through the design and finishes specified for their brick-and-mortar retail environments, flooring included.

In 2023, new retail construction is expected to rise by 3.7%, then decline by 8.6% in 2024, according to Market Insights. This compares to a 13.7% rise in total non-residential construction this year and an expected 2% decline next year.

New U.S. construction floor area in the retail sector was 871 million square feet in 2019, declining 11% to 778 million square feet by 2023, with the retail sector accounting for 23.6% of total new commercial flooring area this year.

Conversely, e-commerce sales have been rising consistently: accounting for 10% of total retail sales in Q1 2019 and peaking at slightly over 16% in Q2 2020, just after the onset of the pandemic, and hovering between 14% and 15% since.

While brick-and-mortar retail is ever-changing, the concepts that emerged post-pandemic are still driving design. “After spending years at home, consumers are wanting an immersive experience-more than just products,” says Mitch Pride, principal with MG2. “You can get products online. If there isn’t a reason to go to the store, consumers won’t spend time there or return; convenience rules today. The concepts we are seeing that do well are those that capture the imagination to build a connection with the brand. Retail stores must be more than just vehicles for selling. People want to be in stores, but they don’t want to be in a space that isn’t compelling or engaging. Concepts with ‘nothing special’ don’t do well.”

Connection with the consumer is often achieved through experience. “Experiential design is what everyone wants,” says Janet Romanic, managing architect at Onyx Creative. “People want to be able to get out again and touch and see and smell again, to be with others, to linger and spend time.” Romanic notes that experience can be achieved through numerous strategies: a waft of a signature scent through a store, the ability to touch and explore merchandise, and, of course, interior design.

In addition, flexibility remains an important component. Retailers today don’t want static showrooms but, rather, ones that can be transformed to showcase new offerings or exhibits and thereby give consumers a unique experience again and again.

“If we are able to move things around and create space for pop-ups, that is very successful,” says Madison Hill, senior interior designer with Dennis Colwell Architects. “Retailers like spaces that adapt to trends or customer needs or product inventory.” This may mean a nonprofit pet adoption pop-up at a pet supply store or a jewelry designer pop-up at a clothing store. A brand may even use a temporary display to experiment with a new line or offering to determine whether it will carry it in the store full time moving forward. Having a space that can flex to accommodate varied temporary exhibits and look good doing it is key.

Says Scott Faucheux, creative director at TPG Architecture, “Any space or program that creates a meaningful conversation between brands and shoppers is critical. The key to success is creating experiences that resonate emotionally with shoppers. The most important tactic is to understand who the customers are and what they value and to build experiences around those shared values. It is important that brands listen empathetically and respond to the needs and desires of their customers.” Building this community is often a shared effort between the retail store and its online presence, and the closer the retailer can home in on its key constituents and understand their desires and values, the better.

Looking ahead, Pride notes, “Retail will continue to change. That’s what makes it exciting. It shifts continuously. As designers, we are always learning to leverage store insights and marry those with ours to create a new experience. I’m not a clairvoyant, but I think we will continue to see brands focus on quality, not quantity, creating high impact for consumers and more destination-focused retail to build great experiences.”

Faucheux adds, “The amazing thing about retail is that it is constantly in a state of change. When one format becomes tired, the market moves to another and finds a way to be refreshed. I feel like there are a lot of direct-to-consumer brands that are experimenting with brick-and-mortar experiences, such as pop-ups and pilot stores, and that’s pretty exciting to see new brands coming to life.”

Hill believes that the best designers in the retail field today are paying attention to areas that are sometimes overlooked, such as the ceiling and flooring. “Going with a generic ceiling, lighting or flooring because of the cost is a loss. These elements can be really useful for wayfinding and creating division of space, and using those elements to your benefit as a designer makes you more successful and creates differentiated designs.”

Hill recently worked on a Terps cannabis dispensary in Attleboro, Massachusetts. Within the 3,000-square-foot new construction, Terps wanted to introduce its brand colors and incorporate its branding into the design of the store. Hill sought to do that on both vertical and horizontal surfaces. “Flooring plays a great role in wayfinding, especially in retail,” says Hill. “We specified LVT throughout the entire store. We created an LVT border around the space and made an inset of Terps’ blue on the retail floor, which the drew eye down to the Terps logo and the main point-of-sale station.”

One of the things retail spaces should do in this day and age is lean heavily into the convenience of the in-store experience, where products can be experienced in real life with the senses, tested and, in terms of clothing or shoes, tried on. Because, while online shopping is often seen as more convenient than in-store, that becomes remarkably untrue when returns and exchanges necessitate multiple trips to the UPS store or unreturned goods sit in piles in the guest room. As such, returns and other in-store interactions should be streamlined to highlight the benefits of the brick-and-mortar experience.

Pride kept this in mind as he designed the Jakarta, Indonesia Hush Puppies store, leaning into consumer insights research showing that buyers want to shop in-store for shoes. And he sought to provide a store experience that rewards shoppers with a fun and imaginative landscape: a quirky space with “surprises” such as a table with five legs and smiling drawer pulls on the furniture-basically, a space that exudes delight.

“Hush Puppies had just gone through a brand refresh and its stores weren’t reflecting who it wanted to be,” he says. “The brand wanted something flexible for its retail partners to execute in different formats, something scalable. We wanted to create an optimistic, bright space embodying the brand’s tag line: ‘Be true. Be comfy. Be bright. Be bold.’” Flooring plays an especially important role in a shoe store, as customers are both looking down at it more frequently as they try on the goods and also wanting to see how the merchandise performs as they walk over different surfaces.

For the field, the MG2 team opted for a large-format ceramic tile from Mosa that offers a little design movement and interest without taking attention away from products. For the center try-on area, the design team created a large amoeba-shaped rug inset into the floor, made with Armadillo & Co.’s broadloom. The design team was initially concerned about the installation of the rug’s curved edges, but Pride reports that “it executed well the first time around.” The design also heavily incorporates the brand’s mascot, a basset hound named Jason.

The retailers that are firing on all cylinders with regard to building customer connection have a loyal clientele that doesn’t just like their products but feels as if they are united with the brand on a deeper level, through shared interests and, even, values. “Lululemon has done it well,” says Hill. “Customers feel like they are part of the brand; it’s not just another athletic store.”

Romanic summarizes all of this by noting that retail should be a forward-looking strategy, adding, “Retailers have to consider how they interact with the customer for the long term.”

Increasingly, too, retailers see the brick-and-mortar store not as the be-all and end-all but as one piece in their toolbox. “As mobile and the Internet evolve the landscape of shopping, fulfillment and convenience, I think that more brands are looking at their stores as more than just product sales channels and are creating programming to offer more engagement and extend their offerings,” says Faucheux. “The brands that are able to build relationships with their customers are the ones that will be able to evolve and adapt as the markets change.”

The designer continues, “I believe that design is a powerful tool for creating compelling experiences-the kind of experiences that [consumers] want to share and invite others to experience, as well. It’s important to be intentional in creating places for people, not just for products, so that stores can be activated as social hubs.”

Romanic and Onyx Creative do a lot of restaurant work, and the designer reports that outdoor space is non-negotiable these days. With these designs, it’s both critical that the floor connect the two spaces, and that it offer safe transitions from one space to another in terms of slip hazards, pooling water and the like.

Within the retail environment especially, it is highly important that the design team not come to the project with a specific aesthetic that they want to promote. “We rely on the brand to tell us where to take the store,” says Pride. “Each project is different and unique, and that goes for the flooring, as well.” That being said, MG2 has certain requirements set up as parameters for their material specifications, and these do include sustainability criteria. “We try to use the products that we know are sourced and made well. That is a final filter when we are deciding what to use.

Hill: LVT is probably the most common material we use in retail due to the range of colors and patterns it offers, as well as its strengths around cleanability and durability.

Romanic: We use a lot of LVT. It doesn’t have quite the look and feel of a natural product, but it is appropriate in many environments. It holds up well, wears well, and looks fresh and clean. I don’t like to see LVT that looks printed, and I don’t want a surface that will wear off. Make it thick enough to hold up to installation for seven to ten years.

Pride: I’m seeing less LVT today. With all the information that we have around vinyl, it is harder to justify and recommend. People are realizing that there are better options, though some manufacturers are doing what they can to make vinyl products better.

Romanic: We like the look of large-format ceramic tile. It can be beautiful and look elegant, but it is expensive and difficult to lay.

Pride: Terrazzo is beautiful, high end, and you can do a lot with in. But as we generally work in smaller footprints and specialty retail, we don’t see a lot of people wanting to put in a terrazzo floor because of the cost, and that’s where porcelain or concrete tile products are great. Choosing these also helps with construction timelines. I was out doing some comparison shopping in Chicago, and I noticed a lot more tile almost acting like a pattered area rug. Large-format porcelain can be really good for creating a high-end look, and it will be around forever.

Hill: Occasionally, depending on the landscape and rolling needs, we will use ceramic in vestibules. We often want to make the entry “a moment.”

Romanic: Engineered wood is forgiving and adds so much warmth and comfort and feels natural. And nature is something we have all realized is calming. Builds that feel calm encourage the customer to stay longer.

Romanic: We prefer carpet tile to broadloom because it can be switched out if damaged, but it is more costly. It would be great if it could be offered more economically. In the end, it may save money if a retailer doesn’t have to tear an entire installation out due to damage, but retailers do consider upfront cost first and foremost.

Hill: In some back-of-house locations, we will soften the space a little with carpet tile.

Hill: Lots of people love the concrete look, and clients ask about polished concrete by name.

Romanic: Concrete floors aren’t as common in the retail projects we are working on now, but in other commercial segments, they are absolutely popular. We don’t always cover up polished or stained concrete if it’s existing in a space, but the contractors have to realize upfront that a finished concrete floor is our intent.

Pride: There is a place for concrete, which has been a great option for larger-format retail with more of a warehouse feel or an outdoor brand. You seal it and it’s done.

Faucheux: I think the use of concrete is increasing, but it really depends on the application, the story a brand wants to tell and what materiality best expresses that brand.

Hill: If we design with the intent of having a display in a certain area or lounge seating to promote hanging out, we will use area rugs, but we have to be mindful of creating a tripping hazard. They are great for adding texture, as well as to soften a space and to manage acoustics.

Hill usually opts for stocked flooring products for her retail designs, as the lead times for custom can be prohibitive. “In stocked material, there are so many patterns to choose from, and an installation like herringbone will create interest, which retailers appreciate,” she notes. “There are ways to still create patterns or textures with flooring that won’t overwhelm what’s happening in the store. If the client doesn’t think that they will use pop-ups or wants something more permanent, we will do something a bit bolder on the floor.”

A retail space “has to look clean and inviting,” says Romanic. “And good lighting must be used to highlight the product. But we don’t want any glare off the floor. The floor must be clean and sparkle-but not glare.” Romanic recently worked on Italian furniture maker Natuzzi’s Kennesaw, Georgia retail showroom, a 7,500-square-foot space that was essentially a blank box at the outset. Natuzzi’s in-house design team required engineered hardwood flooring for the space, and while Romanic does sometimes have concerns about using wood in retail, she believes the result was a real success, creating a warm and inviting feel that encourages customers to relax and linger.

“Another thing that we think about,” she continues, “is whether we can design the flooring to imply wayfinding, to bring people in or orient them within the space. The surface material patterns might keep changing to help the consumer understand where they are in the flow, though they may not necessarily notice it. Think of a grocery store with a wine section that has different flooring, or a seating area, or the deli. That helps create a certain feel within a space.”

Both Faucheux and Pride like reusing existing flooring if possible. “I’m a big fan of reclaimed and repurposed materials, especially timber,” says Faucheux. “I love seeing the character of a space come to life through the use of rich and interesting finishes.” The designer also appreciates timeless looks that include stone and stone-look products, as well as eco-friendly and modular flooring for easy replacement and elegant wood patterns.

Pride reports that Brilliant Earth, a purveyor of ethically sourced jewelry, had hardwood-some of which was original to the building-in a showroom MG2 was tasked with remodeling and, though the material was not fully in line with the look MG2 was seeking to create, the design team chose to leave the hardwood in place to practice reuse and as a nod to history. “We are trying to be conscious about the decisions we are making and demo only what needs to be, especially with regard to flooring,” explains Pride. “This practice obviously depends on the wants of the brand and the retailer, but we try to make those good decisions. If the material is just going to landfill, we are sure to ask ourselves, is removal truly needed? In addition, when you see an old floor, it reminds you of a different time. You can see the history.”

Speaking of a different time, Romanic believes it’s imperative that today’s retail environments cater to all the populations they serve. “The population is aging; people are living longer and their ability to maneuver is changing,” she notes. “Because of this, nonslip floors are very important, as are transitions. And, for the sake of visibility, we don’t want to use highly pattered flooring that is confusing.”

No matter the material atop, Romanic says, “One thing that is always a concern is concrete work. The state of that slab is critical. That’s where we need the team of contractors to really work together. If we are going to go with a large format tile, we need an even slab. And the subsequent contractors need to respect that slab work and protect it.”

Above all, Romanic seeks to choose flooring that retail customers notice for good reasons, not bad ones, and prioritizes specifying products that serve all customers well, regardless of whether they are wearing heels or flip-flops, pulling a rolling bag or using crutches.

Pride reports that it is increasingly easy to collect the sustainability information he requires in making decisions about materiality; however, he still craves apples-to-apples data. In fact, MG2’s finish schedule and construction documents include columns for sustainability information-such as recycled content and the availability of HPDs and EPDs-that enable the firm to make clearer comparisons between the products its team is considering.

“I have noticed, at different shows, that sometimes a product is marketed as sustainable in this way, but what about in other ways?” asks Pride. “Can it be recycled at the end of its life? We need more hard data, not a single point of sustainability.”

Pride adds, “I want more take-back and end-of-life programs that provide specific information on where and how.”

Romanic agrees, believing that end-of-life programs could be used as a strong selling point for certain materials, but generally aren’t.

Pride says, “Porcelain companies are doing a great job with sustainability. The product is durable, cleanable, performs well and there are so many cool looks. I’m also very excited about linoleum. It’s super-sustainable and comes in many great colors. It can be a rolled good, so it installs quickly. Plus, there’s no off-gassing.”

Yamada says one of her key takeaways was the importance of validation at every step of the shopping journey, begiurchase, they will return to them when the time is right, or they will return for their next project.”

Social media is the new word-of-mouth, and what’s even better than having a customer titillated by a brick-and-mortar experience is having a pleased customer who will post about it.

Today’s retailers aren’t just leaving those Instagrammable moments up to chance, but building spaces into the retail environment that will encourage them. This could be, as Hill suggests, an eye-catching logo on a retail floor for foot pics, a green wall for selfies, or a statue or mascot with which customers pose. “Retailers should keep pushing boundaries,” says Hill. “The sky is the limit with retail. Be creative; do things that will grab attention and keep customers coming back. Use technology to your advantage.”

Pride utilized a technology experience in his Hush Puppies Jakarta design, creating a Jason scavenger hunt with QR codes that takes customers on a journey through the store. In this way, the in-store experience “becomes something more engaging than simply trying on shoes,” Pride notes. “Customers are sharing what they are doing in the store, which may lead them to getting a coupon code.” The location also features an Instagram backdrop, which pulls double duty, as it is used by the Hush Puppies Jakarta team for live social media posts.

Hill has seen more inquiries from specialty chains as of late, noting that mall, department store and large chain stores aren’t building or remodeling as actively at present.

Restaurants are strong at all levels, from fast food up to higher-end one-offs, reports Romanic, who also notes there is a lot of activity in the discount-store segment. “They are out there for a reason, and we think it’s because some areas have been overlooked by other retailers.”

Whether a store considers a refresh or a remodel comes down to a few things, notes Faucheux. “There are a lot of factors that go into refurbishing stores, and it really depends on if a brand is updating its look and feel or creating an entirely new experience concept,” he says. “Brands are not usually keen on fully renovating their stores or having to refurbish their flooring often, as it can be a very disruptive process and can impact sales. Many of the brands that I work with prefer long-lasting finishes that offer timeless looks, so they have visual flexibility over the lifetime of the environment.”

Dennis Colwell Architects: Based in Foxborough, Massachusetts, Dennis Colwell Architects offers both interior and exterior architect services for the commercial and residential markets.

MG2: MG2 is a global architecture and design firm headquartered in Seattle, Washington.

Onyx Creative: Onyx Creative is a national architecture, engineering, interior design and brand experience firm with seven offices across the U.S.

TPG Architecture: TPG Architecture is a New York City-based design firm serving the commercial market with design, branding and strategy services.

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