What Is a Store For?
As the digital tsunami continues to upend traditional notions of retailing, brick-and-mortar retail survives, and in many cases thrives, among the swirling waters of change. It is now pureplay ecommerce brands that are threatened by more nimble omnichannel retailers. Alibaba’s recent $4.6B investment in electronics retailer Suning and its earlier investment in department store operator Intime Retail Group are recent defensive reactions to this changing environment. But as omnichannel retailing becomes the dominant model, the role of the store is being redefined. And with the ease of buying online anytime, anywhere, one has to ask, “What is a store for?”
Beyond serving as a physical place where one can inspect merchandise and indulge in instant gratification, a store provides the opportunity for all touchpoints of a brand to come alive and be experienced simultaneously. The consumer can see, touch and try out the products, benefit from one-on-one service, and most of all, directly experience the brand vision through the store environment offering its multi-sensory immersion in sight, sound, scent and touch. No other channel can deliver this compelling experience. Consumers will increasingly demand these experiences, which will reinforce brick-and-mortar retail’s position as the center of the omnichannel universe. A creative brand environment plays a central role in fulfilling this expectation. But how can one stand out in a retail landscape crowded with so many competitors?
Disrupt, Always Disrupt
Creative disruption is a simple enough concept: Existing consumer behaviors and expectations are changed through an encounter with creative ideas. In advertising, it is the messaging that causes consumers to stop and think. Two great examples are the original VW Bug ads, where consumers were encouraged to buy a “lemon” and “think small” in an era of very large cars; and Nike’s “Just do it” campaign with its focus on the activity, not the product. Both were contrarian and highly effective. Likewise, Celine’s recent advertisements, which feature 80-year-old author Joan Didion, disrupt and challenge traditional perceptions about fashion.
In store design, the creation of environments that are so unexpected, truly novel or comprehensive in the realization of a vision that they break from the norm, can make consumers redefine a category. One obvious example is the cluttered, confusing, noisy, poor service electronics store— think Circuit City or Best Buy—being disrupted by clean, friendly, easy to navigate Apple stores. The kitchen and bath fixture retailer Pirch is bringing this clean, friendly, easy-to-navigate model to a fragmented category that’s been notoriously unfriendly to consumers.
Furniture retailer RH, formerly Restoration Hardware, is using store design in a compelling, bold way to support their drive to disrupt the upper end of the home furnishings market. The stores are conceived, inside and out, in a singular, grand, almost cinematographic vision. With their high ceilings, grand staircases and monumental exteriors, these stores appeal to every homeowner’s aspirational dreams. RH stores really should be called RH Mansions. These stage sets don’t rely on the consumer’s imagination, e.g., “How would this sofa look in my living room?” Rather, RH serves up a complete vision, fully formed. The reality is that it can be difficult to replicate at home. But the RH perfect world is enough to get people to buy.
RH stores are examples of “comprehensive design” where every aspect of the environment is strategically created to reflect a brand vision. It is the environmental equivalent of a “wall of sound,” rich, complex and all-enveloping. The design is intentionally creating a place you have never been before except perhaps in your dreams. If the artistic vision of this type of dream space is authentic and resonates with consumers, it can be disruptive because it is unique from all others. While the technique has been used for centuries in the theater to transport you to another time or place, real or imagined, it was Ralph Lauren who first brought comprehensive design to life in retail at a scale that was a disruptive game changer.
Australian skincare brand Aesop has taken a different approach to creative disruption in the design of their retail environments. As an extreme example of ‘localism,’ no two stores in the network are the same, even though they may be in the same city. For example, the two stores in Miami are very different from each other, each reflecting their specific micro-environments. This novel approach is central to the brand’s core identify.
Each Aesop store is a design collaboration between the brand and an architect who brings insight into the local context and culture. Reflecting the brand ethos, the store designs are highly artistic and often incorporate reclaimed materials. This strategic diversity of store design is unusual for a multinational retailer, and sets Aesop apart. The artistic ethos extends to the website, which transforms the traditional, prosaic store locator into a visual portfolio of aesthetic achievement of store listings, each with a design concept statement and photograph.
A pop-up shop is by its nature disruptive. The location is usually unexpected and the brand presentation is usually quite different from its mother ship retail format. The temporary nature of a pop-up offers, even demands, greater creative latitude. Designers can be edgier, more provocative and more playful with pop-ups. As with window design, creative visual merchandising and in-store seasonal decor, short-term pop-up design can be more extreme in creative expression and attract new customers to a retail brand.
Box Park is an experimental hybrid built with multiple connected shipping containers. Located next to a railway line in the Shoreditch section of London, it’s a pop-up mall that offers visitors an ever-changing lineup of fashion,accessories and food and beverage vendors. Events and live performances draw in an eclectic, diverse audience. Box Park juxtaposes local and global brands, with spaces available for rent for as little time as one week, Creativity and the shock of the new is encouraged. Box Park has become a testing ground for new brands, and brings together a diverse combination of people, brands and events. The concept is serving as an incubator of innovation, and promises to deliver some truly novel and valuable experiential retail ideas.
The diverse juxtapositions facilitated by Box Park offers a clue to all those seeking disruptive creative ideas. Janus, the Roman god of doorways is typically depicted as a two-faced deity looking in opposite directions—an apt symbol for the dynamics of creativity. Einstein, in arriving at the Theory of Relativity, used “Janusian thinking,” conceiving of two or more antithetical concepts, ideas or images simultaneously. This intellectual concept can actually be used to conceive disruptive design.
On the surface, this is a thought process that an architect would naturally employ during the course of any project. Designers are often given the opportunity to wrestle with opposing forces and conflict, whether it is resolving fundamental demands of quality, quantity, cost and time or the simultaneous conception of the interior and exterior of a building. More often, however, there is a temptation to avoid the complex psychic tension caused by such “oppositional thinking,” and fall back to mental triage, simply by reducing conflicting demands to either-or thinking.
Janusian thinking rejects either-or in favor of “all of the above.” For store design, Janusian thinking provides the opportunity to create design solutions with seemingly irreconcilable conditions. The result can be novel, disruptive design that is original and useful.
Creative Disruption – A Cautionary Tale
Victor & Rolf’s first store was the beautifully detailed “upside-down boutique” in Milan. It was a feat of ingenuity to realize what appeared to be an upside down neoclassical interior – parquet wood floors on the ceiling, chandeliers sprouting from the floor like trees, fireplace and logs convincingly attached to the ceiling – even the front door and signage were upside down. It brought immediate and wide attention to the Dutch design duo.
It was disruptive even though it was only open three years. The imaginative design backfired. Although very complex and extraordinarily expensive to execute, it was too simple an idea – a one-trick pony. Once you experienced it, the novelty and its impact wore off. The “Alice in Wonderland” environment was also a bit disorienting and ultimately a distraction from the product being sold.
Five years after the upside-down boutique in Milan closed, Victor & Rolf opened a grey felt-lined, classically inspired “right-side-up” boutique in Paris. In contrast to the Milan store, co-founder Viktor Horsting commented to the architecture magazine Dezeen, \”We said we would like a store that\’s invisible or a store that\’s hardly there because often we find store designs very intrusive and just too much.\” Going against trend, the sensory-depriving design makes the merchandise the main event.
Creative disruption can be used in a variety of ways: to get the shopper’s attention, to attract new customers, to create buzz and get good PR coverage or to win design awards. Creative disruption in retail design comes in all styles and shapes, from subtle to fantastical—it doesn’t necessarily mean extreme or eccentric creative expression. Brazen boldness often passes as creativity, and has become the dominant cliché of originality. Ultimately, creative design disruption can be a powerful tool for any retailer who wants to make a statement, knows how to integrate the brand vision seamlessly and wants to give customers a meaningful, memorable experience.