PHILOSOPHY

We take an entrepreneurial view of design.  We love the idea of long term relationships and always think in terms of partnership.  If our clients succeed we succeed.

HOW WE WORK

Services are provided according to a process of collaboration between all primary parties.  Goals, tasks, and desired outcomes are organized around client approved parameters.

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We are design advocates for our clients best interests, mentoring them through what can be a daunting process, happening in an area outside of their normal business practice

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INSIGHTS:  A DISCUSSION ABOUT RETAIL DESIGN

Gaddis Architect specializes in all phases of retail design, design management and construction. If maximizing the success of your business by optimizing the performance of your store, or commercial space design is a goal, then attending the following “Insights” could provide some very real benefits. Many common, and some not so common, design challenges are analyzed. Solutions aimed at increasing retail traffic, creating visual presence in various environments, and expressing not only a particular shopping experience but also the business’s brand, are presented. We think that all design is, on some level at least, retail design.  Please scroll on, start a dialogue, contact us anytime.

Architecture? Storefront Display? Graphic Design? Signage Design? All of the Above!

Client’s Visions – Clients often call me because they see something suggestive in the portfolio on this site and want to create a similar look or physical presence for their own businesses. They may entertain visions of compelling displays that increase awareness and transform window shoppers into customers, or perhaps it is about creating and reinforcing an organization’s image, idea, point of view, or brand.

Design is a Process – Whatever the motivation, few would dispute that successful design is part and parcel of equally successful marketing campaigns evolving from resources and collaborations requiring lots of man hours.  Design is a process which is always, at least on some level, retail.

Not a Commodity – Yet the business environment, including the traditional “fee for service”  world in which most of us work, leads many to conclude that design is a commodity, something to be ordered from a price list.  It forces an architect to quantify a client’s vision for a project into a competitive proposal before any serious work is done towards understanding that vision.  It can be limiting and is often fraught with undefined expectations.  It is not a model that works very well in a collaborative environment.  Nevertheless, it always determines if and how a project moves forward.

Reconciliation – Overcoming this disparity has been a longtime goal of these “Insights.”  Consider this:  if I tell a client that the fee for architectural services on a project will be a fixed amount, he may want to negotiate some concession, etc., but in general he feels secure and accepts the fee.  If, on the other hand, I tell this client that the fee will not exceed a certain amount, he/she is thrown into a state of indecision and becomes unsure about how to proceed.  Ask your self why?  What makes a client back away, sometimes even leaving off an entire project?

Expressing a Vision – The answer is surprisingly simple.  Both models require and deliver basically the same thing, that being a new design in which the client has participated.  The difference is that, with the “not to exceed” fee for service model, the client is made aware that he is an active participant in the design process and as such has the ability, by effective communication, to affect not only the outcome, but also its final cost.  This places some responsibility for a successful project squarely in the lap of the one who launched it.  It also increases the chances of success.  After all, are not we, as architects and designers, facilitators, charged with expressing a clients vision?

Demonstrating the Process – The concept images shown above demonstrate a design process.  They become progressively more complete until the final design is reached in the last image.  Each separate image is the result of direct communication, correction and comments from the client, who was involved in every step, beginning with the most basic parti up to final design approval.

Don’t overlook the construction details.

Customers notice the details.  They can tell if a contractor has cut corners.   The transition detail in B above was installed instead of the one shown in A below.  As architects we can observe the construction and point out discrepancies, but it is the client that must insist that a contractor exactly follow the details shown on the construction drawings.  It is to their advantage to do so.

This bargain-basement installation detail interferes with the nice contrast between the carpet and tile.

What makes a store look expensive?  Way back in 2013 I wrote a post on this site asking if a higher price could be placed on merchandise because the store design looks expensive? The post was about the impact that a curved ceiling might be expected to have on what is generally considered inexpensive merchandise.  I concluded that answering the question about pricing was related to how well the design feature performed, which in the particular case in questions was quite well.  I bring this up again here because I want to consider the topic in a more subtle, yet possibly more important context, that being what makes a store design look expensive?

Customers notice everything.  Answering this questions means that a retailer needs to pay attention to what people notice, which is everything, whether consciously or not.  The importance of “creating a shopping experience” has been a fact of retail life for quite a while now.  Back in 2013 one of the retail marketers summed it up nicely when she said,  “..retailers should use stores to create a brand experience that customers couldn’t possibly get online.”  She went on to cite the “old adage” that “retail is detail,” saying, “stores can engage all five senses;”  the online world cannot.  Few would argue that the perception of quality involves more that just an online image;  that tactile contact with a product is critical, including how it is displayed;  that successful retailers aspire to demonstrate quality in every possible aspect of their store, because quality sells, often for more.

The refined transition detail in image A above sends a message of quality,  It is what we typically specify in this situation.  This contractor exactly followed the details on the construction drawings with positive results.

A refined transition strip is barely there, putting the attention on the contrasting finish materials.

The importance of quality.  Clearly, since sales are seen as directly effected, most retailers are acutely aware of the quality of products they bring to the market, including a range of related price points.  This is their main business and most get it right.  Merchandise displays, because they are driven by practicality, are also less prone to failures in quality.  Matching their actual store environment, on the other hand, is where things can begin to fall apart.  Finishes, In particular, are vulnerable.  Think:

  • sagging carpet,
  • old leaks exposed and never repainted,
  • light fixtures with burned out lamps,
  • cheap, broken  or mismatched ceiling tiles & floor tiles,
  • stained and dirty hvac supply and return air diffusers,
  • dirty windows.

Is it really possible that customers do not notice these things, that they do not reflect on the perceived merchandise quality, that they do not contribute to a customers notion of the brand? Another marketing pundit put is this way, ” a business should always strive and prove to be the best that money can afford because that solid reputation will establish a top brand that’s reliable and worthy of respect.”  I couldn’t agree more.

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Retail Doom & Gloom: Crisis or Opportunity?

Mid Year State of the Market:  Maurisa Potts, in a mid year “state of the market” presentation sponsored by the Alexandria SBDC featured a headline stating, “Soft economy hitting big retailers hard.”  There are, I might add, some small ones not doing too well either.  Potts went on to note that online shopping is not the only reason for this, siting over built retail real estate, escalating rents, and shifts in consumer spending from goods to services.  Whatever the reasons, there are few retailers not feeling the current uncertainty.  This, according to Potts, begs the questions what is it, crisis or opportunity?

Clearly Unclear:  I like this mindset.  It presuppose important changes in the business model by which most retailers operate.  Savvy retailers need little schooling on this topic, and outside of a reference list here, my interest is about how a physical store might be impacted.  According to Potts the action takes place in three areas.  The first two, customer focused retail and the resultant deep market analytics are technology driven.  The third is the technology.  Clearly the lines between the physical and digital store are becoming unclear.  A retailer must decide which options to embrace:

mobile apps/enhanced mobile apps/personal concierge
smart navigation
mobile checkout
on demand customer service.
virtual fitting rooms
flexible fulfillment options
enhanced product information
community connections
target walk by shoppers
holographic product displays
delivery service
drones

Augmented Retail:  Each of these items taken individually involves some type of electronic technology which must be both accommodated and invisible, a subject covered in previous posts so not detailed again here.  Together, though, they define what is referred to as augmented retail, a situation with substance and influence on how a physical store will look.  Rachel Shechtman, the founder of Story, a cutting edge store in Manhattan, described the design concept as a physical magazine.  This is so telling.  Store planners and designers have probably not seen such a revolutionary design idea since the emergence of big box retail.  In the marketing world I would compare the trend to the early days of Martha Stewart Omnimedia which eventually consolidated her various publishing and media outlets into a single brand.  It seems to have come full circle as omnimedia has finally  found expression in bricks n mortar.

Design by Collaboration:   Pick up a copy of your favorite magazine and flip it open to the index page.  What do you see?  I see an implied program for a store design, an outline of ways to engage the customer, often a recipe for co-creation  where the customer participates in the outcome of his/her shopping trip.  What combination of media, mobile apps, interactive displays, technology, and hard store design options a retailer chooses to bring into his/her store is a collaborative decision best made between the store designer, the retailer, the marketing team, and the all important technology consultants.  When these things work together a really successful store can be the outcome.

The Positive Case for Bricks N Mortar:  Barbara Thau, writing for Forbes, lists, “Five Signs That Stores (Not E-Commerce) Are the Future of Retail.”  Worried retailers might do themselves a favor by considering the following:

“All But One Of The Top Ten U.S. Retailers Are Physical Chains

Stores Are More Profitable Than E-Commerce

Amazon Purchased Whole Foods

Millennials And Generation Z Prefer Real-Life Stores

Online Retailers Are Being Eaten By Legacy Retailers”

Wire Management is a Design Issue

The cash wrap in the photo above is in a medium high end fashion boutique in a trendy “New Urban” style shopping center with other similar competitors up and down the center.  I noted the problem during a site visit I made to meet with the shop owner who was, at the time, planning a second store.  Two years later, motivated by recent discussions in these “Insights” about the importance of integrating technology into a store design,  I returned and took this photo.  Needless to say, the problem was never addressed, neither did I ever work with this retailer.

I see mismanaged wires a lot, often in places that should, and do, know better.  I listen to marketers go on about the importance of creating a shopping experience; of integrating technology into the store design; of carefully selecting technologies based on actual individual data driven market research, all the time wondering by what trickery retailers like those in the photos are able to make out that these much touted market strategies are somehow not germane to their particular retail environments.  Further, I can only guess at the impact on sales – at least the place in the photo is still open – and  I actually worry about the tripping hazards just waiting to happen.  There is really no accounting for this when a solution is easily accomplished and not expensive.

Lest I be accused of “dis without fix,” I offer a solution here.  First we are not talking store remodel or even new equipment. All that is required is some planning.  Consider this cash wrap, a version of which was originally designed for a project, and which has since morphed into one of my  “go to” opportunities to offer design variations on a functional theme.  It is 5′ wide by 2′ deep by 3′ high at the work surface and 3’6″ high at the top of the display case.  Close examination of the equipment housed in the unit will show that virtually every device housed in the badly wired cash wrap in first photo is accommodated in a compact cabinet.  No wires show.  The only connections are, as in the subject image above, power and data supplied by a floor outlet below the cabinet. Also, if necessary this fixture can be supplied with “knock outs” for power/data access from either side and it is on casters for mobility.

Clearly this is not a cheap piece of furniture, probably costing upwards of $1000 to build from scratch, yet when considered in terms of value added to the retail environment, it is not a lot to spend.  Certainly, in terms of public safety and reduced liability it is a downright bargain.  Neither is it necessary to build one of these from scratch.  The rustic bench being used for the cash wrap above could easily and cheaply be remodeled by addition of an equally rustic back panel.  We do this type of thing all the time.

Something else a retailer might want to consider when planning a store is that wireless technologies and newer devices are drastically reducing the amount of space needed.  These are part of more than just cash wraps too.  It is really important for a retailer to examine their options and choose their system(s) early.  I cannot over emphasize the advantage of selecting and working with a qualified technology consultant who can help with system selection and provide a designer with device specifications including related sizes to be used in store planning and fixture design.

One more point worth noting, I see this problem show up in many showroom and public environments, not just retail stores.  Because these are places where the public meets a business or organization they can, and do, impact a brand and may affect sales.  I often work in these types of environments and likewise advise a client to carefully manage the wires.

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Seamless integration of technology is part and parcel of 2017 market trends

Playing with an interactive light display.

Marketing Trends for 2017 – There is always a flurry of activity from marketing and PR firms at this time of year.  The event put on by the Alexandria Small Business Development Center is always well attended, and this year is no different.  Maurisa Potts, Fouder & CEO of Spotted MP, talking about 2017 market trends, discussed the increasing importance of interactive and visual content;  digital as in media being the unstated but nevertheless operative word.  Commenting in Forbes on similar trends, AJ Agrawal listed seventeen trends for 2017, twelve of which were likewise to do with digital content.  The impact of technology has of course been growing every year, leading me to wonder if/when it will finally peak.  Not, it would appear, anytime soon as almost all of the topics in Pott’s presentation, i.e., Interactive Content, Visual Content, Influencer Marketing, Virtual Reality, Mobile Video, Live Broadcasts, Short Form Content, Mobile First, Personalization, and Native Content, presumed digital content.

Shopping in Walmart

Data Driven Marketing – That said, it may be that the saturation point is approaching, as Potts also talked about the necessity for “Data Driven Marketing” and Lee Peterson of WD Partners talking about digital integration in VMSD Forecast for 2017 pointed out that when surveyed, for 3 years in a row the digital device most wanted by customers was BOPIS,  the ability to buy online and pick up in the store.  If, it would seem, last year’s omnichannel marketing was about integrating the message into the larger stream, then this year is about flushing out the individual retailers best path to success.  A bike shop owner might, in 2016, have been compelled to have a presence in every possible outlet, i.e, blogs, competitions, associations, civic events, publications, website, e-commerce, indeed anything having to do with bikes or bicycling.  In 2017 this bike shop owner might look closely at the data accumulated from past marketing activities and then focus on what has worked, even if the answer is unexpected.  For example Kathleen Jordan writing for VMSD tells us, ” Retailers must develop new ways to reach their audience and find new sources to expand their consumer base… it must be recognized that online is not always the answer.”  Did you notice she called them an audience rather than customers or shoppers.

Microsoft Surface at Hard Rock Cafe, Hollywood

Integrated Shopping Experience – Considering that almost 92 percent of all retail sales are still being transacted in physical environments and further that many online retailers end up with physical stores, I am lead to inquire, what does all this say to those of us involved with the bricks and mortar part of retail, presuming of course that it is not going away?  Clearly, creating a shopping experience is still important. Eric Feigenbaum subtitled his article in VMSD, “…Retail’s divining rod no longer moves at p-o-s, but rather at p-o-e – point of experience.”

Prioritize – From my perspective, after many years working in retail design,  the answer must be about priorities.  The seamless integration of technology is part and parcel of the all important shopping experience and it can only be accomplished by assimilating a clients carefully worked out digital marketing plan into a store design by partnering with the technical experts.  The devices of digital marketing are, after all, physical elements and as such work better when addressed in “pre” as apposed to post design.

Virtual Book at “Librovision”

If there is any doubt that this is an often neglected fact, just look around at piles of wire shoved under cabinets, dangling from display cases,  hap hazardously placed equipment closets, and my personal favorite, the back side of monitors at POS stations.  Certainly newer wireless technologies are available but there are always performance issues to consider, many requiring additional equipment in other areas.  Most clients have enough understanding of Building mechanical systems like HVAC and plumbing to expect and allow for their accommodation, but somehow the lexicon of electronic equipment has remained a mystery, not a little, I should add, because it is in a constant state of fluxRyan Ruud founder and CEO of Lake One, writing for “Smart Insights” identifies Random Acts Of Technology (RAT) as marketing flops resulting from the application of technology without strategy.  I would argue that this applies, as well, to the physical store design whenever non integrated electronics are treated as project add ons – and okay, I liked the buzzword too!

Bring in an Expert – Finally, I would advise any retailer aiming in 2017 for “…effective in-store digital retail experiences” to introduce a suitable technology consultant into the schematic stage of a project and then keep him or her involved up through and even after store opening.  Sometimes independent and small retailers assume that these services are beyond their reach.  On the contrary, I have found that most electronic designers are also providers and as such their services are often included when they supply and install equipment.  It is money well spent, almost – but not quite – as good as that spent on the Architect.

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HVAC: Accounting for stuff only the birds can see!

Old Hvac Unit

Old roof top HVAC unit scheduled to be replaced.

Necessary – What has this got to do with me?  I am building a chic new retail store.  I need to focus on the design, merchandise displays and retail image.  Who sees this?  I know – I know, the space must have functioning heat and air conditioning but, really, why do I need a structural engineer?  I want to put my budget were it is visible to my customers.

Most commercial HVAC units will last 15 to 20 years.  They probably cost over $10M each without any distribution and, in all but special circumstances, you cannot hope to have a functional commercial space without them.  They are as basic as the walls, roof, plumbing, lights, etc.  So when the HVAC company, landlord, or MEP engineer says it is time to replace you can be pretty sure they are correct.

Fundamental – Few would argue that it is completely fundamental for a tenant to understand who is responsible for the original installation, subsequent maintenance, repair and eventual replacement of the heating and air conditioning in a space.  Neglecting to do this would be like moving into a space that might or might not have walls, yet I am often surprised by retailers who are unclear about, even disinterested in, these issues.  Until something goes wrong that is.

Bar Joist

Bar joist hold up the roof and are common in retail environments.

Required – But I digress.  My intention is not to outline heating and air conditioning systems common to small commercial projects, which is nicely done here.   It is, rather, to explain why structural engineering is required for the installation of an HVAC unit.  Consider this;  all commercial HVAC systems have parts, many of which are large, heavy and sit on something, i.e., the roof.  The unit in the photo, for example, weighs upward of 1,200 pounds.  Now take a critical look at the structural framing system in the other photo, and ask yourself if it looks like it will be sufficient to hold up the concentrated load created by the installation of half a ton of equipment.  In this case the structure is actually holding up the unit shown, so the answer happens to be yes – barely.   I point this out because in many cases, especially in existing buildings without available structural drawings, common sense might lead one to ask if a new mechanical unit weighs the same as the one being replaced.  Be aware that where common sense fails, the building code does not.

Structural load calculations and drawings which have been certified by an authorized professional are required before building departments will issue a permit allowing heavy equipment to be installed in, or on, a new or existing building.  This, of course, includes mechanical, as well as other types of equipment.  I mention the later as an aside for all you restaurant owners out there.  Restaurant equipment is heavy and installing it in old buildings like those found in historic areas can create problems for unaware owners.  Also, in the case of replacement equipment, it is less involved but still necessary to evaluate a new unit even if it weighs less than the old one.  In the case under consideration, the replacement HVAC unit proved to be heavier than the existing, meaning it became necessary to provide structural reinforcement before the new unit could be installed.

Roof top image shows location of existing HVAC equipment.

Roof top image shows location of existing HVAC equipment.

How – So what steps were required?  How did we arrive at this conclusion?  First we had a contractor go up onto the roof and take photos of the exiting equipment, including a close up view of the label.  This allowed the mechanical engineer to research the existing unit with the manufacturer who was able to provide a weight.  A new unit was then specified according to the new design for the space.  Efforts were made to avoid additional expense by matching  the new unit with the old and installing it in the same location.  Eventually it was determine that, although the location could be maintained, the replacement unit was going to be heavier than the old one.  Had it weighed the same or less, the mechanical engineer would have so noted it on the drawings and been done.

Since this was not the case, it became necessary for the structural engineer to completed the process.  He went to he site, analyzed the structural type, crawled up on a ladder, measured the bar joist, and checked the location of the existing equipment.  Upon returning to his office, he went through a series of calculations to see if the structure was sufficient to accommodate the new unit.  Since it was not he had to design and specify additional reinforcement adequate for the new equipment.  This information was delivered in the form of signed and sealed drawings and calculations, along with certified architectural and MEP documents, to the building department with the permit application.

Why – The point of this discussion is to show those contemplating a commercial building project what a single line in a lease assigning responsibility for the heating and air conditioning equipment can indicate.  In my experience all reputable landlords give full disclosure about the age and condition of the mechanical systems in their properties.  Many provide substantial construction allowances for unit replacement and other improvements.  Few, though, take into consideration the amount of engineering required in order to make the actual improvement.  Professional services, Architectural, Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing and Structural, are expensive and should be accounted for in the budget for a building project.  I would suggest that forewarned is forearmed.

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Designing With An Open Plenum Ceiling

designer showroom

The ceiling in an existing showroom space has been removed, exposing HVAC, Structure, and Electrical Conduits. MEP systems have been configured in a organized way to improve the appearance of the ceiling. Building envelope has been painted a medium gray in preparation for merchandise display.

Open plenum ceilings are common design practice these days, seen more often than not in stores moving into newly built shopping environments.  In short we take them for granted as an acceptable design solution.  Recently, I have had a reason to take a critical look at this practice in terms of costs vs. benefits.

To begin with, it is necessary to  understand this in terms of a comparison.  Clearly a highly designed ceiling using several materials and with various heights will cost more and probably perform better than a typical open ceiling like the one in the photo.  This is not the question.  The real comparison and the one I am most often asked to make is, “how does it compare with a suspended ceiling?”

Typical suspended ceiling with lay in cileing tiles and light fixtures.

Typical suspended ceiling with lay in cileing tiles and light fixtures.

Let’s look at the cost issues first.  in 2008 the Ceilings & Interior Systems Construction Association did a study on this very issue that, from what I can tell, has become the “gold standard” for determining whether or not to choose an open ceiling.  The study concluded that although a suspended ceiling cost 4% – 14% more than an open concept ceiling, it creates a space that requires less power, not a little because 20% more light is reflected back into a space.  The total energy savings for a retail space turned out to range between 12.7%  and 17%.  Maintenance costs also turn out to be lower for a suspended ceiling because periodic duct, pipe and raceway cleaning, as well as plenum repainting is necessary with an open ceiling.  An additional side benefit, which I did not see specifically addressed in the publication about the study, is that the reduced heat load from the lighting allows for a down sized HVAC system, even to the extent that LEED credit can be earned.  The referenced study also looked at the amount of time it would typically take for a company to recover the additional outlay for the lay in ceiling and found that the pay back was under 2 years, less than the length of most retail leases.  From all this, I would conclude that, in a retail situation, a decision to choose a suspended ceiling over an open concept will most likely be a result of design considerations as the construction costs are about even.

luxury kitchen

Painting an open plenum ceiling black creates a lot of drama and, if carefully planned, can draw highly focused attention to displays.

There are many design Issues to recommend an open ceiling, not the least being that they increase the ceiling height, thereby the amount of usable space in a store.  They are considered “on trend” and also impact how a space feels, an important consideration relating to the merchandise lines displayed in a store.  Small products often do better in a space with a ceiling which tends to focus a shoppers view down to a more personal level.  An open ceiling, on the other hand, conveys a feeling of space between large displays and vignettes.  They also work well for groups of merchandise with varied sizes, even creating the illusion of space in otherwise crowded environments as they allow a lot to take place in a shoppers line of site.  It is why these ceilings work well in restaurants by inserting variety into a dinners line of site.  By dropping a ceiling – or the illusion of a ceiling – over selected areas, retailers are able to create a personal space within a larger environment, thereby accomplishing the best of both worlds.

Though currently fashionable, open ceiling are not without challenges.  These environments require more design time and skill, especially in terms of lighting and color selection.  Lighting layouts installed in suspended ceiling grids offer the obvious advantage of ease of installation and flexibility.  It is why you sometimes see retailers install grids without the ceiling tiles, a practice that is rarely successful.    Lighting installed without the benefit of a grid, on the other hand, must be individually fixed to some type of structure, often by the use of pendants and other drop in devices and generally relying heavily on track systems.  The effort to avoid MEP systems and search for adequate attachment points can require more complex installations and limit flexibility.

Color is a subject in itself but worth some comments here.  Simply stated, most lay in ceilings are white – yes they come in colors which have their uses.  Open concept ceilings can be painted any color.  This can be a great asset or and equally great opportunity for a mistake.  Here are a few of my rules:  first, design the lighting and the ceiling together, as color affects that amount of light required; second, black creates drama and if used with carefully placed light colored or white contrasting elements can create really successful merchandise focused displays;  third, gray makes colors appear more vibrant so works really well to feature clothing and accent type merchandise;  forth, white or light options turn the ceiling into a sculptural element that can actually draw attention away from eye level merchandise and is often best if ducts and other MEP devices are going to be left natural; fifth, only use neutral colors.

https://www.pinterest.com/gotogaddis/insight-about-retail-architecture/

http://www.bdcnetwork.com/open-plenum-vs-dropped-ceiling-debate-over-life-cycle-cost

http://www.bdcnetwork.com/ceiling-systems-open-plenum-or-suspended

http://www.armstrong.com/content2/commclgeu/files/74818.pdf

Here is hoping that all this helps to inform your choice.  For more information the links above are worth checking out.

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Voted One of Americas Finest Optical Retailers

Storefront Store Fixture Design

WE ARE VERY PROUD to announce that eye2eye Optometry Corner, a project that we completed in late 2015, and located in Hilltop Village Center here in Alexandria, has won Honorable Mention in the 2016 America’s Finest Optical Retailers competition put on by Invision Magazine, an important optical industry publication.  We wish to extend our thanks to Dora Adamopoulos, OD for bringing such a great project.  Likewise thanks to the following team members and all who participated in this project.

BC Engineers Inc.
Mesen Associates Structural Engineers
Independence Construction
Ambiance Lighting
Hermin Ohanian “Artoholic”
Ennco Display Systems
Miller Creative Solutions

Find the full article here:  Invision July/August 2016

Designing for Various Retail Environments

Recently Carrie Rossenfeld wrote and article for Globest.com dealing with current changes in the retail environment that are affecting how architects and designers approach a project.  The title, The Changing Art of Designing Urban Retail Projects, is especially appropriate, not a little because retail store design is acknowledged as an art, but mostly because it offers a thought provoking comment on the current retail context near and dear to all of us working in the DC area; namely the shift from auto dominant to pedestrian dominant shopping.  Anyone who visits this site knows that this is not the first time I have engaged this topic, it is though, the first time I am inspired to organize the various environments in which I work into a single picture as follows:

Past Trends

Urban Retail – This requires little description.  It is Main street USA, whether in a big city or small.  It is pedestrian dependent and spans American History from Colonial Willamsburg to Old Town Alexandria.  It is an all inclusive spectrum of retail types and has become a model for current development.

 

Suburban Shopping Centers – Historically these followed suburban expansion after WWII supplying life’s necessities to newly mobile shoppers.  A typical shopping center consisted of a grocery store, a drug store, some specialty retail, and a couple of out-lots.  In time a big box was added, eventually becoming the force behind development until today we have acres of big box shopping centers.  The type has come to include a range of retail offerings from outlet malls to ethnic centers merging into a sprawl-scape along major roads and axes, all depending on the car for shoppers.

 

Suburban Malls –  These days almost relics, most of us have seen their rise and fall.  The ones that are doing well are, some say, surviving because the others have failed.  They are often in high income suburbs, connected with public transportation, draw international shoppers, boast multiple department stores, have expanded the types of anchor tenants they attract, and perhaps most important to this discussion, although dependent on the car for shoppers, the stores are designed according to a specialized pedestrian model.  Local examples:  Tysons Corner,  Pentagon City.

Present Trends

Mixed Use, also known as Emerging Urban, New Suburbanism, and the Mall Reborn (Don’t you love all the names?) – Of course, this is where the action is.  From my standpoint – designing for individual retailers – it is where pedestrian vs. non pedestrian visibility collapses into complexity.  David Kitchens, in the aforementioned article, drew attention to the challenges involved in designing for, and integrating multiple uses into a development project, telling us that “…residential, office or hospitality…needs to be intertwined with or added to existing retail..”  The “repositioning” of Ballston Common and Landmark Mall were sited as local examples and in particular caught my attention because I have had inquiries from retail tenants being affected by the changes going on in these places.  Architects and designers working in the mixed use environment must have confidence that they, together with stakeholders in the greater design environment, will produce a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.  They must be willing to release some control, to admit a bit of  “chaos.”  Kitchens put it well when he said it is about creating neighborhoods.  As an independent design firm working on retail projects in many different environments, I get this better than most.

Future Trends?

Industrial/Commercial/Business Parks –  Defined by the National Institute of Building Science, Light Industrial “… can include but is not limited to spaces for printing, commercial laundry, photographic film processing, vehicle repair garages, building maintenance shops, metal work, millwork,..cabinetry work…”  Think specialized showrooms, i.e., kitchen, lumber, restaurant supplies, catering, swimming pools, motor cycle accessories (Really, I had one inquire).  Think those moving from online sales toward brick n mortor.  Think those responding to “showrooming.”  Recent experience has lead me to believe that this is an overlooked retail environment and as such an opportunity.   From a store design standpoint, diametrically opposite to the complexity of mixed use, their retail presence is straight forward, direct and dependent on the car for shoppers.  It is a sector starting to see the value of investing in professionally designed retail showrooms. 

Describing these retail environments has been a fun exercise but I didn’t do it just for fun?   I did it to make a point about designing a retail store to increase sales.  Few would argue that designing a retail store is involved with issues of shopper behavior, in particular how it can be influence by a store design. I have accumulated an ever multiplying list  of “Strategies for Designing Your Space.”  and do a presentation on the subject.  The article that started this survey, on the other hand, is about the other side of the issue, specifically how shopper behavior is influenced by the environment in which a store finds itself.  Of course, real estate people would sum this up as “location, location, location,” a subject that shows up in business plans and marketing activities all the time.  If, though, we understand the ideas set out in the article, the issue is more complex, suggesting that the current trend is for there to be little or nothing spontaneous or random about the macro environments in which retailers find themselves.  Also, I have often found that in the process of macro planning developers have let go of micro constraints typically found in places like leases and tenant handbooks.  This can be deceiving, leading a retailer to overestimate their control of a project.  In local terms this means that a space in a planned urban environment like the Mosaic Retail District is a lot different than a space in Georgetown or Old Town Alexandria or in a strip center or industrial complex as well.  I would urge any retailer thinking about their store design to consider responding to both the macro and micro point of view.  It is what has motivated me to summarize the several retail contexts listed in this post.

Retail store design is a language everyone can read.

2015-11-08 12.24.21Semiotics

Anyone who has ever seriously tried to design a logo for their business can tell you that it is not so easy, even for graphic designers who specialize in all things related to visual imaging.  Certainly, any serious investigation will lead one to the subject of Semiotics, which might be defined as how meaning is created and communicated, or more simply the study of linguistic and non- linguistic signs.  Without getting too technical, for this is a specialized academic discipline, it is worth noting that signs fall into three categories:

  1. Icons which are images of a thing itself, as in a picture of a dog and a real dog, or a map of a river and the actual river.
  2. Indexes which are relational where objects affect the sign, like fire (object) creates smoke (sign).
  3. Symbols which have neither similarities in appearance nor causal links, but are rather linked by conventional or cultural knowledge.  In short the meaning can be quite arbitrary and is simply known, as in the group of letters that mean bus and an actual bus.

When considered in light of concerns about marketing and branding, ever  present in the minds of most retailers, it is instructive to draw some parallels.  First though, it is worth examining the terms which have been nicely summarized by Jacob Cass, graphic designer and author.  He tells us a brand is “the perceived emotional corporate image as a whole;” an identity “is the visual aspects that form part of the overall brand;”  and a logo “identifies a business in its simplest form via the use of a mark or icon.  Knowing this, it is not difficult to understand the brand as the idea of a business.  It is the semiotic meaning, or sign, expressed by the use of the icons, indexes, and symbols, all of which are visual or have a visual component, leading us to examine the visual image, AKA store design.

Visual Image

I am bringing this up because I think that architecture is semiotic, and more specifically, retail store design, which might be thought of and applied like a language.  One that everyone can read.  The Sherwin Williams Paint Store in the photo provides a clearly defined demonstration of these principles, and I must say that I spotted it at 50 MPH while rushing to an unrelated event in a Pennsylvania college town.  The impact was direct, and completely comprehensible.  I was late to my appointment because I turned the car around to get the photo.  The symbol, of course, is the Sherwin William sign on the building.  No doubt about who they are and what they are selling.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/telstar/151930908/in/photolist-4sjUaD-4ZMqA9-4ZHbKM-5uWtwt-cvvPYC-61K54M-8Vf3Zm-82hFSR-afWumj-eqFLq-9pkbo2-B6JH2-66dQ7oThe logo, not very big, relatively speaking, is both icon and index.  When considered in the light of what we now know about semiotics it is complicated and communicates a lot of meaning using symbols in the form of company name and tag line;  iconic images of the product, container, location; and an index demonstrating  the application.  It becomes a statement that says Sherwin Williams paints the world.

The “pièce de résistance” of the entire composition, though, and a big part of the reason I stopped, is the larger than life paint sample cards installed as graphics in all of the storefront windows.  According to our labels these probably qualify as icons but are also undeniably symbolic of everything we know about decorating and painting.

There is absolutely no question about the marketing message delivered by this storefront design, but there is another tactic operating here which has less to do with semiotics than it does with tried and true principals of good storefront design.  It is what pushes this design into the stratosphere of marketing message delivery, and defines the point where graphics leave off and architecture begins.  There is a basic rule that says,  if you want a display element to be visible from a distance to both walk and drive by traffic, then it must be exaggerated.  It must be bigger, brighter, more colorful than its surrounding.  In this case the larger than life paint sample cards are the agent of a cohesive marketing message.  The effect is magical.

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