The Elements of Retail Design

Quality retail design makes good business sense. When done right, it establishes the unique image jewelers want to project. It allows customers the opportunity to purchase products that reflect the way they see themselves and how they want others to view them. And it allows a retail space to function in a way that helps employees sell more product. In other words, quality retail design helps businesses to make more money.

There are no magic formulas to great design. It requires a great deal of soul searching and demands communication with and trust in the architect or designer.

Designing aspirations. Learning about one’s “aspirations” and then designing a space that achieves those desires is one of the overriding goals of Planet Retail Studios, explains Scott Truitt, a project designer for the Seattle-based design firm.

There is no single universal formula for retail store design, Truitt says—it’s the process of combining how the product, the image, and the customer come together. He cites the key questions that must be answered: “How do you organize the store? Where do you place merchandise? How do you light it? And where do you place those lights?”

The company does design and project management work for retailers, shopping centers, clubs and resorts, restaurants, studios and salons, food markets, and other venues. But its major focus is retail. The firm’s work includes consulting services and developing prototype designs that help position stores in new directions.

“I think our philosophy is to design a truly meaningful retail store, get inside [owners’ and customers’] heads and learn about their aspirations,” Truitt says. “Customers are not buying ‘things’ but [rather] an emotional state, a lifestyle. It’s not so much about buying a diamond ring. It’s what that diamond ring says about them.”

To do this, Planet Retail Studios takes a variety of approaches, depending on the scope of the project and budget. The strategy includes interviewing the owners, managers, and employees and conducting customer focus groups.

“That’s where our work comes in,” says Truitt. “We like to use focus groups, discuss aspirations. We look at the economic climate. We’ll talk to the clerk who runs the cash register. We’ll try to interview as many people as possible. Then we make assessments and judgments on what people are buying.”

One of the firm’s recent jobs included the assessment of Cartier’s worldwide boutique network, the creation of a design brief for a new store concept, and the conceptual design of new stores in Paris and Tokyo.

Bruce J. Brigham, FASID, ISP, IES, principal of Planet Retail Studios, says the interior designs of the Paris and Tokyo stores focused on a space plan that would improve the way the company promotes new merchandise and cater to the variety of consumers who frequent the stores—particularly in the Paris store, which is located at rue du Faubourg St. Honoré, one of the most exclusive shopping districts in Paris.

“We focused on changing locations for the introduction of new jewelry lines and new product promotions,” Brigham says. “The whole store is less monolithic [than in the past] and works more like a symphony. The store has to work in concert with a series of fairly complex demographics.

“Moving retail into the 21st century isn’t rocket science,” he adds. “It’s the understanding of a series of experience scenarios.”

The 200-page assessment of Cartier’s boutique network included an examination of the strengths and weaknesses of each store’s operation, internal structure, and merchandise organization. The study focused on the company’s store typology—the classifying of stores based on their locations and the types of customers they attract.

“What are the implications of a tourist store in a place like Aruba?” asks Brigham by way of example. “How is that different from a store in Seattle? How do you represent the brand in a new region? This is where retailing gets very complex. We learned that Cartier has eight typologies.”

Other elements of the assessment dealt with positioning the company’s brand equity. In this case it meant maintaining an image of a company known for its innovation and elegance that would attract the modern, more casual consumer by creating a more welcoming environment.

The bottom line. Ruth Mellergaard, president and CEO of GRID/3 International, New York, says good retail design helps businesses become more profitable. “The bottom line is to sell more merchandise,” she says. This includes attracting customers to the store, presenting the merchandise so it sparks their interest, and making the store user-friendly for the staff.

“What you’re really doing is creating a facility that makes it easy for the customer to see the merchandise and makes it easy for the staff to sell more merchandise,” Mellergaard says.

GRID/3 does a variety of retail design projects, including fashion boutiques, shopping centers, and home furnishing stores. A significant number of their current jobs involve the design of jewelry stores.

Mellergaard feels it’s vital for retailers—particularly jewelers—to know who they are and know the type of customers they want to attract. Then, they must work with the designer to develop a store that meets their business needs and suits their market niche.

“We as designers need to think about the way each retailer operates,” Mellergaard says. “Fashion and jewelry have broad-based market segments, but there are different market-driven approaches and different ways of operating for each retailer. We help them develop an image because it’s part of our expertise. That’s really one of the things we bring to the party. That’s why they need to know who they are and how they want to present themselves.”

Two GRID/3 projects illustrate the breadth of image among jewelry retailers: Daniel’s Jewelers and Christian Bernard.

Daniel’s is a regional chain of 36 stores in Southern California. GRID/3 has been working with the company for the past seven years, creating new stores and renovating existing ones to reflect the company’s philosophy of a family-oriented store where the average customer doesn’t feel too intimidated to enter and shop.

“A lot of what I’m doing is applying a new concept to an existing store,” Mellergaard says. “We’re in the process of creating a festive look. This company doesn’t mind food, drink, and families in their stores. Therefore, the store has to look like a fun place to enter and be easy to maintain. The interesting thing is [that] we’re doing things slightly more upscale to match a new line of product that the company has been selling.”

In contrast, exclusivity is the hallmark of Christian Bernard. In designing the company’s new stores, GRID/3 wanted to showcase the elegance and style for which the Paris-based company is known. Individual vertical display cases at the front of the store and large impressive wrought-iron gates lead clients into a place that is well beyond the average shopping experience. A magnificent chandelier works as the store’s centerpiece.

“We wanted to emphasize the French visual, [to] let people know that it’s a French company,” says Mellergaard. “We wanted people to feel like they’ve entered another world.”

Working together. Architects Frank Vargas and Robert Taczala, principals with Brand+Allen Architects Inc., Houston, say it’s often the primary responsibility of the designer or architect to help retailers discover who they are and who they want to sell to.

“Some people come to us and say, ‘We don’t know what we want,’ ” Taczala says. “It’s up to us to come up with a total concept. Some folks literally stumble in.”

However the relationship with the client begins, owner and designer must work together to ensure a common vision. Like the other designers JCK interviewed, Vargas and Taczala first talk with the owners, employees, and—if given the opportunity—customers. In addition, they’ll show the owners past projects they’ve done and ask what they find appealing. They might also ask if the owner has admired design elements in other stores. Then they’ll use that information to create a store design that reflects the uniqueness of the operation.

The firm, which also has an office in San Francisco, specializes in retail design and architecture. It handles about 100 projects per year, and the bulk of the work is for jewelry stores. Clients include some of the largest names in retail as well as prestigious boutique operations, including Tiffany & Co., Lux Bond & Green in Boston, and Hyde Park Jewelers, Aspen, Colo.

There is no common formula for great retail design, Vargas says. But there is a way to meld art and design basics to create a space that is aesthetically appealing, functional, and profitable.

“There are certain basic elements to any kind of design,” Vargas explains. “Design must have a focal point, rhythm, and contrast. It’s the relationship of these elements that is important. And that’s true whether you are talking about a ring or a piece of architecture.”

But jewelry stores do provide unusual challenges for architects and designers, including unique security and lighting demands. “Lighting in jewelry stores sets them apart,” Taczala says. “And it’s extremely subjective.”

For example, jewelers are often conflicted over whether to use “light rails” inside display cases or overhead fixtures to light the cases. “Light rails have a visible obstruction and heat builds up in the case,” Taczala says. “Clients don’t like to touch hot glass [or] hot jewelry. We’ve just completed a store in which the owner wanted both kinds of lights. That gets back to how subjective these owners are.”

The challenge with regard to security is to make it transparent to the customer. “Security is a necessity, and you just have to deal with it,” Vargas says. “It has to be built into the design without making it apparent.”

Whether you’re looking into a new design or building a new store from scratch, designers and architects can help create a unique look, communicate your company’s image to your customers, and create a space that will efficiently move more merchandise.