Redefining Retail Design: Gen Z Values a More Sustainable Future for Retail

Reflecting on a semester's retail design studio
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Posted January 29, 2019

Each spring I team up with VMSD magazine and the local retail design community in Columbus, Ohio, to teach a collaborative multi-disciplinary retail design studio in the Department of Design at The Ohio State University. For the past three years, the students have been asked to contemplate what the future of retail means to them and their generation; to think about their ethics and beliefs and consider how that is reflected in consumer behaviors and desires for the future of retail.

During those three years, I’ve taught my last class of primarily millennial students and have ushered in Gen Z. We have also undergone some major changes in the U.S., a new president that has a very different agenda from the previous eight years of these young adults’ lives. In fact, a 2017 study looked at how the presidential election influenced engagement amongst this generation, which revealed their interest in other people’s quality of life as a primary driver of “cause engagement” for them.


The VMSD editorial team  joins the OSU's Department of Design retail design studio and professional representing four retail firms on the steps of Hayes Hall following the students  presentations, spring 2018 / Courtesy of Rebekah L. Matheny, Columbus, Ohio

To kick the studio off, the class engages in discourse about their values, the things they care about most and what’s at the forefront of their minds. This theoretical conversation reflects much of what the cause engagement report illustrated, that their care about other people and the planet drives much of their decision making. In fact, the issue on most of their minds is social justice, giving back through direct and indirect engagement, equality for all (economic, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, education, etc.), personal health and access to healthcare, forming personal relationships (human interactions), and sharing in experiences with people that are meaningful and memorable. The term “sustainability” was only mentioned after I shared that I was surprised they didn’t mention it. Their response: “Well, duh, it’s always something we care about. It’s a no brainer!”


Graphic created by Rebekah Matheny, Bianca Adams, Libby Riddell, & Brian Lightfield for their 2018 IRDC Presentation/ Courtesy of Rebekah L. Matheny, Columbus, Ohio

Transitioning into how this impacts retail culture and consumer behaviors, I asked the 15 students what they would do if they received $1000.  Unanimously, the students said they would save half of it and use the other half to pay for necessities such as rent, food and their education. When asked to spend at least a quarter of the money, they reported that they would spend it on experiences such as concerts or trips with friends, buy items they need such as jeans or shoes, and if they purchased a “want”, they would buy something they know would last, as well as from brands that align with their personal ethics.


Graphic created by Rebekah Matheny, Bianca Adams, Libby Riddell, & Brian Lightfield for their 2018 IRDC Presentation/ Courtesy of Rebekah L. Matheny, Columbus, Ohio

These results reflect recent research of these generations, which indicates that Gen Z is propelled by their ethical responsibility toward environmental and social sustainability, and as a result, in an over-saturated market, they focus less on the product (which can be purchased anywhere) and more on a company’s purpose towards environmental and social impact. Research further shows that they need an authentic and transparent retail storytelling experience in order to create a tangible connection between their beliefs and the value they place on the products they purchase.

This is the focus of the retail studio at Ohio State, asking this generation to design the experience they desire to have, which allows them to feel more connected to their values and the brand.

So, what is their vision for the future of retail?

As I have the past few years, I’ve asked that the students design a physical retail experience for an online brand that aligns with their values and that currently does not have a brick-and-mortar presence. In the past that's included Everlane and FEED, both of which now have brick-and-mortar stores. This year, the winning team chose an apparel brand, and overall, the collection of brands that students chose was more diverse. For example, some included a vitamin company and a subscription box service that has many perishable items, further reflecting their expanded social values.


Photo of Libby Riddell, Bianca Adams and Brian Lightfield with their winning project presentation/ Courtesy of Rebekah L. Matheny, Columbus, Ohio

Juried by the VMSD editorial staff as well as four local retail design professionals (Andy House from WD Partners, Kevin Schmidt from Fitch, Brian Shafley from Chute Gerdeman and Brian Rockel from Big Red Rooster), selected team Sevenly as the winning team because of their expanded customer journey. The team (Libby Riddell, Brian Lightfield and Bianca Adams) chose to bring the brand Sevenly to life because it reflected the diversity of values that their team embodied, from their concern about human trafficking to cancer research to outdoor preservation, each team member found a way to connect with the organizations Sevenly gives to. Though Sevenly is a single apparel brand, its mission is to “give someone like you the opportunity to help someone in need.” This was critical for this team which stated, “We live in a very divided time right now, but what brings us together is our desire to do good and to give back, and what better a company to support than a company that brings people together through a shared purpose of doing good.”

Bringing the spirit of Sevenly to life, the team designed a balance of physical and digital touchpoints that included an interactive wall to “forge empathy though global connections,” because as Sevenly says, “somewhere else in the world, there is someone just like you who doesn’t have basic needs.”

Graphic created by Bianca Adams, Libby Riddell, & Brian Lightfield / Courtesy of Rebekah L. Matheny, Columbus, Ohio

To more directly engage the local community, the team designed a “maker workshop space” and a “co-working space” that would house a local team of Sevenly staff while providing free workspaces for local non-profits their products support.  They even planned eco-conscious window displays that would be created by local artists.

Considering the location strategy, the team felt it was important to place the flagship store in North Carolina to reflect the brand’s beginnings. In expanding, the team wanted to not just go into the main retail hubs of New York, L.A., Chicago, and others, but to further break down the cultural divide by going into mid-size cities (that have access to smaller towns), in order to spread the giving message and expand their reach to people who might not otherwise have access or awareness of generous brands.


Graphic created by Bianca Adams, Libby Riddell, & Brian Lightfield / Courtesy of Rebekah L. Matheny, Columbus, Ohio

In reflecting upon the studio experience and attending The International Retail Design Conference (IRDC) in Seattle this past October, Lightfield said “this studio was certainly one of the most valuable experiences I had throughout school. Through working with professionals in the field, everyone in the class saw an elevation in the quality and quantity of work we were able to produce.

"[Given] our passion for the brand and its values combined with the experience of the professionals, we were truly able to create a valuable retail experience for the Sevenly brand. As the winning team, getting to experience IRDC was amazing.  We were able to meet more professionals and discuss the nature of our project and the future of retail design. The trip was really the ‘cherry on top’ of an already fantastic experience.”

Riddell said, “Being able to attend IRDC because of this studio was an amazing opportunity. It allowed us as young designers to make great connections, experience a new city and be amongst some of the most talented designers in the retail design industry. It allowed us to continue to learn and grow after the class had ended, ultimately leading me to a career as a retail store designer.”


Photo of Libby Riddell, Bianca Adams, Brian Lightfield, and Rebekah Matheny at IRDC in Seattle / Courtesy of Rebekah L. Matheny, Columbus, Ohio

As we kick off the 2019 retail studio with a new group of design students and begin our discussion this week on ethics/values and consumer, I am curious where this discussion will lead the studio! Stay tuned for updates throughout the term and look for the winning team’s presentation later this year at IRDC 2019 in Boston!

Rebekah L. Matheny is the assistant professor of interior design in the Department of Design at The Ohio State University (Columbus, Ohio), where she teaches courses in interior finish materials, lighting design and design studios that integrate a retail brand strategy process. Matheny’s research investigates the sensory perception of interior finish materials and their application in retail design to create an emotional connection between the customer and the brand. Follow Rebekah and her journey with materials on Instagram @rebekahmathenydesign.