Retail on Foot

Going beyond simply seeing to experiencing the sensorial perception of interior materials
Posted July 21, 2015

A few weeks ago, I was in England to present my recent paper on the use of reclaimed wood in retail environments. After days of exploring the retail culture in London, I made a stop at London’s Design Museum. In the museum, footwear retailer Camper’s “Life on Foot: A Day of Talking and Walking” exhibit declares to guests:

Shoes are so ubiquitous that they can sometimes almost seem invisible. Yet shoes are also extraordinarily revealing. Subconsciously, we judge people by what they wear on their feet. We assume that shoes can tell us about somebody’s personality and their status. And when we wear them, they can change how we feel about ourselves.

How true that statement is! Just as a shoe can tell us about an individual, the way we see a store tells us about a retailer. We make judgments and perceptions based on what we see. And when customers step into a store and experience the environment, they feel differently than they did on the street.

In the movie “The Devil Wears Prada,” stiletto-wearing fashionistas walking across the marble floor of the fashion magazine lobby were affectionately called “the clackers.” The nickname illustrates that it’s not simply what we see, but also what we hear, that makes an impression. The surface material the shoe comes in contact with is a player in the total perception that is created. If that same stiletto were to walk across a time-worn wood floor, the sound would not have that same tenor of a “clack;” it may even be a “thud.” How would that sound change our perception? Subconsciously, the sound of a high-heeled shoe on marble exudes quality and an attitude of high-class, chic style. Choosing marble in luxury brands is purposeful, not purely for aesthetic, but because of what it communicates: a total sensorial experience made for the customer, whether conscious or not.

Materials under your feet not only show a brand’s image, but also provide an experience shoppers can actually feel, too. (Photography: Rebekah Matheny, Columbus, Ohio)

Bookending the conference, I spent quite a few days wandering the streets of London hunting for unique and inspirational design experiences. (I often tell my students that they enter their interior design education seeing the world as a civilian, but will leave seeing the world through a designer’s lens.) This concept is boldly emblemized inside the London Design Museum’s main entrance: “Design is a way to understand the world.” Design is all around us; we can’t escape it.

What better place to be immersed in design than London? Out of ancient streets rise both cutting-edge architecture and historical buildings that are inhabited by the most modern designs and innovative retailers. So as I meandered through London, from the hip Carnaby Street and Shoreditch area to Regent Street, where luxury brands’ flags proudly fly from their flagship stores, my weary feet began to ache, making me increasingly aware of the shoes I wore on my journey, and the materials I treaded on. (I was definitely doing more “thudding” than “clacking!”) Even more apparent was the transition from the street to the store, the change in material at the threshold between the urban environment and the immersive brand experience.

This denotation – the transitional floor material – is the first touchpoint of a brand. Its significance is paramount: it’s a material we not only see, but we hear and can feel as well. It’s in the complete sensory experience of these materials that a perception of the brand is forged. Many times, the entry is where a lasting first impression can be made.

Lush, Lululemon, Paul Smith, Hunter – which material belongs to which brand? (Photography: Rebekah Matheny, Columbus, Ohio)

From the floor material images above, can you identify to which brand each flooring belongs? (See answers below.) Beyond how they look, what would they sound and feel like and what does that tell you about the brand? Is there a connection? Are they a luxury brand or are they more accessible? Hone into those details, tap into the associated sensory perceptions, and share your insights with me.

Left to right: Paul Smith, Beak Street; Lush Flagship, Oxford Street; Hunter Flagship, Regent Street; Lululemon, Long Acre. (Photography: Rebekah Matheny, Columbus, Ohio)

Rebekah L. Matheny is an Assistant Professor of Interior Design at The Ohio State University. She holds a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Oregon, where she also received a Technical Teaching Certificate in the area of Sustainable Design Strategies for Interior Architecture with a concentration in interior finish materials and lighting design. Additionally, she has undergraduate degrees in interior design and architecture from the University of Cincinnati.  Matheny’s research investigates the sensory perception of interior finish materials and their application in retail design to create an emotional connections between the customer and the brand. 

To learn more about why interior finish materials matter and how to connect with the sensory perception, join Rebekah Friday, Sept. 11 at IRDC from 9:30-9:55 a.m. for her Power Track A ("Sharpening Your Skills") session, “Interior Materials Matter: Creating Emotional Connections through Sensory Experiences.” For more information about IRDC, visit