When Less is More in Retail

Be locally relevant and other truisms
Posted July 15, 2014

Along with quite a few retailers, I’ve been doing a lot of pondering over the last few years following the recession about various trends that have caught the industry’s attention. Smaller formats, urban prototypes, local relevancy – these all have become catch phrases identifying solutions to entice consumer spending and, hopefully, instill consumer loyalty. To me, it seems to come down to the basics: knowing your audience and speaking to it with authority.

Authenticity, a much over-used term now, is still a major attractor for most consumers as they crave a trusted resource, now more than ever. The marketplace has gotten huge and choice is overly abundant, almost to the point of exhaustion.

I was recently in Austin, Texas, a bastion of cool in a very conservative state. It happens to be home to Whole Foods, the ultimate in fun places to get your groceries. I went to one of their newer stores, located in the Domain shopping center, an 80,000-square-foot space of edible goodness. You feel healthy just by walking through the door and feel like you’re making a difference with every dollar you spend. That’s an amazing thing they’ve accomplished: their environment and the products it sells within effect you. It’s emotional.

Granted, it’s pretty easy for a lot people to get emotional about food, but the allure is lost on me. I’d rather photograph it than eat it. As always, I’m my own litmus test and this place made me want to cook. And have I mentioned I don’t cook? I mean, I’m at the height of cooking inability. And as far as actually eating goes, I’m an “eat to live” not “live to eat” kind of gal. The product of an Irish household, I didn’t have asparagus until I was 23. But from the cheese aisle to the olive oils, and pretty much everything in-between, I was inspired to try “this” and purchase “that.”

The store also had an impressively large prepared foods area, where I sampled my way through the assortment. My plate laden with snacks, I retired to a balcony seating area where I could survey the store from above while I enjoyed my harvest. If only I lived there, I’d eat at this location every night. Unhappily for me, the closest Whole Foods to home is several towns away and accessible only by very congested roads – and it doesn’t have this new smorgasbord component.

But this experience got me thinking. While Whole Foods puts up a community board, I can’t say I’ve seen any significant attempt on its part to localize their store environments. Is it not necessary for this type of store? I think about Gap, or J.Crew or Hollister, and I certainly think they could benefit from a healthy dose of localization, if only to imbue their environments with some much-needed personality – or further, a point of view.

Here’s the funny thing: Would those outlets be so successful in foreign markets if they didn’t manifest using a fixed prototype? In new markets, there is the need to be distinguishable, recognizable and consistent, so as to develop a customer base. The fixed prototype instills confidence and trust, and conveys authority and reliability in these new markets. It’s in their home market where they struggle, as they’ve lost their patina. Regular customers are bored and need to become excited again – they need a good reason to shop the brand.

So, I remain unconvinced about this idea that stores need to be locally relevant, because it can’t be topical. Putting a surfboard reference into a Gap that’s in a beach locale just doesn’t cut it. It needs to be so much more.

The REI stores do it well, and the one at the Puck Building in New York takes it to another level altogether. Certainly the found artifacts discovered within the space were a true gift and the thoughtful integration of the same was truly inspired design. But not every location can be gifted so bountifully. The opportunity to incorporate true, authentic pieces of an area’s history are few and far between, and certainly can’t be recreated without seeming trite, or worse, comic. REI’s greater local gesture is its outreach to its members: the photo wall, the bike repair zone and the community room, to name a few. These elements invite in their consumer base, to be a part of the REI family, to be a part of the REI culture. The connection is through “the spiritual,” so-to-speak, not the physical. Not to diminish its power, but that’s easy to accomplish with retail centered on activity-based products.

If the prototype is done well, it can be the same although reinterpreted for each location. Take All Saints Spittlefields, for example. Their Chicago store on Michigan Avenue is a triumph, but other than that amazing façade and entry sequence, it is not so different from their store on Lincoln Road in Miami or at Santa Monica Place in California. But the store environment has a very definite point of view and the decor is very distinctive of who they are. The prototype resonates with the customer base, and the connection is made.

Retailers need to dig deep within, discover who they are as a brand and empower their designers to expose that personality. Diluting the design to have broader appeal does only one thing, and that is to resonate with no one – it neither offends nor inspires, it just is. Be brave, be more.

Kathleen Jordan, AIA, CID, LEED AP, is a principal in Gensler’s New York office, and a leader of its retail practice with over 24 years of experience across the United States and internationally. Jordan has led a broad range of retail design projects as both an outside consultant and as an in-house designer. She has led projects from merchandising and design development all the way through construction documentation and administration, and many of her projects have earned national and international design awards. Contact her at kathleen_jordan@gensler.com.