Thoughts on Retail Design 
Donna Taliercio

Q&A with Michael Bodziner

As 2010 comes to a close, our attention turns to the progress we’ve made this year, and what opportunities lie ahead in 2011. Michael Bodziner, a senior leader of Gensler’s retail practice and principal in our San Francisco office, provides his insights on the state of the retail design industry.

Q: From your perspective, how important is retail design in the minds of consumers these days?

A: Design in general has become an increasingly important ingredient in the lives of mainstream American shoppers. Retailers such as Target and Apple have brought design awareness to an audience that previously may not have been aware of or had exposure to great design. Well-designed furnishings and accessories are accessible today at affordable price points through many retailers – IKEA, West Elm, CB2, Urban Outfitters, and Anthropologie. TV shows have brought a design awareness to Middle America – shows on the DIY Network, Top Design, Extreme Makeover Home Edition, and Bravo’s Work of Art to name a few. I’ve always believed that people can recognize great design when they see it, no matter what their taste.

At Gensler, we use design as a tool to enhance our clients’ businesses and to redefine what is possible through the power of design. I also believe that we have a better understanding today of how people shop than we did in the past and that enhances our ability to create an exceptional customer experience through innovative design solutions.

Q: How are you seeing retailers innovate this year?

A: Necessity is the mother of invention, but risk taking is scary business. An experimental attitude has to come from the top. I think Restoration Hardware is the best example I know that illustrates experimental risk taking during a tough economic time. Their new concept is bold, exciting, and radically different from where they were a couple of years ago and my understanding is that it is paying off a hundred-fold for them. They are the most exciting retailer on the American landscape today and they launched the new direction during a time when most other retailers are playing things safe. Kudos to them!

Q: How is technology changing the retail experience?

A: This is a very hot topic in retail design today. It is mind boggling and unfathomable what exists AT THIS MOMENT in terms of digital technology and the retail shopping experience. Having worked with Best Buy recently on a new store concept, I have learned a tremendous amount about the potential power of smart phones and the effect they are having on the retail landscape.

At the beginning of the summer, Barney’s NY calculated that 48% of all its on-line transactions were actually being done through iphones. As a result, they are developing their own iphone app. Best Buy customers standing in their stores can get product information on their phones simply by typing in the stock-keeping unit number (SKU). For other information, Best Buy has a Twelpforce, a Twitter-based customer service initiative customers can use to text Best Buy employees. Best Buy plans to put mobile bar codes on all products in its stores.

This technology, called “QR codes”, will allow a customer to scan a bar code and view everything from product reviews to a video about how that product is used. Social Networking has infiltrated the shopping experience. Through Facebook, Foursquare and other outlets, shoppers can elicit immediate feedback from friends on a potential purchase. Creative apps are on the drawing boards that would allow social network friends to negotiate with retailers on cost. If someone could get several friends to agree to buy a particular product, the seller would then agree to slash the price for the whole group. We’re seeing mobile devices used as a means of check-out and returns, replacing cash wraps and customer service counters. I could go on and on…bottom line is that technology isn’t just about a flat screen on a wall running continuous video anymore!

Q: Today many brands are expanding globally – does design play the same role outside of the US? Where/How is it different?

A: As U.S. brands expand globally, it is imperative that they understand the local culture. One size does not fit all. Strong brands can adapt to a multi-culture solution while maintaining their own DNA. For example, colors mean different things to different cultures. In the Asian culture, color has more potential symbolism than among many others. It is important to do your research and to understand the sensitivity of the application of color in the built environment. Some of our retail clients, such as KFC and Burt’s Bees are more highly elevated in Asia than in the U.S. where they originated. The design solutions for stores and restaurants are more sophisticated in China and Japan than their U.S. counterparts.

I believe the key to this issue is conducting thorough research before committing to any specific design solutions. As a global design firm, we’re fortunate at Gensler to have teams around the world who are smart and helpful resources in such matters. The internet is also an amazing tool!

Q: Are you optimistic about the year ahead?

A: We are coming out of the toughest economic recession since the Great Depression. Unemployment has been the worst the current workforce has seen in its lifetime. It’s been scary for everyone. We have to believe that things will be better. We’re living in a global economy today – a giant puzzle that is interlinked. Everything is changing as quickly as you’re reading these words. Technology alone is having an enormous effect on the way consumers shop and how they interface with a brand. Smart phones are becoming an additional brand channel for retailers in addition to brick and mortar and the web. Only the strong will survive, which will create new opportunities for others. Innovation should be at a crest as we begin to recover. Millennials are reshaping the future just as Baby Boomers did in the past. Constant change is the key to the future.

Q: What do you recommend that retailers keep in mind in the year ahead?

A: Stay current. Refresh your brand regularly. Be true to your vision. Know what others are doing. Take risks. Call me!

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