The Aesthetics of Social Responsibility
Maureen Boyer in Brand, Local, Retail, Retail, Retail Centers, San Francisco, Sustainability

Our retail practice has been buzzing about this New York Times article for several weeks now. Aptly titled “But Will It Make You Happy?” its author describes the shift in consumer priorities away from material possessions and toward more fulfilling experiences that create memories rather than superficial status. We’ve been seeing this evolve for several years now, but the potential for long-lasting impact on the retail industry is ever more real. Fueled by the down economy, 81% of adult consumers say they don’t trust business leaders to do what’s right (according to DYG Research). This is telling. But is it a bad thing?

Mobile technology and social networks empower shoppers with instant access to information and influence, allowing consumers to hold companies accountable more than ever before. In response, retailers across all categories are stepping in line to demonstrate what they’re doing to be responsible, sustainable and authentic. The most visionary retailers like The Container Store and Whole Foods have been doing this for a long time – check out this article from The Dallas Morning News about “Conscious Capitalism.” While those examples might stand out as leaders, it’s increasingly imperative that all companies realize that if they stay true to their core values, customers with like values notice.

Make sure you give them something to notice, though. Show it off in your stores, and on every channel through which you communicate with your customers. Maybe you’ve reduced your energy consumption in order to cut costs; but have you told anyone other than your financial officers? Your garments might be made by local producers using natural, renewable materials; does your in-store signage and labeling illustrate this? It’s possible that one day each month your staff is volunteering with a neighborhood charity; does anyone recognize this, other than your staff? These are practices that your customers are interested in hearing about, and frankly they’re starting to demand it. In fact, (according to Edelman’s goodpurpose™ survey) 67% of global consumers say they would switch brands if another brand of similar quality supported a good cause, so loyalty is on the line.

I’ll be speaking about Values-Based Design with my colleague Alison Carr at the International Retail Design Conference in Toronto next month. We hope you’ll join us for this discussion of ways retailers can illustrate their values through in-store design. It’s no longer enough to publish annual sustainability reports for your investors. Your customers want to hear what you’re doing too.

Maureen Boyer is co-leader of Gensler’s global retail centers practice and a senior associate in our San Francisco office with over 25 years of experience in design, project management and construction management. Maureen focuses on reinventing and redeveloping retail environments, with a balanced emphasis between architecture and interior design. Through her continuous research of ever-changing consumer behavior and shopping trends, Maureen executes a uniquely customized, integrated multi-channel solution for her clients and their customers. Contact her at
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