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IRDC 2012: Principles of Personal Service

Getting personal: inside a San Francisco supermarket, the 500-square-foot Blue Shield of California retail store offers customers the opportunity to speak with insurance agents in person, rather than by phone or email.

I’ve said it before, but I think it bears repeating: the International Retail Design Conference (IRDC) is my favorite conference. I’ve been an attendee and active participant for years, and yet the air of generosity, sharing, and openness among competitors and colleagues never fails to surprise me—pleasantly. Each year, my passion for retail is renewed by the discussions at IRDC, and this year’s conference in Chicago was no different. Despite the doom-and-gloom that some headlines might have you believe, I think this is an exciting time for retail. Here’s why:

1. Technology is an opportunity, not a threat.

In-store technology is no longer optional, and since it’s allowing customers and brands to connect in new ways, I think that’s a good thing. Retail consultant Jim Crawford’s IRDC presentation outlined ways that retailers should integrate technology into the store experience, for example: put tablets, such as iPads, in the hands of sales staff so they can point customers to answers on the spot. Use QR Codes to empower customers to download additional product information; they’re doing research anyway, why not make it easy for them? And of course, when you build your network to empower more customer connections online, you have access to more data that allows you to know your shopper and deliver exactly what they’re looking for.

2. People matter more than ever.

Providing the personal experience that keeps customers coming back for more is the essence of successful retail. This is where Bob Phibbs’ keynote presentation really resonated with me: price does not determine value, people do. Technology is not the answer, people are. You’re a person first—as are your customers—and how you serve your customers, as people, will always be the differentiator between the most successful retailers and those that just get by.

3. Community is at the core.

As a VMSD advisory board member, I have the pleasure of leading and moderating lunch roundtable discussions each year at IRDC, and this year one of my roundtable topics was Localization: Community Driven Design. Delivering unrivaled customer service was a resounding theme of IRDC, and around my table the conversation was all about strategies for creating relevance. Tailor your product selection for the local market. Offer local resources, and give the community of like-minded consumers a place to gather. But remember to stay true to your own brand first and foremost. If localization isn’t in your DNA, don’t force it—nothing is less appealing than an inauthentic brand.

4. Design makes a (big) difference.

Finally, as a designer, I find that the most enjoyable discussions at a retail design conference are those centered on—no surprise—design. Elements of design, such as local art or native materials can be some of the best tools for localization. But design can also be the difference-maker in the effort to provide compelling customer experiences. In the closing keynote, Francesco Cordua,Director of Retail Design for McDonald's USA, outlined the changes McDonald’s is currently rolling out in its 14,000 U.S. restaurants. While the golden arches will always be one of the most consistently recognizable brands in the world, it’s exciting to hear that multiple prototypes have been designed in order to allow customization for each location’s unique needs—from suburban shopping centers to college campuses to urban flagships.

Retail is all about personalization: give customers the personal attention they deserve; use technology to make it seamless; and remember that one size does not fit all. Pay attention to these principles, and when we gather at 2013’s IRDC we’ll all agree that it’s been the best year yet.

Michael Bodziner is a leader of Gensler’s global retail practice and principal in our San Francisco office. Constantly researching retail’s interrelation with society, economy and human emotional response, Michael is an advocate for authentic experiences that enrich the lives of both consumers and retailers. As a convergent thinker, he incorporates lessons learned from Gensler’s hospitality, branding and entertainment practices to create holistic retail environments. Contact him at michael_bodziner@gensler.com.

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