The Art & Science of Shopping: Rebel against Sameness
Kathleen Jordan in Art and Science of Shopping, Retail, Retail

I’ve been on a bit of a road trip lately – six countries in eight weeks. I’m exhausted, but what made me weary more than the travel itself was the amount of sameness I was saw everywhere along the way. From Singapore to Uruguay, with stops in London, Germany, Dubai, and Argentina along the way, I encountered an astonishing, not to mention disappointing, level of sameness. I recall being at a retail conference last year and hearing the same complaint from Vittorio Radice, CEO of La Rinascente who traveled from Paris through Hong Kong and onto Shanghai. Of course what Duty Free retail has done to airports is remarkable and contributes greatly to this overwhelming feeling of déjà vu. Airports are becoming more like malls where you can also happen to be catching a plane, as opposed to an airport where you might be able to do a little shopping. Even departing from some of these airports is like the end of the ride experience at Disney – you must exit through the shop.

Either the world is getting too small or certain retailers are getting too large. When I was in in Dubai, I visited a few of the malls there since shopping seems to be the national pastime. The place is like Paramus, NJ on steroids—more retail square footage than local inhabitants. As I wandered the Dubai Mall, the shopping experience felt more like visiting first cousins of close friends: Oscar, Louis, Marc, and Yves were all present, as well as of course Gap, Coach and my dear friend Bloomingdales. OK – it’s Dubai, and it’s a mall. I get it. But I could not help noting that the only “local” retail, selling locally-crafted or souvenir-type items, was relegated to the lower level alongside the luggage stores and other not-so-alluring retailers. So assuming this retail experience was primarily for the native shoppers, I visited a few of the recreated souks. This was more touristy, having a little bit of Disney (don’t mean to be picking on Disney by mentioning them twice in one blog), but it satisfied the need for local flavor. It made me wonder though: why must the two be so separate?

As part of this extended road trip, I spent a day (yes, a day) in Puerto Rico (ah, the glamour of business travel). I had a few hours to myself, so I hit Old San Juan after depositing my bags in my hotel room. I wandered from street to street and eventually I stumbled upon a cluster of local independent luxury stores blended with some of these familiar friends on Calle del Cristo. This worked for me in a few ways:

  1. Putting local stores next to brand names gave the locals more credibility because I know the name-brands are picky who their neighbors are.
  2. I forgave the larger brands for interrupting my perusal of the unique local retail because they hadn’t taken over the place (yet). They lived within the fabric.

As I wandered this enclave on Cristo Street, I stumbled upon a rare gem of a store. The shop is called El Galpon. The shop keeper, Gustavo Lerner, knows his business, knows his customer, and serves both with laser focus. I’m not alone in this sentiment – I Googled the store upon my return and found corroborating opinions on Yelp (the power of social media!). Hats, cigars, and local art skewed to the religious and supernatural were packed tastefully in a state of organized chaos into a room no larger than 18’ x 25’. The gentleman running the establishment was casually chatting with a customer, obviously an acquaintance, while I was browsing. I felt transported back to Mayberry and I was observing Floyd the town barber having a chat with Sheriff Andy. Successful ingredient #1: Locally embedded proprietor.

I was captivated by the wall with shelves filled with statuettes of saints. My eyes wandered around the shop up to Oaxacan art sitting on an element suspended from the ceiling. The humidor contained box after colorful box of perfectly rolled cigars. And the hats were casually but neatly piled on a large central display table. The products were all unique and obviously well made. They also spoke about the local culture and customs. Successful ingredient #2: Curate your product offering.

As I mentioned, the shop was located in what felt like a more upscale area. Whether his shop was one that paved the way for this area to become so, or he strategically located his shop there – of that I am unaware. But what was overwhelmingly apparent was that he recognized the need he could and should fulfill: art that’s meaningful on a personal level, the guilty pleasure of an excellent cigar, and a well-made hat for protection from the sun as well as a fashion statement – all equally valued by the local and tourist alike. Successful ingredient #3: know your audiences.

So going back to my shopping frustrations encountered on my recent travels, it has compelled me to ask “what can the big guys learn from the little guys?” We work with global brands (Gap, Banana Republic, Abercrombie, Hollister, and Starbucks and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf) a lot on their global expansion programs, like. I think the latter two are good examples of taking the right approach. Working with Starbucks, we have helped them with a “kit of parts” prototype strategy, which allows for subtle design differences per site to incorporate “local flavor.” For Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, we developed four different prototypes to relate to four distinct market sectors. This is so important these days, because customers not only desire but expect customization in everything they touch. So retailers, go forth and be glocal (act globally, think locally).

Kathleen Jordan
Kathleen Jordan is a principal in Gensler’s New York office, and a leader of our retail practice with over 24 years of experience across the United States and internationally. Kathleen 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
Article originally appeared on architecture and design (
See website for complete article licensing information.