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Retail’s New Normal: Lessons from the International Retail Design Conference

Image © Gensler

A ping-pong table might seem like a curious addition to a shop that sells handbags, luggage and women’s accessories. But for the SoHo flagship store of Vera Bradley, it makes perfect sense. For starters, it speaks to the retailer’s roots: in the company’s early days, a basement ping-pong table served as a place to display patterns and fabrics. But the SoHo store’s familiar rec room accessory also speaks to Vera Bradley’s efforts to craft a memorable in-store experience, one that not only showcases their refreshed brand, but also offers an abundance of engagement. That’s why we also populated the company’s latest stores with imaginative displays of merchandise, installations by local artists and digital screens that post real-time social media content tied to the bags and accessories maker’s brand.

As it turns out, our collaboration with Vera Bradley anticipated many of the key themes of the recent 2016 International Retail Design Conference (IRDC), namely: design as a critical piece of business infrastructure, visual merchandising as a lost art, and digital and analog as a two-pronged method of in-store engagement.

IRDC—a gathering of retail design professionals from brands, design firms and manufacturers—has long been my favorite industry event of the year. And this year’s offerings in host city Montreal provided a wealth of ideas on what retail design means in the era of mobile e-commerce, social media and niche communities of consumers.

Given today’s challenging retail landscape, opening keynote speaker riCardo Crespo (That’s no typo; that’s his chosen spelling), former Global Creative Chief at Mattel and 20th Century Fox and current Chief Creative Officer with th13teen, advised the audience of creatives to sell not just design in itself, but also design thinking as a means of addressing the various business issues that retailers face. And when it comes to unflinchingly original design thinking, Crespo suggested that we strive for three outcomes, which he summed up as FOMO/NBDB/HSF. Let me translate: a design should be so engaging that consumers should have a Fear of Missing Out (FOMO); it should offer something that’s Never Been Done Before (NBDB); and it should have a Holy *expletive* Factor (HSF). Obviously, Crespo is no shrinking violet. But his colorful formula speaks to the importance of being bold and impactful in order to resonate with consumers, who now have more retail choices and more ways to engage with brands.

Image © Gensler

When it comes to making an impact in retail spaces, visual merchandising is a time-tested method that still packs a punch—if it’s executed properly. Such thinking underlies the IRDC’s Iron Merchant Challenge, the conference’s annual visual merchandising showdown. It’s essentially a creative stretching exercise in which teams use various materials—and a secret ingredient that’s thrown in to boost the degree of difficulty—to develop a themed display in only an hour.

Why do we participate in this fun, and at times intense, exercise? Because visual merchandising (which took the form of window displays in this challenge) is one of the prime vehicles for creating a retail experience that’s memorable for consumers and profitable for brands. It impacts how people engage with a brand, move through a store and make purchasing decisions. It provides consumers with sensory input that’s impossible to get through an e-commerce shopping experience. And, unfortunately, it’s a pain point for retailers.

Hence, the Iron Merchant Challenge, which forces retail designers to approach visual merchandising in new and creative ways. And, hopefully, we take some of those lessons learned and apply them to real-world projects, with the goal of alleviating retailers’ pain. The takeaway from this year’s challenge was about simplicity, which is key to the success of any window display. As our team worked collectively to develop a Big Idea, I was reminded that simplicity is about an elegant logic and purpose for every component, rather than a mere lack of clutter. (A lack of clutter speaks more to an aesthetic sensibility—i.e., minimalism—rather than a conceptual approach.)

Of course, the challenge for visual merchandising—and all aspects of retail design—is how to embrace digital elements in meaningful ways. The need for such an accommodation explains the abundance of program offerings on the subject of digital at this year’s IRDC. With sessions such as “The DNA of the Digital Native Audience (DNA),” “Bringing Analog, Digital, Sensory and Sound Together for Emotional Retail,” and “Dynamic VM: A Practical Guide to Enhancing Visual Merchandising with Technology,” it’s clear that the retail design industry is looking to dissolve some of the borders between the digital and physical realms.

And that brings us back to Vera Bradley and the screens that display the latest brand-related info bubbling up on social media. Those digital screens go well beyond being a mere of-the-moment gimmick. With their placement in a physical environment, the screens offer a link between Vera Bradley as an online community and Vera Bradley as a spatial experience. It is precisely this kind of hybridized engagement that retail designers are now exploring as a means of building a symbiotic relationship between the digital and the physical aspects of a brand. And as retail designers move forward as a community, sharing valuable experiences and key lessons at IRDC and other industry events, we’ll collectively learn how to further that symbiotic relationship.

Until next year’s IRDC in New Orleans, laissez les bon temps rouler!

Sharon Lessard is an influencer of the customer experience. She combines physical, emotional, and sensory elements to bring brands to life and believes creativity is the lens that connects every experience. Contact her at sharon_lessard@gensler.com.