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Five Ways to be Authentic in Retail 

Primark Flagship, King of Prussia, PA. Image © John Muggenborg, courtesy of Gensler

Authenticity. Millennials consumers and NextGen entrepreneurs are demanding it. Clients are on the hunt for it. Designers are trying to define it. Conveying genuine, unmediated values in a world saturated with information has become a critical means of survival for each and every brand. As designers, it’s our job to help define what authenticity is for each client we work with. And while no two brands are alike, there are five major ways brands can aim to authentically represent themselves and connect to consumers.

Shiny and New

Smart brands are always searching for original ideas to differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace. They’re looking for something that’s both brand new and reflects their brand’s core values and beliefs.

When Primark, an international fast fashion retailer, made their debut in the U.S, it was important for our team to put forth innovative ideas for their flagship store. The ‘Trend Room,’ an existing concept in Europe, was reinvented to become a high impact destination debuting new curated collections daily. The one-of-a kind oversized plywood sculpture is acts as a frame for displaying products that are spotlight like a gallery supporting the Primark mantra, “Amazing fashion, amazing prices.”

Unlike Primark, ASOS is an online based retailer based in the UK that does not have brick and mortar stores. The lack of a physical retail presence forced ASOS to find different ways to resonate as authentic and reinforce their message. And so since 2006, ASOS has been publishing native content and displaying it alongside new product arrivals. As Hilary Mines of The Business of Fashion writes, “The dedication to content has paid off. Today, ASOS is able to write fashion and style articles, as well as take part in conversations across its social media channels with easy authenticity, avoiding the whiff of heavy promotion that surrounds other brands’ handles.”

Elle Rose, Sun Valley, ID Image courtesy of Elle Rose

The Next Evolution

Sometimes the best design ideas result from gradual next steps instead of completely outside the box thinking. As brands develop and mature so do their customers, and this helps both entities relationship to authenticity. Determining the natural evolution of a brand is critical because it isn’t necessarily obvious to consumers. A new product offering, location or instore experience are just a few paths to achieving success in such an endeavor.

Elle Rose, a small luxury boutique in the Sun Valley Ski resort town of Ketchum, Idaho, wanted to grow their business. They tapped Gensler to determine how much additional space was needed for shoes, handbags and products from their most popular designer, Lora Pina. The modified store layout spoke to the company’s priorities in an authentic manner and supported their business strategy. The fitting rooms now open directly into the sales area, thus ensuring continuous interaction between the customer and stylist. This encourages personal relationships and leads to the stylist becoming a trusted advisor, critical for upselling and the customer trying new things. It forges authentic connections between customer and brand.

El Palacio de Hierro Polanco, Mexico. Image © Gensler

A Rich Legacy

Looking to the past can also hold the key to telling an authentic story. Experiences that are referential have tremendous power with consumers because they feel genuine. In an age of experimentation and new technologies, consumers are in tune with brands that are bespoke and heritage. Luxury department store El Palacio de Hierro is a great example of where this is done exceptionally well. For the flagship in Polanco, one of the most exclusive districts in Mexico City, the exterior was designed by well know Mexican architect Javier Sordo Madaleno. The insides celebrate the rich history of Mexico City. Over 646,000 square feet is infused with local craftsmanship, materials and culture. The gourmet department shines with Mexican delicacies and is truly an experience within itself including local quesos, charcuteria and a full-service restaurant, LaCantina de El Palacio.

Image © Everlane

Radical Transparency

Millennials desire for knowledge has created a valuable new space in the retail industry and that space is being filled with companies willing to provide authentic information to clientele.

Everlane, a primarily online retailer founded in 2010 based in San Francisco, has become synonymous with the term “radical transparency.” Everlane shares everything about their product with the consumer. This includes the origins, costs of materials, labor, shipping and overall profit margins. For established retailers is this an extraordinarily hard model to back into. Retailers have made big business on hiding costs from consumers in an effort to maximize returns. Transparency represents a strategy used by entrepreneurs to gain an advantage and break into the retail market. An appreciation for transparency bleeds well outside the millennial generation and not only creates a strong sense of brand loyalty but makes consumers question the intentions and business ethics of competitors.

Best of the Best

Perhaps the most powerful, and arguably, the most difficult way for a brand to resonate as authentic is to be simply exceptional. Whether it’s in reference to quality, service, or product offering, these experiences are truly in a class by themselves. As we work on the complete renovation of the Saks Fifth Avenue flagship we know it’s all about the ‘crème-de-la crème”. Merging luxury product and experience, the ninth floor will have a "champagne bar" connected to a patio that overlooks Rockefeller Center and St. Patrick's Cathedral. In an interview with WWD, Marc Metrick refers to this as using the "hidden assets" of this location. "Where we can we are activating our views, which no one can mimic. People can put champagne on their footwear floors, but they can't put up a balcony outside on Fifth Avenue and look at Rock Center." Leveraging what only your brand has really makes a huge difference even for well-established and sophisticated retailers.

Understanding the complexity of authenticity can only help break down boundaries for new and established brands. It can also help designers determine how to best represent a brand’s values in physical features. The fact is, what is successful for one brand may not be successful for another. Defining your brand’s authenticity and identifying its touchpoints will open the door to consumers and successful partnerships and collaborations with other like-minded brands. This will further reinforce the value of authenticity and keep customers coming back time and time again.

Contributors to this article include research completed by Alicia Wagner (Las Vegas), Jonathan Breen (London), Joshua Vitulli (New York), Justin Wait (Costa Rica) and Scott Magnuson (Houston.)

Amberlee Isabella is a retail expert who excels in bringing together design, strategy and leadership to deliver projects from concept through store opening on the Gensler New York’s Retail team. Since 2007, she has become a trusted team leader and a “go-to” source as the leader in storytelling, trends and design and delivery integration at Gensler. Amberlee has a passion for inspiring students and was named to the advisory board for her alma mater the University of Kentucky in 2015. Contact her at amberlee_isabella@gensler.com.

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