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Retail Trends: Designing for Experience, Regionality and ‘Dwell Time’ 

El Palacio de Hierro Flagship, Polanco. Photo © Paul Rivera.

We spoke with Kate Russell, Kathleen Jordan and Michael Gatti, retail trend-casters in Gensler’s New York office, about what is influencing the retail industry and how design can delight the customer experience.

What retail design trends are you seeing in the Northeast and Latin America, and what are you seeing as emerging traditions for experience design?

KR: Some of the big trends that we see are experience diversification and inclusion of more than a core competency. Instead of Macy's just showing clothing and accessories, now they include hospitality moments—such as food, dwell spaces and activity zones. When they're enticing shoppers to stay for the afternoon, there's a lot of activity going on in their lower level, specifically in their juniors’ department.

How are those decisions being made? What is the nature of those experiences?

KJ: Retailers are trying to find complimentary uses in order to increase dwell time. What else can happen that doesn't compete with the product being sold, but allows for a respite to extend the day? The whole idea of the snack bar or the coffee bar, it's become overused. From big-box retailers to luxury players, they're all doing the same thing. But now it's the experiences that you associate with the brand in a positive way and you want to go back to, because visiting the store is like visiting a whole bunch of spaces all at once. Amenities that places are now offering include everything from hair services and nail salons to juice bars. It's no longer just coffee.

Where I'm seeing things start to stall is the lack of innovation on what these other in-store experiences can be to continue the dwell time, but also to enhance the experience. And because these new added features are expected, they're no longer a surprise-and-delight moment. They are just meeting expectations.

I think the challenge for us is, what’s next? And it shouldn't be one-size-fits-all. How can we lead our clients to what the next best thing is? It's really about how we can get retailers to overcome their own internal challenges to then inject the innovation required to up the experiential quotient in these retail environments.

El Palacio de Hierro Flagship, Polanco. Photo © Paul Rivera.

What do you make of this change of having to delight the customer?

MG: It's every retailer’s challenge. Anything we need to buy, we can now purchase from the couch on our mobile phone. Now it's all about giving consumers something more. It's about adding to the experience, and creating a space that goes above and beyond what’s expected.

Every time you ask somebody about their most memorable shopping experience, unfortunately, for us as designers, it's very rarely, "Oh, the store is beautiful, and the design of the store blew me away, and I'm going to come back because this space was so wonderfully designed." Most people will answer that question by describing a ‘customer service’ or ‘experience’ model that was successful. Typically our most memorable shopping experiences are when we ‘connect’ with an employee or have an ‘experience’ that we remember and want to talk about.

Certainly, great design is a factor in people's experience. But now it's become more holistic. Our clients understand and expect that we will design a beautiful space for them, but there's more to it now, we need to be strategic. It's about the whole experience.

What differentiates customer experiences?

KJ: Localization, and local relevancy, is still a big factor in differentiation. And certainly chain stores are more hampered by this than retailers that have fewer stores or are newer to the market. So how do you relate to the local community and/or the city at large? Is it the coffee? Is it macaroons? How do you layer in that local flavor to ingratiate yourself with the local community?

MG: Flexibility is also key. More and more we're designing ‘flexible’ spaces, areas of the store that are going to be seasonal, and they're going to be reactionary to what's happening in style and where things are trending. Giving retailers that opportunity to have these flex spaces, so that every few months when somebody shows up in the store there's this reinvigorating element that keeps people interested and keeps them coming back.

Take, for example, the El Palacio de Hierro Polanco department store in Mexico City. They already were an established destination for luxury retail. But we also recognized that there were certain things that were lacking in their existing spaces. We worked with them programmatically to help create special places that people remember. One area specifically that we concentrated on was the gourmet department that they asked us to make an incredible, one-of-a-kind destination.

El Palacio de Hierro Flagship, Polanco. Photo © Paul Rivera.

Can you talk a little further about El Palacio de Hierro in Polanco and what made the gourmet section particularly challenging? How does this speak to the concept of regionality?

KR: What's interesting about that piece of the puzzle was twofold. We took a new spin on something that they were already doing as part of their program, which was offering a gourmet selection of prepared foods and packaged goods. For instance, El Palacio is the largest importer of Spanish hams into Latin America. They were already doing an enormous business in this category. But they asked us to think about taking the pieces that people could already buy and making cafes inside of the store or making spaces where people could dwell, especially because this footprint of the store is 700,000 square feet—it's a full-day adventure.

This gourmet floor became a destination for not only shoppers who were there for quality goods that are imported from other places, but also a place where people could try Mexico City’s authentic heritage foods. What was really important about this particular Polanco location was that it responded to the city, and the character of not just being a luxury department store, but being a department store that has a Mexican heritage. They partnered with some of the best, well-known, one-of-a-kind foods that are available in Mexico City, like El Califa, which makes the best pork taco. And they partnered with individual vendors and family restaurants to bring them into a location where you could sample the food heritage of Mexico.

The Polanco store mixes all these things together, so there are high and low moments, there are places where you can get two tacos and stand at a counter, or you can sit down and have a full hot meal at lunchtime, which is what Mexican business people usually do. So it lets the pride that they have in a particular category and their prowess at it shine through more fresh offerings and experiential pieces.

MG: An important part of the El Palacio projects is this regionality of design. They're very proud of their Mexican heritage. Everything we designed had something to do with the city that the store is in. We've done two major projects for them, one in Polanco (Mexico City) and one in a town about two hours north of Mexico City, called Querétaro. There were design elements in Querétaro that were specific to that region, and there were elements of the Mexico City project that were very specific to Polanco. We worked with their team from the very beginning, and talked with them about what their goals were going to be. They were very clear that this was a Mexican brand and wanted the spaces to exemplify this.

KR: It's a really good example of a department store knowing their market, authentically responding to it, and being able to deliver. Starbucks has done this all over the world, and it's very seamless. The idea of regionality—whether it's represented in food, art, curation of products that are locally made or locally sourced—it sometimes takes a new team member or a new perspective from the department store to actually be able to execute that.

This article is an extension of an interview conducted by Mimi Zeiger for Dialogue 29, “Retail and Social Media.” Zeiger is a Los Angeles–based writer and a contributing editor at Architect.

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