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Retail, Dinner and Debate

Image © Gensler

Omni-channel, digital, branded, augmented-reality. With the retail industry in a constant state of flux and consumer habits that are constantly evolving, retailers have a lot to talk about. Last month Gensler hosted its inaugural Retail Dinner & Debate with seven top retail industry professionals at New York Vintner's beautiful wine cellar. With attendees ranging from retailers to developers and owners representatives, the discussion covered many topics including retailers’ “wish lists” for brick & mortar stores and the obstacles they face internally and externally. There’s something special about sharing a meal that elicits lively and open dialogue.

While some of the topics discussed were issues we've all seen coming for some time, many ideas were new and unexpected. Here are a few key takeaways:

  1. Beyond product: offering a strong customer and brand experience. Not surprisingly, the main aspect retailers are looking for in their new stores is a strong customer experience and brand engagement. It’s not enough anymore just to highlight the product. Now retailers have to give consumers an experience they can’t get on their mobile device or while shopping online. The experience must be memorable and also flexible enough to keep it fresh and on-brand.

  2. Customer service is crucial, and consumers are the best brand advocates. Excellence in customer service is also key. Retailers need to keep their sales associates well-informed, motivated and well trained to meet customers’ needs. Associates not only need to know the store contents inside and out, but also the brand’s online inventory, as more and more customers are using devices within the store. Many consumers have done their research online before ever stepping foot inside the store, so the staff needs to have all the latest information at their disposal. Consumers are better informed than ever and the store sales team have to be even more knowledgeable than the consumer. They also must be well versed on the product background, manufacturing and sourcing as consumers are looking for more meaningful and ethically sourced purchases. For the most part, today’s consumers have an increased social awareness and they want to know the back story behind their purchase. Our guests noted that keeping the sales staff happy makes for happy customers... after all, the sales team members are the best advocates for the brand.

  3. Curating the right mix. Landlords and building owners are well aware of the changes in retail stores and understand the need to up their game within their developments. According to one developer in attendance, it is well worth it for the landlord to pay for infrastructure upgrades to their buildings to be able to provide retail tenants with the systems they need to accomplish these experience-intensive stores, as it helps them to attract premium retailers. And not just any premium retailers. Landlords and developers are curating their tenant mix to provide an authentic and intriguing story to compete in an overly saturated market.

After talking about what retailers are looking for in new store concepts, the discussion turned to the challenges they face to implementing them. The main challenge, as expected, is cost. But not only the cost of the physical built environment or the cost to provide the experience design "bells & whistles," (i.e. digital touchpoints; long-term maintenance costs could also be prohibitive for retailers. Keeping interactive, digital and even the static graphic content new and fresh is often daunting and costly. Most of our panelists felt it was better to forego such an element in the store altogether than to have one that becomes outdated or stale. Retailers have to stay nimble and ready to change with the market, and if cost to maintain content doesn’t fit within that strategy it is often removed from the project before it ever makes it in.

New York Road Runners store, New York. Image © Gensler/Chris Leonard.

Often, non-digital touch points can be equally or even more engaging. Retailers and designers alike have to constantly seek out that new, fresh idea to create a space that is unique, sustainable and ultimately elevates the brand.

The panelists agreed that in-house design is generally less prevalent than in the past and that retailers are relying much more on design firms to provide this expertise. To do this successfully, designers must be strong advocates for their brand and be equally as informed as their clients on future retail trends and what consumers want.

Stay tuned, as Gensler will be hosting a series of these Dinner & Debates in the coming months to keep the conversation (and wine) flowing and extend the dialogue into other areas of retail.

Mark Brungo is a senior associate in Gensler’s New York office and a regional retail practice area leader. A registered architect in New York and Pennsylvania, Mark brings his 25 years of experience to every project, many of which have earned design awards and national recognition. His versatility as a design manager and his excellence in client relationships allows for a smooth project design and delivery process that aligns Gensler’s service goals with the client’s objectives. Contact him at mark_brungo@gensler.com.