New retail conditions demand new ideas

I wonder where the speakers at BDG/ McColl’s recent retail seminar were on – Saturday? If they were in central London, they wouldn’t still be musing, as they did in the debate, on whether shopping might become a leisure activity.

I wonder where the speakers at BDG/ McColl’s recent retail seminar were on

Saturday? If they were in central London, they wouldn’t still be musing, as they did in the debate, on whether shopping might become a leisure activity. No-one would put themselves through the mayhem of Oxford Street or Knightsbridge unless they wanted to. Convenience is no longer an issue – longer shopping hours have taken care of that – shopping is a social thing born of a perverse sense of fun and it cuts across sex and age.

More perceptive were the panel’s observations on the polarisation of retail (see News, page 5). The fact they couldn’t agree on the nature of that polarisation indicates just how complex retail has become. However you look at it, you see extremes. Through recession punters became used to quality at low prices – the perpetual sale – and they expect more for their money now by way of back-up and service. Meanwhile, technology has moved on apace, making even the simplicity of Argos seem overdone at the functional end of things. Who needs a human interface when a computer can serve you twice as quickly?

So where does that leave design? BDG/McColl’s speakers agreed on one thing quite vehemently. The “pink and grey treatment” designers doled out along the Eighties high street is no longer enough – and it will take more than a colour change to boost design’s image to retailers.

What does it matter that retailers were equally to blame for those cosmetic jobs? They are wiser now and they call the shots. The complexity they currently face takes in more than design: psychology, technology and strategy all play a part. And then there’s customer-expectation: if you’re competing with fast food for convenience and theatre for experience, your ideas have got to be smart.

Like retailing, retail design is polarising. You can compete purely on price, inevitably losing out to the shopfitter with a bit of nous, or you can give that added value – and that may have nothing to do with visual image. The only pink and grey involved in Nineties retail design ought to be your brain cells.

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