Temples to consumerism

Almost ten years since Nike introduced the concept of ‘retail as brand experience’ to the UK, Pamela Buxton reports on the new brand palaces arriving on the high street, which are making the customer the centre of the experience

Back in 1999, Nike Town opened its doors in London, epitomising the decade’s obsession with brand and bringing with it the advent of retail as brand experience rather than mere shopping. It wasn’t enough for designers to create an appropriately enticing venue to facilitate sales – the talk instead was all about enhancing the customer’s connection with the brand. Nearly a decade on, there seems to be no sign that the brand palace has had its day: significantly, Nike revamped its Oxford Circus offer in late 2007 and Nokia recently opened a UK flagship store on Regent Street, as part of its global concept being rolled out across 18 locations. O2 even has its own brand dome in Greenwich.

However, nothing stands still, least of all the fast-moving world of consumer brands. Yes, the look of the flagship store is still crucial – a wow factor to create a buzz about the brand – but this may be achieved as much with changing screen-based visuals as with conventional design. And it means little without perfecting the human interface with the brand. Staff training, as much as the fittings, is what counts if customers are to leave the store feeling connected with the brand.

‘If the design of the human experience isn’t moving on as well as the design of the brand palace, that’s the little moment of truth after the initial wow factor,’ says brand experience expert Ralph Ardill, founder of The Brand Experience Consultancy and a former marketing and strategic planning director at Imagination.

Ardill feels that the brand palace is at something of a crossroads. Either it can go down the ‘shock and awe’ design route of high-spec brand worship, or it can ‘value engineer’ the experience, a process that might mean spending money on having more knowledgeable staff rather than a better floor finish. ‘We’ll see a polarisation,’ he predicts. ‘[There will be] even more shock and awe with certain brands that have the confidence and ethos, especially in fashion. Where you don’t want to be is “slight shock” with an abrupt human interface.’

Ardill predicts more investment in people, as Apple has demonstrated with its latest global store concept, designed by Eight Inc, with its Genius Bar, lectures and training events. He also cites a continued trend for ephemeral outlets, as already trialled by Nike.

NikeID, which opened before Christmas at the heart of Nike Town London, is certainly an investment in the people-side of brand experience and is the biggest revamping since the store opened; it is intended to help re-energise the outlet.

Designed in-house, it consists of two zones – the ID Bar, which has information on its trainer customisation process and sample shoes in eight styles exclusive to NikeID, plus the ID Studio, an inner sanctum with concierge, drinks and a 45-minute, one-to-one session with a ‘design consultant’, trained to guide customers in creating their own footwear. The customisation service is also available on-line, but the in-store option offers customers a much more immersive experience.

There are mutual advantages. Nike’s customers get a personal service and end up with exactly the style they want, plus a copy of the design in a digital format to edit and blog with at home – networking is encouraged. ‘It brings a lot more energy if people are spreading it in a viral way,’ says one of the in-store design consultants, Simon Wainwright, who previously worked as a graphic designer.

Meanwhile, Nike gains brand loyalty and market intelligence. ‘We’re able to get a good level of research as we can relay customer feedback to other stores – London is seen as a leader,’ says Wainwright.

NikeID’s store design is refined rather than spectacular, with walnut worktops, upholstered seating and formal display tables all situated within an architectural glass cube. What is more memorable is the personal service.

Similarly, at Nokia’s flagship store, designed by Eight Inc, in London’s Regent Street, the wow factor is not provided by the interior design – although that does have a Scandinavian aesthetic that offers a warm, humanising contrast with the technology of the products. There’s also a luxuriously styled lounge fitted with marble and polished stainless steel which is intended to showcase the phone manufacturer’s Vertu line.

Instead, the attention-grabbing features are the interactivity of both the up-and-running display products themselves and the prominent LCD display screens and LED-lit walls visible from the street. These provide a fast and sustainable way of changing the store environment once the initial impact of the new opening has worn off.

A quiet ‘support zone’ lounge offers space to learn about and set up purchases – an embodiment of Nokia’s brand aim of helping people to get connected. ‘We hope that people will want to stay as long as possible and enjoy the devices,’ says Jeremy Wright, Nokia’s director of global retail concepts. ‘[The store] has to be commercially viable as well, but the larger part is the brand message,’ he says. ‘It’s [about] trying to understand customer needs, rather than the hard sell.’

According to Eight Inc principal Tim Kobe, who worked on the new Nokia and Apple stores and is also consulting on new retail concepts with Nike, brand retailers have been rethinking the flagship model since the opening of Nike Town, and while a premium environment is still important, it’s increasingly about putting customers at the centre.

‘Ultimately, it’s [about] good customer service, product and good design. But people tend to lose sight of these,’ he says.

Or, as Ardill adds, ‘It’s lovely to create a palace, but maybe we need a place for people, not worshippers.’

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