The days of the green, malleable retail client are well and truly over: design-literate, budget conscious, savvy clients are here to stay. And while they’re more willing to get interior designers in at an early stage and less likely to demand free creative pitches irresponsibly, they remain firmly in the driving seat when it comes to getting what they want from their designers. It can seem they want the impossible: a fresh pair of eyes, but portfolio-loads of experience; creative new talent but with reassurance of a large, stable consultancy; innovation with guarantees.
Take a major retailer like Marks & Spencer, which is reassessing the overall look of its stores and is working with FutureBrand (Fenchurch Street and High Street Kensington), John Herbert Partnership (Finsbury Pavement), and Rodney Fitch & Co (food store concepts).
According to Neil Reus, Marks & Spencer manager of corporate design and equipment, designers should fulfil seven criteria by being: team players; global players; youthful, but with maturity and integrity; big enough to handle the job; have a suitable track record; have the ability to understand business image and branding, and the ability to design concepts which can be rolled out throughout the chain.
Reus, currently overseeing the modernisation of 125 Marks & Spencer stores, likes to bring in designers right at the beginning of a retail project to work in tandem with the in-house team. The whole process is carefully managed. “We do set targets and we do manage to achieve them by getting all elements of the team to work together to get a successful project,” he says.
Jigsaw – currently working with Found Associates and Wells Makereth on the menswear concept Uth, and Andrew Martin and Found for womenswear – much prefers to work with smaller consultancies. However, “We’re quite nervous about using new people,” says Jigsaw group head of properties Colin Bryant. “Lots of architects and designers want to work for us and make a name for themselves on the back of us, and occasionally we get way-off designs that aren’t practical… We need designers who will be flexible and listen to what we want, but give us things that will challenge us. And give us a shop that’ll work well and is interesting.”
Since Jigsaw prides itself on knowing its business, it doesn’t require its designers to have a retail track record. “We want a bit of innovation and often you get that with people outside the retail sector,” Bryant adds.
Found’s designers work closely with Jigsaw from a very early stage to find out stock issues, such as which lines are going to be focused on, so they have the complete picture before starting on the design. They also like to retain control of the design by running the project on-site.
“It’s far better to understand the brief fully so you can design to that, rather than readjusting the concept,” says Richard Found. Similarly, Brinkworth enjoys a creative relationship with its client at Karen Millen (see case study).
It depends a lot on the company’s culture. At new Internet retail chain EasyEverything, the approach to design mirrors the economical, no-frills approach of the budget airline. It has just opened the world’s biggest Internet store at London’s Tottenham Court Road, and plans two more in the capital by Christmas, working with concepts developed with Hodgkinson & Co.
The approach is technology-driven, low-cost and minimal. “Design concept is a big word for what we did,” says EasyEverything marketing director Tony Anderson. “EasyJet has a reputation for using very few outside agencies and EasyEverything is the same. We have a very simple concept and we don’t believe we have to spend a large amount on fanciful design.”
Another sign, perhaps, of a more savvy client, is the number of businesses looking overseas for design input. Clients in the retail and restaurant sectors are increasingly willing to look beyond the traditionally strong UK design market to get who they want, observes sourcing agency Global Design Register.
“More and more, clients are willing to go further afield to find ground-breaking creativity,” says GDR’s Kate Ancketill. She adds that clients look beyond the usual retail design suspects to get a different, and often fresher interior look – France or Italy, or even the US, which is perceived as the leader of increasingly popular entertainment-based retail.
GDR has also noticed that, in their quest for a fresh approach, some clients are going to less established retail designers, despite reservations about using smaller outfits.
“There is a vogue for smaller consultancies which may have been only going for two years or so with ten staff, but are perceived as being quicker on their feet in terms of creativity.”
David Collins, whose restaurant client list includes Putney Bridge, Quo Vadis, Gary Rhodes and The Ivy, as well as the more down to earth Eat cafÃ©s, finds that clients come back to him because they know they can get something which works, as well as looks good.
“I think people must be sick to death of asking me to do restaurants, but we’ve done a lot of restaurants that have achieved their goals,” he says, adding that clients are looking for insights into how restaurants are managed from their designers, as well as creativity.
“It’s got to be tough, provocative and unique, but it has to work,” he adds, “This is most important in the restaurant sector, where unlike most of the rest of retail the product is manufactured at the same time as the sale.”
If designers get confused by clients’ needs, discrepancies in designers’ fee quotes can truly baffle the clients, which GDR observes can vary by as much as 300 per cent for the same job.
“There’s a very significant concern that they don’t understand the pricing system which designers quote, and they think something underhand is going on,” says Ancketill.
Jigsaw’s Bryant says the chain, currently searching for an additional design consultancy to work with, looks to pay a “fair” design fee of around 10 per cent of the total cost of the job, but finds some designers are expecting up to 15 per cent or in some cases as high as 20 per cent.
Many designers agree that their clients are generally more au fait with dealing with designers. “This is good in that you’re not having to educate them, but they can be tighter on the budget side,” says Hodgkinson.
But not everyone agrees. Glasgow-based Skakel and Skakel’s experience, with a few notable exceptions, is that clients know little about design and bring in designers far too late. It is their role, says associate director Derek Adams, to encourage the client to understand that retail design is a two-way process.
“Food retailers have a wee bit more of a focus on quality of service, whereas fashion retailers aren’t always in touch with their customers and their market. Food retailers tend to be more passionate about their food brand,” says Adams.
Even this isn’t always enough. “It’s all very well being brand-aware but you must know what to do with it and what makes current and future customers tick,” he adds.
Likewise, Corsie Naysmith’s Stephen Cribbett believes many [UK] retailers don’t grasp design issues, and that many designers don’t get that it’s about helping clients sell more product. “[Mainland] European clients have a far greater understanding of what design can achieve for their stores,” he says, citing Italian food retailer Finiper Group, Street One – a German women’s fashion retailer and KPN Telecom in The Netherlands.
And while the growth of e-commerce makes it hard to predict the future for retail, it’s a safe bet that it will be the client rather than the designer who’ll continue to call the shots.