The counter offensive

Tim Greenhalgh argues that retail design has a pivotal role to play.

All the usual murmurings about the dominance of the supermarkets, the role of the Internet, consumer understanding of value and the ubiquitous look of the high street, came together this Christmas to create a very loud wake-up call. Trends that have been bubbling under for a while suddenly came alive, leaving retailers sounding a little like Vicky Pollard (from comedy show Little Britain) – ‘Yeah but, no but!’

Retailing and the role of retail design has changed significantly in the past few years. Retail is currently being redefined as consumers develop more diverse and complex relationships with the shops they visit and the brands they choose to spend money on. Equally, the design industry has had to adjust the way it delivers its services: the sketch of the store is now only one part of a much larger plan of action. As consumers move on, ‘retail by design’ – the notion of establishing a well thought-out plan of action – becomes ever-more important.

It became clear this Christmas that you can no longer make the assumption that customers will come to you. We have known for a while that the retail industry is having to work harder than ever to attract consumers and sell products at their full margin. Creativity today in the retail sector is as much about making stores attractive destinations as it is about the redefinition of a culture that has assumed there will always be enough ‘margin’ for error.

What this means for creative businesses like ours is that we are expected to understand this much more. Written briefs have turned into lengthy briefing sessions, delivering highly detailed accounts of the state of play and the challenges ahead. The amount of information we exchange during the first few weeks of a project would, if pulped and reconstituted, provide enough raw material to build a handsome 200m2 pilot site.

Faced with such depths of information about the consumer, the product, the competition, and the commercial imperatives, maintaining a creative outlook can be hard. But it’s absolutely essential, since as designers, we are being employed to make a difference. I personally have never had much time for design as ‘wand-waving’ or ‘pixie dust’ – what we do best is come up with great ideas that people love, talk about, want to try again, and are prepared to pay for. What we have also developed over the past 40 years in the UK is a skill in designing stores that work. We underestimate at our peril the experience and knowledge that enables us to consistently make retail better.

As such, design is forming deeper and more involved relationships with its retail clients, necessitating fresh team structures that can maintain and foster that relationship. We are expected to bring new skills to the table, in terms of strategic planning, consumer insight, and brand positioning, as well as the more traditional, but often overlooked ability to merchandise well. We are also expected to be more proactive, educating clients about what we know, how we look at the world and how other creative solutions are solving problems in other sectors.

The creativity I believe we are being asked to bring to this relationship is both visual and intellectual. At this juncture, we would do the design industry and ourselves a disservice if we just took an interest in the final look of the space. If retailing and retail design is going to redefine itself in response to all that is happening, our creativity and ability to solve problems can move store design from what was ‘a nice to have’ (but typically the first budget to be cut), to an essential tool in maintaining sales and growing a retail business.

Finally, another plea for anyone interested in joining me in outlawing use of the word ‘differentiation’. Consumers are not interested in subtle differences, they are looking for retail experiences that are distinctive. Surely that is the one thing we can and should bring to the table of any prospective client.

The business outlook for retail

• design will play an ever deeper role for retail clients

• fresh team structures are called for to maintain and foster these relationships

• consultancies need to bring skills such as strategic planning, consumer insight, brand positioning and merchandising to bear

• design groups need to be more proactive and informed about other sectors

• consultancies should play both a visual and intellectual role

• maintaining and growing your client’s sales is the mantra

Tim Greenhalgh is managing creative director of Fitch London

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