Depending on who you talk to, it is the elephant in the room, the gorilla in the corner or the inconvenient truth of retailing. Over the past few years, every retailer worth its salt has been setting out its Green strategy. The general gist being that they will try to make their stores and the products they stock better for the environment.
Some, like Marks & Spencer chief executive Stuart Rose, have been shouting about their Green ethics from the (soon to be solar-panelled, no doubt) rooftops. Over the next five years, M&S is pledging £200m towards environmental initiatives, including making the business carbon neutral and not sending any waste to landfill by 2012.
All of this is largely welcomed by those who have to make it happen through design. In fact, most of them are ahead of their clients in the eco game. ‘Designers have been able to deliver this for ten to 15 years,’ says Portland Design director Lewis Allen.
That’s not to say there aren’t any serious hurdles to get over to implement a Greener design strategy. It is at this point that so-called value engineering raises its head. According to Checkland Kindleysides director Jeff Kindleysides, however, ‘You can almost guarantee that this [value engineering] route won’t hang on to a Green element. The nature of retail and shopfitting is about cost and pound per square foot. Until sustainable Green materials and lighting reach a point where they are a cost benefit, it’s always going to be a push-and-pull situation in terms of how you design a store.’
We all know these things will be sorted out as prices for the sustainable alternatives go down, or governmental or customer pressure goes up. But that is not the elephant in the room. The obvious but unspoken contradiction is between retailers trumpeting their carbon offsetting credentials and, at the same time, continuing to expand.
Howard Saunders, director of retail consultancy Echo Chamber, describes a recent scenario. ‘I was doing a talk for a major high-street store, and when global warming came up, they talked about how they’ve made their stores more efficient. In the same breath, they announced they would double their store numbers. It’s just ridiculous,’ he says.
Such growth can’t avoid being damaging to the environment, however much less energy each new store uses. Or, as Saunders puts it, ‘The planet doesn’t care.’
Of course, the idea of not expanding is completely counter to our Capitalist consumer society. This is business, after all, and Mintel consultant Richard Perks can understand why it’s not an issue that exercises the retailers at all, ‘because if they want their businesses to succeed, it is not an option’. In fact, he doesn’t think they’d even see much of a contradiction. ‘Retailers need to compete for customers and they need to grow. Businesses that don’t aim to grow, go backwards. They can’t get together and agree not to invest in stores, because that would be to act as a cartel and break the law,’ he says.
Some retail designers echo this. ‘As retailers or any business take in the opportunity of new markets and locations, it’s just a fact of life,’ says Kindleysides. ‘No business model would stifle its growth for the principle of replicating its footprint. It’s not [financially] sustainable, because a good retail location now won’t be one in five years’ time.’
Lucy Richardson is managing partner of Brand Legacy, a new strategic marketing agency focused on developing sustainable growth strategies. She thinks that retailers recognise the tension, ‘but they are paralysed because they are about growth’.
That paralysis means that designers will inevitably be continuing to design future roll-outs and expansions. Yet the UK is already a chain-store haven; Tesco has 1897 outlets here, slightly more than the combined efforts of the next four biggest retailers, which between them have 1823, according to Mintel’s 2007 UK Retail Rankings. Altogether the top three (Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda) boast 5330m2 of sales area.
Current expansion includes two of M&S’s brand new eco stores, the first in Glasgow, and the second, its first eco Simply Food, in Galashiels. Both of them opened in October.
Meanwhile, even destination store Liberty is getting on the expansion bandwagon. This June, its first ‘flagship concept store’ opened on London’s Sloane Street, by Paris-based architects Pierre Beucler and Jean-Christophe Poggioli. A Liberty spokeswoman explains that this one will act as ‘the blueprint for concept stores throughout the global marketplace’.
Some designers recognise the beneficial role they can play in this process. ‘New concepts are the lifeblood of the high street and, if developed with the right level of creativity and practicality, can bring great rewards to a retailer. That is why they do it, and those who do it well are thriving,’ says Dalziel & Pow creative director David Dalziel. ‘Retail design may not be the most socially aware discipline, but our work uplifts those who experience it and those who are employed within it. Without it life would be duller.’
At the same time, some consultancies are recognising that life (and work) can’t go on this way. Sooner, but more probably later, retail clients will wake up to their own inconvenient truth. ‘They are not fundamentally changing their business model because they have short-term growth targets. They need to be thinking more creatively about expansion,’ says Richardson who, as chief executive of Added Value, worked for Sainsbury’s last year. ‘Supermarkets need to rewrite the paradigm, and think about innovation in a systemic way.’
Saunders agrees. ‘M&S has led the way and that’s good, but I’m warning them that it could be their come-uppance. In five years’ time, we will still be here and we will still be trying to save the planet, and they will still be trying to sell us another V-neck sweater.’
It’s difficult with shareholders’ needs for immediate satisfaction, but designers who are starting to look further ahead can perhaps advise clients.
Many in consultancies are talking about the need to expand distribution networks. ‘They should integrate on-line into their business,’ says Richardson, citing Ebay.
She suggests that conventional retailers could learn from that model, ‘if they thought of themselves as a space and not just a shop’. For example, a fashion outlet ‘could re-embrace its own second-hand clothing’ and devote a corner to a vintage range.
Allen at Portland has been considering how brands should be about more than just traditional transactions.
‘For the consumption of material things through traditional channels, we have to build shopping centres,’ he says, which inevitably rely on a fast turn-around of disposable goods. ‘We are looking at ways to dematerialise both steps,’ he says, for example, reducing the need for stores by upping Web-, phone- or catalogue-based shopping, and, more radically, reducing the amount of consumption.
‘We propose a switch from consuming things towards consuming experiences,’ he says, which could mean learning, personal development, social networking and so on. In other words, ‘expressing ourselves not through what we wear, but through what we think’. He calls this gratification through growth, self-worth and a sense of esteem that we can share with others, rather than gratification through the bling of life. ‘It’s no longer “I shop therefore I am”. It’s “I consume, therefore I am”.’
His idea is that brands that help people to be Greener can encourage that ever-waning quality in consumers – loyalty. ‘There’s a stronger chance that consumers will spend their money with you and, proportionally, consumption can go down if brands inspire more loyalty. We need people to buy less.’
Adidas and Nike are two fashion brands whose customisation schemes – Nike ID and Adidas’ Mi Innovation Centre in Paris – lend themselves to this. If you design your own shoes and pay a slightly higher price for them, there’s a chance that you’ll keep them longer. And if that brand has inspired loyalty in you through its cultural or social events, then you may buy fewer pairs of shoes, but more of them may be that brand.
‘It’s about finding ways to avoid the consumption cycle we’re in now that’s too fast and too often,’ says Allen, who believes that his ‘dematerialisation’ thinking is relevant to every brand, institution, retailer, developer and consumer.
If there really does come a time when conventional retail design is needed less, where does that leave the designers? Allen, for one, isn’t concerned. ‘There’ll be no less demand for creativity,’ he believes, ‘as there’ll be a continuing need for people to engage. It’s not just about designing shops, it’s about helping brands connect with people.’
So maybe some designers will migrate to other disciplines, like on-line or event planning, but, in the meantime, the roll-out is their (rather stale) bread and butter.
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