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A New Dawn for Retail Design

Updated: May 26

Chain Store Age | March/April 2020 by Dimple Manghani


In just a decade, retail saw the decline and return of in-store shopping. The 2008 recession

led to universal skepticism on the future of brick-and-mortar stores, and retailers hesitantly

continued expansion plans in the 2010s. In a reinvigorated yet unpredictable market,

brands wanted to remain nimble. Retail expansion began gaining traction in 2012. That

year, Instagram was purchased by Facebook, a week after the app’s Android release led to

over 1 million downloads. What was once feared to be the retail apocalypse was instead a

call for systemic disruption.


The millennial generation came of age in the aftermath of the recession and in the height

of technological advancement and increased globalization. Millennials became accustomed

to convenience powered by their devices— whether it was posting online, paying for their

morning coffee, or checking the reviews of their next purchase. However, they also craved

social activities like work-out classes, concerts and fine dining.


During the last 10 years, the definition of retail has shifted from shops selling products

to branded environments that offer a sensory experience. The forces that have reshaped retail over the last decade include new behaviors among millennial shoppers, global competition and technology acceleration. Retailers have since welcomed these changes as a guide for their brand marketing.


Starbucks launched mobile wallets for customers to order, pay and access perks.

Amazon’s guaranteed delivery in only two days promoted their service’s efficiency. Shopping

itself has become a shared experience, with 84% of shoppers consulting a social media

site, like Instagram, prior to purchasing. Brands have become dependent on customer

reviews and high-profile influencer endorsements to gain potential customers’ trust.


As the retail world continues to adjust, our design tactics must disrupt the standard

shopping experience. Retail stores have been creating synergy between retailers’ digital content and physical spaces, optimizing data to enable “phygital” retail. Retailers are installing captivating, “Instagrammable” displays into stores to encourage visitors to share online and see in-person.


Social media walls showcase how real customers use and promote products. Sephora’s

artificial reality mirrors encourage customers to test any product digitally. Clothing retailer

Reformation has touch screen displays in dressing rooms for visitors to view and request

options and customize the rooms’ ambiance. Digital displays enliven the space, catch the

eye of passing customers, and facilitate moments of digital interaction.


The millennial generation largely reshaped retail in the past decade, but the expectations of Gen Z are the future of retail design. Entrepreneurship, social responsibility, transparency and embracing differences drive this generation.

Experiential retail is at the forefront of retail design, where shops host exclusive experiences

by blending retail and hospitality, retail and workspace, or creating multi-functional

retail and event spaces. In-store events, like product launches and meet-and-greets, entice

shoppers to visit store locations.


Apple hosts “Today at Apple” events for customers to test products while learning new skills. Athleisure brand Lululemon hosts yoga classes at their in-store studios and has brand ambassadors to keep a pulse on local communities. Department stores like Bloomingdale’s are dedicating floor space to in-store bar and restaurant concepts for shoppers to enjoy without leaving the store. Pop-ups allow online brands to build excitement in online communities while testing the brick-and-mortar experience without extenuating leases and high startup costs.


Future of Retail Design

The millennial generation largely reshaped retail in the past decade, but the expectations of Gen Z are the future of retail design. Entrepreneurship, social responsibility, transparency and embracing differences drive this generation. Brands are considering how to visualize their values in their spaces to connect with conscientious consumers.


New retail models centered on Gen Z’s values will redefine experiential retail. Retail subscription services, like Stitchfix and Honest, have exploded during the past 5

years as an at-home personalized shopping option. Resale concepts such as The Real

Real, ThredUp and Patagonia Worn Wear provide affordable luxury while promoting

sustainable shopping options.


Beyond “recommerce,” climate conscious and ethically responsible brands are filling the market with high-end alternatives to fast fashion. Everlane coined the phrase “radical transparency” by dissecting and reporting each item’s cost and manufacturing conditions. Allbirds’ integrates their sustainably sourced materials into visual displays at each of

their global locations, rooting their retail design in their core value of sustainability.

As these ecommerce brands open physical locations, their values develop

into the in-store experience to assure customers that the brands’ values align

with their own.


New market models create opportunities for retailers, architects and designers to

constantly adapt — integrating technology, implementing flexibility in store design and

activating the human experience, all while looking to the brand story and consumer

journey for design inspiration. As the market continues to evolve, the retail industry

must stay rooted in making the shopping experience a social experience. New lifestyles

constantly shift purchasing patterns, forcing retailers to think creatively about how to capitalize on the shifting behavior.


Published: Chain Store Age