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Helen Herrick Of MBH Architects On How To Create A Fantastic Retail Experience

Authority Magazine | May 29, 2023 by Fotis Georgiadis

Sustainable design and materials have become some of the most important factors for customers. This is especially true of Gen Z customers who highly value a brand’s commitment to sustainable materials and social responsibility.

As part of my series about “How To Create A Fantastic Retail Experience That Keeps Bringing Customers Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Helen Herrick.

Helen Herrick is a Director at MBH Architects and an expert in translating business strategy into customer-experience-focused environments. A creative and effective leader in store design, strategy, and project management, Herrick has more than 15 years of experience in retail, hospitality, the workplace, financial services, and healthcare. Her career has covered architectural and interior design, transformation strategy, and bridging the digital and physical customer experiences through strategic and perceptive problem-solving.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I am an architect with over 20 years of experience in retail, financial services, restaurants, workplace, and hospitality. I have worked in design and construction leadership positions at Capital One Bank, Ann Taylor, Gap Inc., and Eddie Bauer. I started my career in the Seattle area where I worked on similar project types, as well as healthcare and educational projects at multiple architecture firms.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

When I was first starting out, I visited a job site in heels (not a great idea!). I then proceeded to almost step through wet concrete. The lesson learned, aside from not wearing heels to a job site, is to watch where you walk! The route you safely traveled on entry may be wet concrete when you leave.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I am grateful for the numerous people along every step of the way who were willing to take time just to have a coffee with me and talk about how they go about their craft. Now, I try to return the favor and be a resource for colleagues.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Tom Ford’s directorial debut, “A Single Man,” stands out for its aesthetic — down to the smallest details of architecture and interior design. It’s beautifully crafted and well-thought-out.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

MBH Architects stands out because of the mutual respect that is given to everyone’s individual strengths and perspectives. It is not just lip service, it takes place every day. For example, during COVID, when we were working on Bucherer’s flagship store, we had to completely switch up how the project would move forward due to restrictions limiting team travel. It was refreshing how personal ownership of project details gave way to mutual respect for everyone’s decision-making process.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Communication! Open communication with your supervisors, team, and clients is paramount.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. The Pandemic only made things much worse for retailers in general. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

The “Apocalypse” is officially canceled as physical retail will always be desirable for consumers. However, the role of the physical store has shifted. It went from being the retailer’s main purchase point into the physical manifestation of the brand and destination for customers to learn about and experience their products. Brands that have shifted their stores to experiential showrooms based on their audiences have been successful in engaging new clientele and expanding their physical footprint.

Store navigation has also evolved in the digital age. The traditional store design formula of display windows with new offerings, followed by a section of seasonal and featured products and a sale rack, is now outdated because most of this content is already reflected on the brand’s website. More space is being dedicated to pandemic-era innovations that customers have come to rely on. For instance, specified BOPIS and digital POS kiosks are now permanent design fixtures and retailers are thinking about how to improve their store navigation to optimize customer journey.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a retail business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Oftentimes, CEOs don’t ensure that the design strategy and the retail strategy are aligned before a lease is signed. Make sure the design works closely with the operational model. If the store design is beautiful but does not work for the operations team, the customer will feel and see it.

This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business in general and for retail in particular?

This sounds obvious, but retailers should always consider the experience from their customers’ point of view. What do they need, how will they move through the space and how will they interact with the sales associates while there? They came to the physical space for a reason and should have those needs met.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

The customer comes to a store for a multitude of reasons. They may want to be inspired or have a specific purchase in mind. The disconnect comes when the store assumes what the customer wants. Stores need to observe what the customer wants and then help them to achieve that.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

When Bucherer opened its first North American Flagship on 57th Street in New York, it took advantage of the new opportunity to introduce the Bucherer brand to the North American client, and the decision was made to create different experiences on every level. They aimed for a luxurious, museum-like experience by including fine art and upscale hospitality-inspired lounge areas, complete with bars on every floor. The concourse level leveraged an illuminated stone bar to encourage interaction with their customers, cater to the watch enthusiast community, and present their new Certified Pre-Owned offerings to an engaged client base. The main level bar served as a lobby bar that would welcome the client into the new boutique and provide the opportunity to meet, greet, and educate the clients on Bucherer, their history, and their import to the watch community. The second-floor bar was an opportunity to brand service to a provider, and the bar is a branded “IWC” bar within the Bucherer space.

Did that “Wow! Experience” have any long-term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

I have never seen a retail guest that doesn’t like a free drink. Customers, clients, and VIPs always have a thrill when they walk into a store, and the sales representative brings out a glass of champagne or a scotch to make the sale that much more special. Many retailers have started to capitalize on that experience. By expanding the service to each level of the flagship, clients are enticed to circulate through each level and go on a journey exploring all the brands, leading to more opportunities to make a potential sale. Also, such a highly-designed and comfortable space serves as an appropriate venue for brands to hold curated events with their VIP clients.

A fantastic retail experience isn’t just one specific thing. It can be a composite of many different subtle elements fused together. Can you help us break down and identify the different ingredients that come together to create a “fantastic retail experience”?

There are so many varied factors that go into a fantastic retail experience, and they can be different from customer to customer. We design spaces for multiple customer experiences.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a fantastic retail experience that keeps bringing customers back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.

1 . Connecting with the customer/customer experience

At the very heart of the shopping experience is still the human connection. Humans crave interaction and connection. Just as people build personal relationships and communities, they gravitate towards brands that align with their lifestyle, values, and expression. Experiential retail gained notoriety as a way for brands to form personal bonds with their customers. It allowed brands and audiences to better understand and empathize with each other. During the pandemic, when in-person shopping was halted, the desire for connection had been heightened.

2 . Community integration and location specific experiences

With many direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands taking the next step into the physical space, they have been able to leverage their existing customer data to understand their audience better than ever before. This helps brands determine the best locations to expand to based on shipment data, consolidate product offerings to fit the preferences of local audiences, and coordinate in-store events based on their customer interests. As more national retailers have moved to small-format models of strategic expansion, they are able to use their stores as outposts to engage with their audiences on a personal level. Being authentic and understanding local populations, the built environment can reinforce local culture by engaging local artists on custom art integrations in the space, having a dedicated display for local sellers and artisans, and providing flexible space to hold community events.

3 . Omnichannel experiences that transfer from digital to physical

Traditionally, physical brand expressions and online expressions have existed in separate silos. DTC retailers that have successfully jumped from the digital to the physical integrate their digital experience with the physical one. When we worked with Allbirds to develop their initial store design, opportunities for education were important both on the website and in the physical space. Here is a DTC brand presenting new sustainable materials to footwear to introduce a sustainable alternative and physical space was required to illustrate the development story of these new materials to educate the customer. The built environment needed to dovetail with the online one to create the holistic brand experience where the virtual spoke to the physical and vice versa.

4 . Integrated technology

Today’s shoppers are increasingly tech-savvy, and our retail clients are increasingly looking for innovative digital integration solutions. From interactive displays that provide product information and brands developing their own apps that help customers preview what is available in store and where to find it, to digital signage that is attention-grabbing and easily changeable with brand campaigns, brands continue to discover new and exciting methods for utilizing technology in retail locations that improve the customers’ experience.

5 . Sustainability

Sustainable design and materials have become some of the most important factors for customers. This is especially true of Gen Z customers who highly value a brand’s commitment to sustainable materials and social responsibility.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I would love to see more reuse in retail. So many beautiful materials end up in dumpsters! I would like to create a pipeline for things to be reconfigured and reused. At MBH, we are working with our clients to create pathways for the reuse of their store elements.

How can our readers further follow your work?


MBH Website:

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

Published: Authority Magazine

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