Bob Phibbs interviewed Helen Herrick, Studio Director of MBH Architects on cultivating a culture of creativity, engagement, and connection for retailers - and more - on this episode of Tell Me Something Good About Retail.
Listen to the episode here
Bob: Today I get the opportunity to talk with Helen Herrick, Studio Director of MBH Architects in New York. Welcome.
Helen: Thank you for having me. It’s my pleasure to be here.
Bob: Fabulous. Well, you have so much experience designing spaces, and not just retail, Helen. So, how did you get started?
Helen: How did I get started? Well, I worked for an architecture firm right out of architecture school and did a few things, did some hospitals, some schools, but then ended up working on primarily retail spaces. And I loved kind of the energy of the spaces and how quickly the projects turned, and how connected we were able to be with the clients right away.
Bob: So, is there a good and a bad store design? I personally believe there is. But if there were, what would be some of the fundamentals to you when you go out and see what people create these days?
Helen: Well, I think that there are different store designs. I think the key for companies before they start is what’s the purpose of the space they’re building. I think right now you can have a space that is virtually a billboard for your brand. So, its purpose is to have a big sign in a big flashy area where people will come in and stand in front of your Instagram background, they will tell their friends, and it will create buzz for your brand. That’s one store design. There are other store designs where you have customers that are coming in to do something, to get something, to receive service in some sort of way. And if you’re designing for that, you need to design to meet those customer needs and the operational needs of the people working there in order to provide that great service.
Bob: Do you typically go into an existing space of a brand, for example, and say, “What would you like?” I kind of go in when I do business makeovers like, “Well, that doesn’t work, and that doesn’t work, and then I can recreate it,” right? But you’re at a much higher level than anything I do. I’m nothing compared to what you do. But it still comes down to your aesthetics, right, that you know what you know, and I would assume the clients are hiring you to be frank with them. Is that correct?
Helen: Yes. We like to start at the beginning. And I think the most successful partnerships with our clients are when we’re brought in early. And we’ve had some situations where the business leaders will say, “You know what? We’re doing a new store design, and this is what it is, and here, architecture firm, run with it.” More successfully if we start earlier, we make the design strategy part of the business strategy. So, what is the business strategy? Back to my first point, are these stores supposed to be a billboard or are they supposed to provide a place where people can come and test your merchandise and fall in love with your brand, being able to touch and feel it?
So, when we are brought in early, we can ask those questions, and then help provide a store design that works with all of the different stakeholders. I think sometimes if it’s just, do this, you may be missing some of the backstories that would help that store design be more successful.
Bob: Well, that leads me to my next question. So you have said "the buildings and spaces we create are used by everyone. So we need an ever more diverse set of people and ideas contributing to the design and construction." Is that a change from what you experienced early on when you were designing retail spaces?
Helen: Definitely. Definitely, before it was CEO, EVP of the retail spaces at a retailer may just say, “Nope, this is our plan. We’re going to open 500 stores. Let’s hire an architect to help us design it.” I think as the industry has evolved, those "we’re going to build 500 stores in two years" have gone a little bit by the wayside, and each store needs to be better planned, and better thought out. And as dollars are now split between how you sell online and how you sell in physical spaces, those physical spaces need to work harder. It’s not you have 500 stores, so if two don’t do so well, everything’s okay. Now maybe a retailer’s only building 25 stores and so two bad ones would be a much bigger hit to the brand.
Bob: Absolutely. Well, one of my favorite retail brands, I would have to believe it’s one of yours too, even if you didn’t create it, I don’t know, but Ted Baker, I think, is an amazing retail brand. I think whatever mojo they did early on to say every single store is a work of art and of place, which seems like a lot of people are trying to catch up to that idea, right, that it’s not the same Limited that I saw in San Francisco, that I saw in Las Vegas. It’s a much more bespoke look. I imagine that costs more, but does that pay off being a store of place?
Helen: I believe it does. Obviously, I don’t see all of the data that comes out of stores, but just watching trends and what we are moving forward with, I do think that the customer reacts to a store where they feel like they have been thought of. And sometimes that’s localization. And that could be localization of product, it could be localization of design, it has to be so much more than just showing a Golden Gate Bridge, and “Hey, we’re San Francisco.”
Bob: It has been done, Just in case those of you don’t know, that is what people have done before, state the obvious checkmark, right?
Helen: Yes. Or even worse, I won’t name the retailer, but they had a welcome to San Fran. And anybody who’s ever lived in San Francisco knows you do not put San Fran. That is not what locals call it. That is a clear giveaway that you are not local. So, I think retailers have to be careful with that. And I think if you’re shopping online, nothing is local because it’s online. So, if you’re going to a physical space, you want to feel that you are somewhere specific and that they understand what you as the customer are looking for.
Bob: Now, you also do hospitality as well. So, is that the same when you’re thinking of hotels? Are there more restrictions put on that type of a design because we have to get so many people into a lobby, and we have to make way for many more moving parts, or is it still the same idea you still approach it with the comfort level of someone being in this space?
Helen: Well, I think both. Retail has moved closer to hospitality and hospitality has moved closer to retail spaces, and also, as they incorporate restaurant lounge spaces in their lobbies. So I think the fundamentals are the same that you come in and someone who walks in your door, what are they trying to do? And how do you make that a seamless experience for them? If they’re coming into your hotel or to your restaurant, they need to check in with someone. How do you make the customer journey easy for them, rather than making them go on some circuitous route that, “Hey, maybe you ran them by the store and isn’t that great,” but by the time they get to the check-in desk, they’re frustrated and unhappy?
Bob: Yes. Having gone to many hotels in my life, I just, where is the check-in? Oh, it’s up two flights and down and you look around it’s like, why?
Helen: I know. Yes. After you get on a flight and you’re exhausted, all you want to do is solve your one problem which is getting your hotel room.
Bob: Yes. I think the Intercontinental in LA... I can drop names, you can, but at the Intercontinental Los Angeles, the Wilshire Grand, one of my favorite beautiful properties, you have to take an elevator 73 stories up, get to the lobby, go back down to your room on 35, which doesn’t sound like a big deal, except if you want to just go get a coffee, you have to go all the way back up the lobby. And you’re like, “Okay, I get that might have been security, but did you think that people are going to want to book you as a convention hotel if I have to go through that many steps?” And that’s a big flaw, I couldn’t believe it and I was like...
Helen: It’s a challenge. It’s a challenge. And I do think that when I mentioned that we love to be brought in earlier because we try to look at things both from the customer’s perspective and then also the staff that’s in the space because if it’s frustrating for the staff that’s in the space, and it’s not designed for them as well, they will share that with the customer. Their thoughts, their attitude, all of that.
Bob: And I say that retail exists to make people feel they matter because people who feel they matter buy more, and nothing says you don’t matter more than frustration.
Helen: Sure. Sure.
Bob: So, I’m going to take a little sideline for you right now. So your best friend has just called you up and said, “Helen, I have the greatest idea. I’m going to open my own store.”
Bob: It might have happened before.
Helen: Yes, perhaps.
Bob: So, you have a checklist of let’s say, you don’t want to pour water on it, right? You don’t want to say like, “Well, how are you going to make money? What are the numbers?” But let’s say you start designing, you say, “All right, you got a 4x4, 1,200 square feet.” Pretty standard rectangle. What would be some of the questions you might ask your friend, him or her, or are things that started them to see what you see in that space?
Helen: My first question is always, what does success look like for this store? So, fast forward two years, what is the store? Is it a community gathering space? Is it a place where you turn product so quickly, customers come in and out, and the cash register is ringing the entire time? What do you want from this space and what’s the end game for the space? And then I think right now, you would ask, “How many of your customers will be coming in to try things on? Where do they need to test things? What does your customer care about, and let’s design the store around what they care about, and then we can drive those towards your end goal of success.”
Bob: And I can guarantee if I was ready to open my store, and I was your friend, I would say, “I haven’t thought about any of that.” Because that’s a very sophisticated and so helpful way to look at store design, that end design in two years and understanding it’s not just a box. And if it was you’re carrying $1,000 purses, that’s a different way of merchandising, that’s a different customer you’ve got. It has to say exclusive, it has to say X, and that’s all going to play out in, I would assume you also do fixturing as well, correct?
Helen: We do. We do.
Bob: All of that, that wraps up and yet I think people don’t realize that you can make some really great choices, right? So, what’s the secret to creating a great space in 2022 do you think?
Helen: Well, I think that testing things, and talking with customers and the users of the space and really understanding your customer and not making assumptions about them. If your customer wants value, you should design a space where they walk in and they feel like “I’m getting a good value here.”
Bob: Wait, stop. How would that look? Do you look like Walmart? Is it a dollar store?
Helen: Well, I think we can all agree that there’s value and then there’s just this looks cheap and uncared for. And there’s a big difference. I think, especially in our Covid, post-Covid world, customers want to come in and they want to feel like it is clean and organized, and they need that perception, but there’s if you are a value retailer, then don’t put in higher-end finishes because they looked good in the store design deck. You need to think about, “What does my customer need?” They want to come in, and know that they have great selection, and that they know that the floors are clean, and the lighting is good, and I walked out of here and I felt like I didn’t pay for brass door handles throughout the whole store.
Bob: You just remind me of a friend of mine. She worked for Disney, and she was in charge of... well, still works with Disney, but I remember the day she went to Euro Disney, and she just looked around and she was like, “We would never get away with these finishes.” Because it was all bespoke craftsmen, right, with brass and all these things. You would never put in a California park because like way too much upkeep. And I said, “Who looks at things like that?” She goes, “Well that’s what we look at all the time because it’s not how pretty it lives. It’s how does it live out in the wild?” Right? It’s that same idea.
Helen: And I think that that is a key part of store design that often gets ignored is the store looks great, store open, it’s beautiful. And 6 months, 12 months down the road, it already looks worn and soiled and disheveled and all of that. And that doesn’t play well with the brand, especially for retailers that are in the luxury space, hospitality space. All of those things you have to think, “Okay, this looks great when we take the photos for the PR blast, but how does it look when people start to actually use it?”
Bob: Yes. Back in the ‘80s I had another friend who was in store design, and they had come up with, it was like a Footlocker or something like that. And they came up with all these great ideas like there’d be a highlighted waterfall, and they had these gobos that came down, and this music was playing. She’s so excited to see it after six months, goes in, the rack has been moved, the music is off, and she’s like, “What happened?” “Oh, we got bored with it. We just moved it.” So is that part of the discussion? Who owns the space plan? And with retail turnover right now, right, you’ve got managers who may just be given an app and say, “Just follow what it says” or any thoughts on that?
Helen: Plenty of thoughts, actually. I think two points. One is bringing digital into a space. I think your point about cameras and moving parts and all those pieces, they better work because if they don’t, then they are now a negative in the design. They also need to be something that the store team can maintain or they will turn them off because they are annoying, or they’re always glitching and customers are complaining. So I do think that any sort of technology you have in a store needs to be purposeful. It might be to show a runway show or it might be to help with accessing product that they are not able to have in their store. Those things are helpful to the customer.
I think it for as long as I’ve been in retail, there’s been here you can push all these buttons, and then somebody brings something to your fitting room. Honestly, I’ve never seen that run longer than a few months very successfully. So, I think that the gimmicks need to be thought out, and how will this be maintained in the future by the store team after the corporate staff goes back home?
Bob: I love that. I was reading about Gen Z, and they said, “You can’t wow them with technology.” But in my age, you know I’m 64. So, right, well, they have a digital mirror and they have all this other stuff, and it’s like, “Well, who cares?” We’ve all walked into those stores and I know plenty of them in SoHo I’d walk in, and the iPads just have a sad Mac or they’re black, and you’re just thinking, “Does anyone else see this?” How this doesn’t look good because it says either, they are so detached from what it looks like, or they don’t care. I don’t think there’s a third good option.
Helen: No, no. The technology should work and it should be helpful to a majority of your customers. And it should be easy for the store staff to keep it that way.
Bob: I think that’s important. Now I’m going to switch over. In your bio, it says you got going developing country clubs. Now that had to be a woman in a men’s world, I would think. So what was that like?
Helen: Well, the projects were amazing because you were on a golf course and the spaces were lovely. It’s everyone’s home away from home. So, that is wonderful. Sitting in a room with a bunch of men who view this project that you are designing as their home away from home could have its challenges. And also country clubs, they’ve evolved over the years, but definitely more man’s world than a woman’s world. And then also being an architect, I was often the only woman at the table. But fabulous, wonderful clients. There were some hiccups along the way, but for the most part, really great projects and experience.
Bob: So, are there a lot of women getting into architecture? Is it a growing field? I agree with you. I think we need more people doing more things. And we just need to look like America and more people just need to have another voice and please, don’t be afraid we all want to get better. I want to get to that Star Trek world. And I think part of that is making opportunities for women to have us understand that, “Yes, this is what I bring to the table,” and there’s something different about that. How does that play out in the real world?
Helen: Well, I do think there are more women coming out of university's architecture programs today. Even my class a few years ago, plus, it was one-third women. So, it wasn’t a small percentage. I do think you do need the perspective of a variety of people in order to make a wonderful space. If it’s all designed by people with similar backgrounds, similar sensibilities, so you’ve aced it for one group of the population but maybe missed the boat on others.
Bob: Nice, nice. So you are working on the first location of a clicks-to-bricks location. What are the new requirements in something like that?
Helen: Well, new requirements when it’s brand new, and it has not been tested, other than a very successful online brand, would be to make sure that you’re setting the parameters of what you want to accomplish in your physical store that you cannot do in your online store. So, that is, how do you walk your customers in, how do you provide the path through the store for what your customer is coming to do?
Bob: And keeping it within that digital brand, which has got to be very different, because the path to purchase is so different. I say this a lot in my speeches, “We go online to buy, we go into a store to discover.” That’s the reason you go into a store. So, if I want my HP 64 cartridge, I’m probably going to order that, I don’t have to go down to Staples. But if I go into Staples, you’re an idiot to think that all I want is that HP 64. I want to look around, but what I look at has to be designed by you, right? You have to say, “They need more space here. This has to do X.” There seems to be a big thing now put a rock-climbing wall or a basketball court in a retail store and we’re experiential. But doesn’t experiential go beyond that kind of an obvious addition?
Helen: Well, I think that there was a trend several years ago with the, I’m coming in to test the bike, test the rain jacket, where I go into the area where water is dumped on me and things like that. I think the experiential has sort of evolved. And now it’s, “I want to buy this sweater, but it’s some unique blend of fabrics. I want to touch it, I want to make sure that it doesn’t edge, and feels good, and all of that. So, I think it’s experiential, but with the goal of purchasing something, rather than coming in and experiencing something for the sake of experiencing it.
Bob: Kind of like the difference you’re saying at the beginning between the store as billboard buzz versus, I think, let’s face it, we saw an awful lot of flagship retail stores leaving Manhattan and other places before the pandemic saying, “We’re out, it doesn’t make sense. I’m on the other side.” I always think a landmark store always, you go to a Starbucks roastery, for example, or the new Lululemon in Chicago, and you know this is something... It’s a real mark in the world that says, “Yes, this is all of us.” Do you think that trend will come back or is there more of a push that the stores have got to perform, to your point, that we have to sell this, we can’t just say how pretty we are?
Helen: Right. I do think that there are two avenues. And I think retailers need to be honest with themselves about what the purpose of a specific store is. Yes, a big flagship store, and with the climbing wall and I actually worked on that original REI store way, way, way, way back. That is significant. You view it from the freeway, it is a billboard, it sells that brand, it’s important. Does the square footage and the cost to build that justify it in a store in Short Hills, New Jersey? Maybe not. So, then what is the point of that store and that’s back to that localization, is what does this particular location need to do for our brand?
Bob: Which is very different, because I think cookie-cutter got that term from the malls in the ‘80s. You’d have Limited, come out and they’d be all their brands right down the wing, and they all kind of look the same. And I get how you get there because you’re like, “Well, if someone can work in Victoria’s Secret, and they were short over Express, they could just go over there, Bed & Bath, I get how that can work, but that cookie-cutter idea seems to be, man, I don’t know if it was Starbucks, I don’t know who probably made the biggest... Originally, Starbucks had to have the glass globe in all of their coffee houses. That was the key thing about Starbucks that it was the herald back to the original Pike’s place, and we’re all about glass. Well, that’s kind of gone by the wayside, too. And you’ve been gracious for your time. I only have just a little bit more. But I’m curious, is it important to have design cues through an entire store like that, or does anyone but us notice these things?
Helen: That is such a good question. I do think that a lot of store design, we design for each other. And we design and everybody, it’s the hot store, and there’s a great story. I think it’s always worth asking the customer, “Did you notice this? Does it matter to you? Do you care?” Using the Starbucks example, I’m originally from Seattle. I used to get coffee on my way to work at the first Starbucks. So, that may mean something to me, but if I started going to Starbucks in Dallas, Texas, and then that design element continued on, it may mean nothing. It may just get in the way of the current customer experience, and the current customer journey, and how the store design looks. It could just look like something that’s a holdover from another time.
Bob: Well, listen, you did a major makeover of a store in Manhattan that I was very aware of - Tourneau. And I remember, they had been so proud of the design when I went in there before you were there. And they had this new kind of dark brown wall where all the watches were. I was underwhelmed by it, but it was a store design and you took three years to transform that into a truly magical space. That’s why we’re talking today because in the pictures I just said, “That can’t be the same store.” So can you tell me what, A, took so long, and then how did you invigorate such an iconic retailer?
Helen: Well, Tourneau is known across the world, but it also, in the middle of it, which may or may not have added to some of the time it was purchased by Bucherer. So, it’s now branded Bucherer. So, it looks different, although you’re right, it’s the same kind of core inside. It was a transformation on the three levels, right on 57th Street. And the key there was to create something that there are sub-brands, subspaces within the store that create that hospitality, the home. There is a bar on every floor. You walk in, there’s a coffee bar, downstairs, there’s a whiskey bar, you can get champagne, there are couches, there are tables. I think everybody has their favorite room in that store because they all look so different, but you can see yourself there and you can say, “Yes, I want this to be my life and I love this brand because I see part of what I love here in the store.”
Bob: I wish I could tell you how it looks, listeners, but it’s so light. I think the colors you chose and the intimacy and so unlike, it still seems people are wed to the old, we’re going to have a row of counters, employees are going to sit behind their little scrunchie keys, and they’re going to wait for someone and it’s like, when you see it, it was just so fresh and yet, it feels like it’s always been like that. Does that make sense?
Helen: It does. It doesn’t seem like it was dropped from outer space. It’s a gracious space. You walk in, you feel good, the staff feels good. There’s beautiful art. The staircase, you feel like it’s a delight even to walk up the stairs with the video screens and the light when you come around the corner, the light fixtures, all of that just creates an environment where you want to spend some time and watches, jewelry, most people spend a little time before they purchase and we wanted to give them a space where they felt comfortable doing that.
Bob: I think it’s a home run, it’s up there I’m waiting to see when Tiffany opens their new flagship because what they did in - I was like, man, it’s exciting. And I encourage everyone who is listening to go to Manhattan. If you want to see what’s new in retail, you certainly want to go through it, you certainly have to check out 57th Street, check out this beautiful transformation. And just to finish, Helen, the name of the podcast is “Tell Me Something Good About Retail.” So, please do. Tell me something good about retail.
Helen: Well, I think the pandemic there was such concern that retail is over. Nobody is ever going to go shopping again. I think it has created so much opportunity. I love stories every day of stores that were agile and they read their customers, they asked their customers what they wanted, and they created something, and we’re seeing great growth, and unique designs, and great energy and passion that actually, I think the pandemic jumpstarted that. Bob: I would agree. And I just have to reiterate, that I love your focus... You must have said it three or four times, it’s not going to be today how listening to the employees to feel good about working in this space. So often missed, and probably why you’re such a success. So, I really appreciate you joining us today and unwrapping how great store design has an awful lot of moving parts and yet you make it look so easy for all of us. So thanks for joining me today.
Helen: Well, thank you for having me. It was my pleasure.
Originally published: The Retail Doctor