After years of under-appreciation, interior retail designers are finally stepping into the spotlight (with the proper back and accent lighting, naturally). Companies are turning to these aesthetic architects to create a total shopping experience for their customers, in an effort to make their places of business destinations, not just places to shop.

Many experts predicted that the click of e-commerce sounded the death knell for brick-and-mortar business. Not so according to Emily Lumpkin, professional shopper and consultant to NCR's Power Shopping program. “The Web simply doesn't offer the tactile experience shoppers like. The dot.com meltdown served to highlight the virtues of the traditional store, where you can see and touch the merchandise.”

The new millennium presents a diversity of requirements to replace the more basic needs of the 20th Century. Retailers are developing more sophisticated store image strategies that run the gamut from quaint and unique lifestyle centers to large monolithic shopping universes. “When a shopping center theme is developed, enough flexibility should be built-in so that the overall theme of the center is maintained, without compromising the customer's recognition of the stores' branded identities.” says Craig Hale, Associate Principal Retail Program Director for Carter & Burgess, Inc.

This special feature profiles some of the leaders in the field of retail design. Designers reveal some of their tricks of the trade, and give us a glimpse into the dynamic and ever-evolving future of our shopping centers.

Going Outside the Lines

Retail interior designers discuss how their firms work to generate income by offering improved expertise and execution, with a new emphasis on client collaboration.

Shopping Center World recently conducted a Virtual Roundtable with five acknowledged leaders in the world of retail design. The discussion focused on the current and future state of the retail climate, and how design firms are rising to meet today's retail design challenges. “Comfort, convenience, emotion, and humanism are some of the new objectives in retail design,” says roundtable participant Richard Foy, Co-Chairman of Boulder, Colorado-based CommArts, “Retail centers have found this approach is increasing dwell time, visitations and customer loyalty.” Our panel agreed that an ongoing client/designer dialog is more critical than ever in today's recession-driven, competitive climate. According to Bruce Barteldt Jr., National Retail Studio Principal of Charlotte, North Carolina-based Little, “If the merchant has a clear understanding of who they are - and more importantly, who their customer is, then it better show in the design.”

What follows is an edited transcript.

SCW: In this period of sluggish sales for retailers, what part does retail design play in getting customers back in the stores?

Ceretti: Retail Design has always played a major role in distinguishing one retailer from another. Those retailers who acknowledge this are faring better than those who didn't put enough credibility on the value of good design.

Barteldt: Design can play a significant part in getting customers back in the stores, but getting customers back in the stores is only good if they are going to buy something. This concept is evidenced by the fact that only some retailers are experiencing sluggish sales. Although this relative to the recent recession period, those who know their customer - and demand that their designers can translate that understanding - are doing just fine.

Cowan & Associates (Peter McIntosh and Thomas Morbitzer chose to speak as a firm): Retail design needs to contribute to the overall “good” shopping experience for the customer. This is done by making it apparent that the store is easy to navigate, well lit, well merchandised and signed, and that the overall feel is relaxing, inspiring and clean.

Foy: Design alone does not drive customers. However, in a competitive climate and when all other variables are equal such as price, selection, service, and location, design can be a major point of difference. Design can drastically tip the scale in favor of a store, project or concept. We have increased sales five hundred and seventy percent in a Mercedes Benz repositioning and make over program. In a sluggish economy when price rules, Wal-Mart is investing in better design to broaden their market and strengthen their competitive edge.

SCW: Many experts say the mall experience has become a stale format. What is being done in retail design to reinvent and revitalize this integral part of the American shopping experience?

Foy: The covered mall is an artifact of the fifties when air-conditioning was a big event, refrigerators were an affordable luxury, modern design a novelty, and the car culture and vast parking lots were status. The design pendulum is now in full swing back to shopping villages, urban town centers and main street retail configurations. Fostering a sense of community vs. cultural isolation, reflective of its place vs. a sterile box, and mixed-uses vs. one-use has become a better way to integrate a center with its community and marketplace.

Barteldt: The mall of the mid-70s is a stale format. The consumer is driven by and demands freshness. Those developers who innovate continue to attract the world's best tenants and ultimately, the consumer. That said, I believe our culture has evolved in some ways beyond the ‘50's suburban model (drive in car, park in asphalt ocean, enter air-conditioned world-let) and are thinking about “pedestrian retail,” “neighborhood/town center retail” and the like. Combining a smaller anchor-based enclosed mall with an outdoor, walkable “folded-strip” is a thoughtful attempt to supply the best of both.

Cowan & Associates: The key factor is customer relationship marketing, both by the mall developer and the retailer. Knowing the regional market and designing to their “language” so to speak, is critical to building interest, keeping interest and creating an enjoyable shopping experience. The entertainment-retailing era of the 90s taught designers, retailers and developers alike some good lessons. The message needs to mean something more than “isn't that neat.” There needs to be more of an attempt to connect on an emotional level with the patron. Take for example Flatiron Crossing Mall in Broomfield Colorado, a very health conscious and outdoorsy market near the foothills between Boulder & Denver. Careful planning and a concerted effort to communicate environmental friendliness through outdoor seating areas, green space and day-lighting brought into the mall through skylights and clearstory windows speaks directly to that market's customer and creates a more enjoyable experience for that region's shopper.

SCW: Why the sudden emphasis on “turn-key” bundled services?

Foy: For starters, clients want faster, cheaper solutions. T Clients often prefer to deal with one source that can manage the whole process and deliver the desired results.

Ceretti: Single source of responsibility. As more brands are taking control of their own destiny, and designing their own stores, for their product and their product only, there is a need to put together a team that shares the vision of the brand.

Cowan & Associates: First and foremost is the retailer's identification of a need for a better overall performance based design & implementation process. More efficient and effective delivery of the entire project is desired and required by the retailer. The second is flexibility issues with the store design in relation to expansion initiatives. Customer demographics and buyer behavior drive the store's brand image, but consumer attitudes that drive trends change so quick that it becomes quite costly for retailers to attempt to keep up with this in relation to store design. And, the third is the competitive nature of the retail design industry. Traditionally in retail, designers created and architects produced. Today, the strict distinction between the creative and production-oriented disciplines has deteriorated. All these factors together are driving changes to the traditional design process.

Barteldt: The industry has actually been going in this direction for some time. Perhaps it seems sudden due to reaching critical mass. My belief is that there are economies of scale and clarity of accountability that make bundling of services attractive for both the owner and the service provider/contractor/vendor.

Carter & Burgess

Carter & Burgess combines interior and exterior architectural design with environmental graphics for clients to create projects that have a life — and energy — of their own.

“Our approach is to provide a total sense of place for the customer — from the design of the building through the interior, all the way down to the signage and graphics that engage the customer and create an identity,” states David Moore, national director of retail design for Carter & Burgess.

“It is essential that the graphics be programmed into the project,” says Trent Fleming, director of environmental graphics for Carter & Burgess. “Light, shapes, text and architecture all interact and create a dialog, and when done properly, create an emotional memory and attachment for the end-user.”

One such project Carter & Burgess is currently providing architectural and environmental graphic design for that reflects this approach is Lynnhaven Mall, a project of Simon Property Group and Clarion Partners, in Virginia Beach, Va. Carter & Burgess designed a new image, color program, and wayfinding system for the renovation of the mall. A graphic system based upon life in the ocean, on the beach, and in the sky was created for use visually throughout the project and in mall advertising and marketing materials.

“The identity program, first developed for the exterior of the center, is currently being weaved into the interior and exterior renovations of the two level entry mall, food court and the cinema plaza,” says Sharon Harris, director of retail design in Carter & Burgess' Baltimore office. “Color, lighting, amenity selection and signage program, all influenced by the logo and icon identity, become the design elements of the renovation and expansion.”

The key to Carter & Burgess' environmental graphics approach is research and perspective. “We always go into a project and look at it from the end-user's perspective,” says Fleming. “How will the customers interact with this environment? What is the history of the immediate region, the culture or the geography? What does the architecture want to say? These are all factors in our approach to creating a design that will grow into something different, new and unique.”

Armed with this approach, a seemingly typical big-box store can be transformed into a dynamic environment. Jordan's Furniture in Natick, Massachusetts, for example, has taken the shopping environment for furniture retailing and completely reinvented the approach to selling furniture. The retailer's 120,000-sq.-ft. store is like an amusement park for furniture shopping. A central thoroughfare is reminiscent of New Orleans' famous Bourbon Street, with various rooms displaying furniture off of that thoroughfare, with theatrical lighting.

Carter & Burgess has been hired to take this dynamic setting to even greater extremes by adding an IMAX theatre. “Customers will have to travel through the store to reach the theater, following a route that showcases the merchandise. The whole store becomes an entertainment draw with merchandise taking center stage,” Moore says.

Moore predicts that theming and architecture will continue to evolve together as retail clients look for more ways to inject theming into every aspect of the project. “The most powerful thing a retailer or shopping center developer can do is create a sense of place for the customer,” Moore says. “Every element that the customer sees, hears and touches contributes to the sensory experience and creates a lasting impression that will inspire customers to revisit again and again.”

CommArts

CommArts connects people, places, cultures and markets by weaving project stories that entice people's curiosity and invite their participation.

CommArts is a full service, multi-disciplinary firm that applies design as a strategic service in shaping the client's vision, differentiating a project or product, and attracting patronage to increase the client's market share. Services offered include identity and branding, environmental graphics and placemaking within retail, urban, resort, sports and hospitality environments.

Principals Henry Beer and Richard Foy, both former employees of The Office of Charles Eames, founded the Boulder, Colorado firm in 1973. Managing Partner Janet Martin joined the firm in 1977. Today the staff is comprised of 50 full-time employees, with backgrounds and education in environmental graphics, print graphics, architecture and interior design. The office is located at 1112 Pearl Street, Boulder, Colorado.

CommArts is typically responsible for the development of overall project character as well as planning and retail for retail environments, urban and mixed-use projects. Project successes include Diagonal Mar in Barcelona; Staples Center in Los Angeles; Park Meadows Mall, Denver; JFK International Airport - Terminal 4; Bugis Junction, Singapore; the Downtown Boulder Mall, Prudential Center, Boston, and Madison Square Garden, New York City. As a firm working in many cities, careful attention is paid to the distinguishing characteristics that make each market unique.

CommArts' projects have been recognized with awards from the Urban Land Institute, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, American Planning Association and the International Council of Shopping Centers.

The firm's identity and marketing programs have been honored by the New York Art Directors and The Art Directors Clubs of Denver, Houston and Los Angeles and have been published in Print, Graphis, Architectural Record, Contract and Communication Arts magazines.

Design philosophy

Design at its best brings about a sense of underlying coherence, a rightness that accommodates delights, or even surprises. We may not be aware of these responses, but our lives become easier, and a bit richer.

Design requires a broad grasp of social, economic, and behavioral issues and the innate recognition of the impact of these forces. Powerful design incorporates, recognizes, and acknowledges the context and culture it serves.

Effective design requires a broad range of technical skills and a high level of aesthetic acuity. Together, they create a harmonious fusion of form, function and purpose.

CommArts has a 28-year history of adherence to these fundamental principles. We recognize that the exceptional client is our partner. Design becomes a way of understanding and exploring shared values that are then realized in the final product. Great work is only made possible with the involvement of great clients.

Cowan & Associates

Cowan & Associates Inc. is a nationally ranked muti-disciplined architecture, planning and design firm that focuses on the retail environment.

The realities affecting retailers at store level exemplify the role design firms should play for clients. In today's retail environment, flexibility, diversity, service, a consistent message and a long-term strategy are imperative to gaining market share. The same holds true for design firms. “In any business, the customer's needs must come first,” says Peter McIntosh, marketing director at Cowan & Associates. “Cowan's ability to provide clients effective design & brand positioning, detailed construction documentation and construction administration in one well managed & cost effective package is a large part of our history & success.” This is especially important in retail given a diverse customer base, short project schedules and tight budgets.

“Today's design trend is ‘turn-key’ operations,” says Louis H. Cowan, a registered architect and principal of Cowan & Associates. McIntosh adds, “Retail design is a competitive field, and many firms depend heavily on industry perception to compete.” Basically, meeting customer expectations means actually realizing the perceived value, and simple survival for any business is customer retention. “Delivering on expectations has helped to grow and solidify our long-term working relationships. Cowan & Associates' ability to effectively integrate services offers better business for all parties,” explains McIntosh.

“Some firms promote separation between creative and production disciplines because the organization is structured only for design, but this separation can hinder the retailer's efforts,” says Thomas Morbitzer, design director for Cowan & Associates with over 18 years in the industry. Addressing realities of construction during the creative process minimizes budget overages, schedule delays and unnecessary problems. “Effective integration of professional and creative disciplines allows for a greater level of teamwork leading to greater project success,” continues Morbitzer. “As a consultant whose success is built on our client's success, we have an obligation to effectively manage projects, personnel and resources; integration provides our clients greater value.”

For some firms, integrating disciplines means merger, acquisition or strategic alliance. Cowan & Associates hedges against these options because of the management inefficiencies and the associated costs they pass along to clients. “We benefit our clients by remaining a diversified mid-sized firm structured to deliver high-quality work more effectively than larger, multi-office or strategically aligned competitors,” notes Cowan. “Project efficiency is always our goal, and as such we are very adept at assisting retailers meet their goals.”

The store concept is only the tip of the iceberg. “Long-term strategies are what create successful brands, and this requires commitment to the changing demographics of customers, geography and society,” says McIntosh. This reality mixed with differences in real estate, landlord and jurisdictional code requirements demand evolution of the store environment. The ability to create a consistent image, design flexibility into a long-term strategy and effectively adapt to site-specific parameters is collectively the retailer's biggest design challenge.

Cowan & Associates (Worthington, OH) is a nationally ranking retail architecture, design and project management group specializing in design, planning and rollout for retail stores & restaurants and commercial retail development projects since 1984.

Little

Little's award-winning designs focus on clear-cut business results that consistently produce higher sales per square foot and increased customer loyalty.

Let's face it. Consumers fuel two-thirds of the nation's gross domestic product. They eat at our restaurants. They shop at our stores. “Essentially, they are our ultimate client,” said Little's National Retail Studio Principal Bruce Barteldt, Jr., AIA.

With that in mind, Little's Retail Practice revolves its service offerings around the needs of its client, but more importantly — the needs of its client's customer. For over a decade, Little's Retail Practice has been designing retail space that garners exceptional client service and better business performance resulting from excellent design. From its origins of designing mostly neighborhood shopping centers, to its international reputation in Food Service and growing national reputation in Roll-out — the progression of Little's Retail Practice is steadfast and top-notch.

A combination of business acumen, design creativity, technology, and the corresponding network of service centers makes Little's Retail Practice capable of encompassing disciplines like strategic planning, environmental graphics and urban mixed-use into its many areas of expertise. “Diversifying our service offering to include even more client value has been a priority for Little,” said Barteldt. “Having a competitive edge in this industry is about providing a measurable return on design investment.”

Little's award-winning designs focus on clear-cut business results — measured best by how well the retail environment performs. From providing design techniques that have proven higher sales per sq. ft. and increased customer loyalty, to consultations with clients seeking to completely reinvent themselves — Little's services run the gamut.

In fact, when Little was commissioned to design Firebirds Rocky Mountain Grill in Charlotte, North Carolina — it embraced the opportunity to put its service offerings to the test. Not only did Little design the interior and exterior of the building — complete with clerestory windows, three dining areas arranged to form an amphitheater and an exposed kitchen highlighting wood burning grills, ovens and rotisseries — but the company also created the entire theme of the restaurant. The “Aspen Lodge” look and feel gave the suburban South a taste of the Colorado Rockies. Little's Retail Practice also designed the nationally acclaimed shopping center and exterior site development where Firebirds is located. “This project is representative of our work because it combines so many of the services we have to offer,” said Bartlett.

The Retail Practice at Little serves as a partner through the entire lifecycle of a retailer's business. While many firms offer design or execution — Little differentiates itself by providing both the design and the follow through. “We're not simply an architectural firm commissioned to create a punchy design for a store,” said Barteldt. “At Little, our cycle of services never end — we're here for the long-haul.”

Headquartered in Charlotte, NC, Little is one of the nation's largest diversified architectural consulting firms with offices in Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, Orlando, Philadelphia, Research Triangle Park, NC, Silver Spring, MD and Washington D.C. Founded in 1964, the company specializes in six industry sectors: Office, Community and Education, Financial, Retail, Facilities Management and Interior Architecture, and offers a complete range of services, including Architecture, Engineering, Interior Architecture, Land Development, Graphic Design, Facility Management, Technology and Virtual Environments.

Roundtable Participants

  • Justin Dunne — Moderator, Special Projects Editor, Shopping Center World, Atlanta, Georgia
  • Bruce Barteldt Jr. — National Retail Studio Principal, Little, Charlotte, North Carolina
  • Robert Ceretti — Principal-in-Charge, R. Ceretti + Associates, New York City
  • Richard Foy — Co-Chairman, Communication Arts Inc., Boulder, Colorado
  • Peter C. McIntosh — Marketing Director, Cowan & Associates, Worthington, Ohio
  • Thomas M. Morbitzer — Design Director, Cowan & Associates

Table of Contents

  • R4: Retail Design Roundtable
    Industry leaders give their opinions on today's hot topics.
  • R9: Carter & Burgess
    A recognized leader in retail design.
  • R10: Communication Arts
    World-renowned for their engaging designs.
  • R11: Cowan & Associates
    Original concepts are this firm's hallmark.
  • R12: Little
    A firm known for fresh, stimulating designs.

Ad Index

  • R5: Carter & Burgess
  • R7: Communication Arts
  • R9: Cowan & Associates
  • R11: Little