The “crowded house” mentality of retail design is a thing of the past. Moving forward, retailers want to offer environments that are less distracting for consumers. As a result, say leading designers, “streamlined,” “tidy” and “uncomplicated” are among the buzzwords that will define design in coming years. “Some of the largest design issues are centered on simplicity and clarity,” says Bob Welty, vice president and creative director at Chute Gerdeman, the Columbus, Ohio-based retail design, planning and branding firm.

Even before Sept. 11, consumers in all segments of retail felt somewhat overwhelmed by various burdens — from tough economic pressures to busy schedules to information overload. In response to these increasingly stressed-out shoppers, many retailers now want to simplify their business models from top to bottom. They're changing product mixes, marketing strategies, store layouts — anything to reduce clutter and clarify the message. “I think the issue is not about less inventory, but about simplifying the story retailers are trying to tell,” Welty says. “The customer can only comprehend so much. And if retailers want a product to come through, then they need to scale back.”

For starters, Welty advises retailers to reduce the amount of merchandise in displays and to use more white space as a rest for the eye. Wider aisles, better site lines and more flexible fixtures are all givens.

Get in, get out and get it over with

If consumers want their lives to be less complicated, it follows that they also want shopping to be easy and satisfying. Making that possible should be high on any retailer's list of priorities, says Jan Tribbey, a vice president at FRCH Design Worldwide, the Cincinnati-based planning, design, branding and architecture firm. But making fundamental changes to an established strategy can be an extremely tough challenge, notes Mike Crosson, CEO of JGA Inc., the Southfield, Mich.-based design, planning and branding consultancy. Simplify too much, Crosson explains, and you risk making consumers think your stores have a narrow selection.

But in the highly competitive retail industry, change is constant. Even Wal-Mart tinkers with its unquestionably successful approach to merchandising. During a recent walkthrough of a Wal-Mart store, for example, Tony Camilletti, a senior vice president at JGA, learned that Wal-Mart managers have autonomy in selecting and presenting merchandise based on the demographic mix in their communities. That's commendable, Camilletti says. But at the same time, the store he visited had problems — the place was visually confusing, cluttered with handwritten signs and overloaded fixtures. “We were standing in one of the world's largest, most successful stores and it didn't feel easy or simple,” Camilletti says.

Some see Wal-Mart's bottom-up approach as a smart way to get back to the entrepreneurial spirit. According to Crosson, a growing number of retailers are working to maintain their identities by being more in touch with local communities. After all, he says, being in tune with their customers is what helped them become successful in the first place.

The key is striking a balance. If letting stores become messy and chaotic is a problem, so is failing to give them enough latitude. Chains that force their stores to follow overly rigid brand guidance programs could lose touch with local shoppers. “Over the next three to five years, we're going to see companies sorting through how to give brand guidance,” Crosson predicts.

Value rules

Tighter budgets for retailers often means “free” design work from consultants. At least that's the impression at the moment. The practice is a familiar one to both parties, but one that has escalated since 9/11: A retailer needs a new prototype and short lists firms to compete for the job. Firms are asked to supply detailed concepts that usually involve little to no remuneration.

“When times are tough retailers ask for ‘free’ work, and when firms need the work they often throw resources at it,” Welty says. The problem, he explains, “is the practice undermines the (design) process because it's not our full process of working with a client.”

No two projects are alike, Welty explains, “We begin at ground zero by looking at a client's brand positioning and go from there.” The amount of time and expense that goes into the kind of work is rarely fully recouped, firms note, and there is little control over what happens next to the work. When a competing firms wins the full commission, there is a chance of reimbursement. If not, it's another cost of doing business that must be made up elsewhere.

Additionally, firms face other challenges to their viability says Mike Crosson, CEO of JGA, who sees the number of retail consolidations as an equally large threat. The challenge? Fewer potential clients who are able to leverage their position as a buyer of design service thereby driving price and creative solutions.

As a result, some retailers are asking for quick-and-easy visual enhancements, says Denny Gerdeman, co-founder and principal of Chute Gerdeman. They might want an updated paint job, high-impact graphics or a newly designed fixture package, rather than an expensive ground-up redesign.

Meanwhile, says Jim Lazzari, senior VP and partner at Cincinnati-based FRCH Design Worldwide, retailers are under more pressure than ever to get their stores designed and built on schedule. That translates into finding efficiencies everywhere, Lazzari says. Those efficiencies could include more basic finishes specified for metal fixtures, or plastic laminates to replace woods in certain retail spaces and applications.

Although stores and the teams that design them are under pressure to work smarter, the common denominator driving this spare approach to design is an evolving notion of customer service — one based on subtlety. It could be the subtlety of suggesting where to find an item in the store through well-placed graphics, a wayfinding system or other silent sales techniques. “That goes for the employee at the front door who is maybe not too pushy,” says Welty, “but is in a nice way helping you find what you're looking for.”

Janet Groeber is a Cincinnati-based writer.

SIDEBAR: "Clean, crisp...Keds"

Not many brands enjoy the clarity and sheer longevity of Keds sneakers, an American classic for close to a century. So when Lexington, Mass.-based Keds Corp. decided to open its own retail stores to promote the brand, it seemed natural to leverage that rich heritage.

At the same time, says Kevin Burke, Keds' vice president — general manager retail stores, the stores needed to be modern, bright and fun to appeal to Keds' target customers, 25- to 54-year-old women. “We wanted to celebrate our heritage, but also to very clearly express the epitome of the brand today: fresh, honest and spirited.”

Keds also wanted to showcase its entire line of shoes, not just the selected styles available in department stores. “Lots of people think of Keds as a white sneaker brand,” notes Burke. “Really we're so much more in terms of colors, styles and categories. Having our own retail stores allows us to present more of our product all under one roof.”

Keds looked to Columbus, Ohio-based Chute Gerdeman to translate the brand into an engaging store environment. “Our directive was to create something crisp, clean and fresh that would reflect their heritage, but be relevant for today's more sophisticated consumer,” explains Lee Peterson, Chute Gerdeman's executive vice president.

Chute Gerdeman had already worked successfully with Keds' parent company, Stride Rite, on an award-winning design for Stride Rite's retail stores. Stride Rite is currently rolling out the concept.

“With the Keds environment, we were looking to remind consumers that this is a fresh, fun brand, and to do that, we wanted everything to be simple and clear,” explains Peterson. Average store sizes of just 1,200 sq. ft. underscored the need for simplicity. So Chute Gerdeman opted for a transparent storefront, a minimal color palette and simple fixtures that don't detract attention from the product.

Throughout the store, elements that recall Keds' brand history are balanced with new twists. At the entrance, a white canvas awning and a vulcanized-rubber Keds logo (just like on the shoes) are reminders of the product's heritage. Metal-veneer etageres inside the glass storefront display product while providing a clear view to the back of the store, a “self-service” wall of Keds' basic styles.

The store's focal point is a semicircular, blue-upholstered seating area where Keds' customers can relax and try on shoes. Blond wood flooring and fixtures, nickel accents and colorful pendant lights add modern touches. And to tie the store environment into Keds' ongoing marketing campaign, nickel-framed lifestyle photos show the products and their users in an appealing light.

The first Keds store opened in June 2001 at Northpoint Mall in Alpharetta, Ga., followed by the Town Center at Cobb store in Kennesaw, Ga., the following month. Since then, Keds stores have opened at Pembroke Lakes Mall in Pembroke Pines, Fla.; Broward Mall in Plantation, Fla.; and Polaris Fashion Center, Columbus, Ohio.

With the prototypes in operation for less than a year, Burke says Keds is closely monitoring their performance. “So far they're all performing to plan,” he notes, “but we're in an evaluation mode right now.” But, he adds, Keds retail is a good candidate for rollout. “Because of the lifestyle Keds represents and the obtainable price points we offer, we believe this can be a significant-sized retail operation.”

Pat Matson Knapp is a Cincinnati-based writer.

SIDEBAR: On the Edge...

It's not unusual for skateboarders to ride through city streets sliding handrails while occasionally dodging the “Barney Fifes” that stand in the way of their good time — well, at least in the “no skating” zones. For the past few years, however, Van's Inc. has created a legal way for skaters to “ollie” and “nollie” to their hearts' content.

The Santa Fe Springs, Calif.-based shoemaker and retailer recently opened its eleventh Vans Skatepark, a combination retail store/skatepark where enthusiasts can not only buy clothing and equipment, but also scale vert ramps and grind handrails. For Vans' Generation Y target customers — 12- to 24-year-olds, mostly male — the park is a place to pursue the sport in a safe environment designed to simulate ideal street conditions.

“Skateboarding originated on city streets, so we try to create an authentically urban setting,” says Steve Ruth, executive vice president of Perkowitz + Ruth Architects, Vans' design partner for the skateparks.

“It's also a sport that's about pushing yourself to the edge, so the parks need to be exciting and challenging.” Barricades, ramps, stairs and street lamps create the metro mood, and world-class skatepark designers add the challenges.

Perkowitz + Ruth Architects coordinated the design and construction of seven store/parks, earning it recognition as Vans' 2001 “Consultant of the Year.”

There's no fixed prototype for the skateparks, which range from 30,000 sq. ft. to 50,000 sq. ft. “Every site is different, with various physical constraints and configurations,” says Percy Cheng, an associate leading the projects for the Long Beach, Calif.-based firm. “Our big challenge has been to take advantage of the unique characteristics of each.”

The 38,640-sq.-ft. store in Moorestown, N.J., for example, is basically an L-shaped plan with two entrances, one at the mall level and one through an adjacent food court. The park at the Marq*E Entertainment Center in Houston includes outdoor ramps. While most are on one level, some parks include mezzanines functioning as observation decks.

There are some common threads between the numerous parks. Rugged materials such as chain link fence, brick veneer and concrete lend a street-tough look and can withstand the punishment of skateboard traffic. In the retail store, sealed concrete floors, steel and exposed ceiling ductwork add to the urban/industrial theme.

Huge video monitors show the latest in extreme sports competitions (many sponsored by Vans) and promote the retailer's footwear, apparel and equipment lines. And Vans' red skateboard-shaped logo is everywhere — from packaging to tables and chairs.

The skateparks have not only been a big hit with boarders, they've been successful engines for retail sales, as well. Annual sales were $341.2 million in 2001, up from $277.3 million in 2000. Vans plans to open two more skateparks in 2002 and eight to 12 additional retail stores. This aggressive rollout will bring Vans' total number of stores to more than 160 and will ensure that it stays right where it wants to be — on the edge.

Pat Matson Knapp is a Cincinnati-based writer.