In these times, when consumers are described as people who want it all, the challenge to retailers is this: They must have it all.

Spelled out, that means providing a stimulating environment for customers through an inviting yet practical layout in which well-displayed merchandise is the focal point. And more than ever, there will be an emphasis on decor that enhances brands, lifestyle, comfort and entertainment.

Some customers may warm up to a cafe or a shopping environ as cozy as home, with softer lights and upholstered furniture. Others might respond to the stimulation of sharp contrasts: spotlights piercing the darkness; or metals and woods in avant-garde, attention-getting fixtures with a backdrop of rhythmically punctuated music.

Richard Foy, partner with Boulder, Colo.-based Communication Arts, credits his company with beginning the more residential design trend that is standard in the retail industry today. "In our Perimeter project, in Atlanta, we created a subtle reflection of consumer homes within the area. This residential formula is now standard in both malls and individual retail stores across the country."

Competition for consumer attention is at an all-time high. The retail world is calling on design specialists to help study customer bases, develop new images, or refine existing ones to draw customers away from their busy lives and into stores.

To be successful in today's market, retailers have to crank up the volume, says Lee Carpenter, president of Dayton, Ohio-based Design Forum. "Shoppers today have less time," he says. "You must attract them by turning it up." That means good layout, use of stronger colors - mostly warm hues - and total, 360-degree electronic capability.

While Carpenter predicts that in five years most consumers will be using websites for some facets of purchasing, he says this does not herald the demise of traditional store-based retailing. "We'll continue to go out and shop for food, clothing and equipment," he says.

Joseph Geoghegan of Robert G. Lyon & Associates Inc. describes the retail interior outlook this way: "We want to create the perfect level of interest in a space."

That may mean the addition of entertainment as well as e-commerce components, says the president of the Schiller Park, Ill.-based company. "Retailers must be ready to bridge all venues."

Another goal is to make the shopping experience a leisure activity, says Randy Sattler, director of visual marketing and retail planning at Robert G. Lyon. "We want people to shop for the fun of it."

Getting definition The task is more sophisticated than simply choosing the right blend of colors and textures in the store setting. Top architecture and design firms agree that brand development is critical to retailers that want to distinguish themselves in a competitive marketplace. As such, design professionals work closely with their clients to determine who customers are and how retailers can continue to attract their attention and loyalty. They strive to find the answer to this question: What is it about products and retail environments that brings people in and keeps them coming back?

"Our focus starts with the product and the psychographics - or why customers buy," says Sattler. A comfortable environment and a dash of humor seem to interest certain types of buyers and encourage them to linger.

"You have to provide a concept that speaks not only to the product but also to an atmosphere that allows the customer to be at ease and provides some form of entertainment," he says.

Sattler and his colleagues recently designed a prototype for Le Gourmet Chef, a new specialty store concept located in regional malls. The store features packaged gourmet foods and fun kitchen gadgets in a warm, friendly, French-country environment. It conveys both a comfortable atmosphere and a sense of humor.

"Amusing graphics portray kitchen-catastrophe scenarios, placed in an environment of painted wood floors, brick arches and plenty of kitchen implements that will entice shoppers to stay, read about and pick up products," Sattler says.

Communication Arts designed a prototype concept for first-time venture retailer Celestial Seasonings. The popular tea maker wanted to sell its brand through lifestyle retailing. As Foy relates, "We created an environment that embodies the idea of slowing down and enjoying a cup of tea. It's a cozy store with a romance about it."

Robert G. Lyon & Associates also is working with Eastern Mountain Sports, or EMS, to develop its brand identity. EMS specializes in outdoor equipment and clothing. The retailer carries products from a number of vendors, as well as its own line of goods, which it hopes will gain consumer recognition and attention.

"A recognized brand name will give the customer the satisfaction and confidence that products are tried and tested," Sattler says.

Nomus Interiors in King, N.C., was challenged by the prospect of creating a unique space in specialty stores for client Girbaud. The French clothier, with its exciting casual wear, is just getting started on this side of the pond.

Nomus creative director Albert Turick describes the product as "casual wear with more of an industrial design, including futuristic fabrics, unusual colors and innovative construction."

"Girbaud, as a company, is adventuresome," he says. "They have great vision. They are setting a tone. I think they appeal to all niches."

The Girbaud philosophy of design filters down through graphics and displays in larger-store settings. Nomus has designed the retailer's fixture program for more than 40 shops in department stores, including Macy's. "We have an average of 500 sq. ft. in which to communicate everything about that brand," Turick says.

"We are using high-quality materials for fixtures - cherry wood, automotive metallics with brushed-silver finishes," he continues. "Novelty or newness in design is not as important as having clean architecture that will reflect the brand and be a stage for the products - in this case a very intellectual brand - one with street-wear appeal."

Product plus attention Customers want more than quality products that represent good value for their money. Service, in many instances, is an essential element of retail branding.

Operating from its headquarters in Worthington, Ohio, Cowan & Associates is designing a new prototype for a 1999-2000 store rollout of Acorn shops into malls and strip centers. With owner/operator Gilmore Bros. Inc., Cowan's model features a warm feel, "with hints of a comfortable residential atmosphere," says Louis Cowan, president.

"The 2,000 sq. ft. store includes wood flooring, crown molding, custom fixtures, decorative furniture and a custom wet bar," he says.

The recent trend toward greater use of metals seems to be subsiding, Cowan says. "To some degree it is directed by product, but we see more woods now, like cherry, that have color and class."

Retailer Acorn thought it might be appropriate to have a place to serve refreshments to customers' shopping companions (a.k.a. husbands and gentlemen friends).

"Streetfront-style stores like Acorn lend themselves to couples shopping," says Cowan vice president Steven Garand. "We want to avoid the waiting-room look and atmosphere. There might be a television in this area, but cappuccino would be awkward - there are a myriad of challenges to the concept."

The Cowan team's track record includes the multi-story Warner Bros. One Times Square store in Manhattan. The store features color-coded floors to help overcome language barriers, as 70% of customers are non-English-speaking. And earlier this year, the team proved it understands a different type of customer need when it designed the Motherhood Maternity stores.

"These stores provide lavatories for customers, as well as places for them to sit down while shopping," says Garand. "Aisles are wider, anticipating women with children in strollers. Much of the stock is at hand, so sales associates don't have to leave their customers and search deep in the store for product."

"In my role as a consultant, especially with independent retailers, the issue is not always so much creative fixtures, colors and layouts as it is helping the retailer really connect with the customer," says David Amster, president of Nashville, Tenn.-based Integra Design Group. "Colors, fixtures and all are about 15% of the total," he adds. "Personal touch will keep independent stores alive. Customers want to be treated as special individuals."

Amster suggests that an effective way to make consumers feel special is to add specialty chocolates in shopping bags, a surprise treat that lets them know they're valued by the store.

Enter electronics Clicks and bricks. Click and mortar. A 360-degree solution. These are some of the expressions used by designers to describe what they see as the future of electronics and retailing.

E-commerce or e-tailing is actually another facet of customer service.

"Everyone has to do it - you have to have more than one arrow in your quiver," says Carpenter. Websites and e-commerce are components of a full-service retail operation. "For many of us, it's really easier when distance-shopping to call and order an item, but if your computer is on, you may prefer that method."

The Internet, he believes, will eventually reach a saturation point. It won't take the place of in-store shopping, but it may cannibalize some catalog sales, he says.

"Click and mortar replaces brick and mortar," says Mark Artus, senior vice president of consumer environments for Columbus, Ohio-based Fitch Inc. Artus distinguishes the shopping experience from the buying experience. "It's one thing to create a compelling shopping environment, but will consumers actually buy there? People may go and shop, but then step to a kiosk, place an order and have the merchandise shipped directly to their homes."

Electronics has put increased pressure on retailers to provide what Artus calls a fantastic environment. Each store needs to be an amazing place where people want to spend time. "We recognized this when we saw families sitting by fountains, staying to have a picnic at shopping centers," he says.

GAP stores have a brilliant environment, Artus notes. They have great brand development, and their www.gap address lets customers know they don't always have to come to the store to buy. "It extends the GAP relationship with its customers. It is part of managing their expectations," he says.

Turick acknowledges e-tailing successes while pointing out its shortcomings. "Kiosks, like those used by a major jeans maker in a California store, make the shopping experience fun," he says. "But electronic marketing is not without its problems."

The retailer may need to have a trained person on hand to help if customers cannot navigate a program. And kiosks that are either turned off or broken have a negative impact. "A blackened, blank screen looks very bad," he says. "It sends the wrong message to customers about the product."

Evolving entertainment The successful marriage of entertainment and retailing is not just a matter of theming, says Artus. If there isn't consistency and quality, the customer experience is like a one-night stand, a one-hit wonder.

Fitch, in conjunction with another firm, has designed retail and restaurant settings for Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, Fla.

The company's Artus talks about moving beyond theming. "Theme-park retailing takes cues from today's Main Street entertainment retailing trends," he says.

"The retail spaces within Universal Islands in Orlando, Fla., are designed as seamless extensions of the entire park experience," he continues, "unlike traditional theme-park retailing, where stores and shops are tacked on to the back end of rides. The Universal stores are created to be fully themed destinations. They are extensions of the story lines, brought to life through scripts played out by the employees."

Fitch, he says, believes that retail spaces and design - both Main Street and entertainment-based - are shifting to create personal experiences that are meaningful and sustainable. "Consumers want complete immersion and the opportunity for full participation in the brands they choose," Artus says. "They'll expect that each return visit to a store will be an experience that is a progression from the last."

Retail itself, some say, is a performing art.

"Every business is a stage," says Amster. Retail is not so much entertainment-based as it is experience-based. Every sales associate delivers an experience to the customer. Each store and each display is part of that experience.

"Web-based retailing has turned products into commodities," he continues. "The retail store must add some kind of value to those products or commodities."

The need for service to accompany goods also has profound implications for retail. "Integra specializes in stores whose merchandise includes books, music and gifts," Amster says. "How do you add value to these items? We've suggested that stores involve their customers in discussion groups with authors.They might also employ more interactive technology in an effort to get to know their customers better. That way, they might make suggestions to individuals about future purchases."

Amster says Integra showed its Los Angeles bookstore clients how to create boutiques within shops. They were so successful that customers were asking if they could buy the props, he says. "They were saying the display items, like side tables, lamps and silk greenery, would look good in their homes. We suggested the stores might want to offer design services to these customers."

Edibles score big National booksellers Borders and Barnes & Noble are to be envied - and perhaps imitated - for their well-placed, inviting cafes. But while designers unanimously praise the retailers' efforts, they are divided on the prospect of transplanting the aromatic coffee bars into other retail settings.

"I see that concept expanding," says Amster. "There's a synergy, a crossover that develops from putting a cup of coffee in someone's hand."

But, he cautions, there is a right way to do it. A refreshment site should be placed in a high-traffic area and must be visible to the shopper as soon as he or she enters the store. It needs to have a branded identity as well. And you can't simply have pots of tea or urns of coffee; the brand must be recognizable and popular. "We learned that from making mistakes in the last year," he adds.

In something like a furniture-store setting, Amster says, he would be happy to have a cup of coffee - "a regular cup of coffee they gave to me" - rather than a customer-pay cafe. The Integra president says research shows there is actually little damage to products from refreshment spills. And the loss is more than made up by customer purchases and loyalty.

Presented with the idea that a national big-box retailer known for great values in hard goods may be thinking about adding cafes to stores, Carpenter says, "I don't see this as a trend. The booksellers have had a nice feel for it. In malls though, there are commons areas where people can relax."

Space within a space Interior designers are developing sophisticated ways of drawing attention to products. Current methods appear simple and understated. But a more dramatic presentation can be achieved through sparing use of color.

"Best Buy uses color in a much less ubiquitous manner now," Carpenter says. "In their newest 'concept IV' stores, it is easier to see things. Signage and graphics are toned down. They are telling customers, 'We are an entertainment company,' getting away from the big-box approach with inventory stack-up and commissioned sales people."

Cowan & Associates worked to create shopping elements or boutique areas in Bigsby & Kruthers' stores in Chicago, Oakbrook, Ill., and Northbrook, Ill.

"At the Bigsby store at Northbrook Court, we expanded the small-women's department to a second level with a grand staircase," says Cowan. "We then created a showcase of shops to display products from several vendors. Arches and stenciling give a touch of the outdoors, and the various areas flow together."

When Cowan was asked by retailer Broken Arrow to design an interior for unusual products that were unlikely to change often, the design firm suggested lighting and fixtures that continuously give fresh looks.

"There were budget restraints, and the owner wanted to use fixtures he had built himself," says Garand. Cowan included flexible track lighting and lighting with different intensities to highlight items such as large, lava-stone sculptures. The design offers subtle variations and rhythms.

"Lighting continues to evolve," concurs Carpenter. "Differing voltages and colors, a wider selection of incandescents, computer programming for lights - it is very sophisticated."

Both lighting and color can add a warm glow of attraction, says Foy. "As a famous architect once said, 'Canned lighting is the acne of architecture.'"

For retailer Sam Goody, Communication Arts helped broaden consumer appeal by revamping the retail interior from its traditional, male-inspired colors to "warm colors that glow and spill out into common space," he says.

Comprehensive services National retailers, says Turick, are looking for design firms that can provide turn-key solutions. When a single company is able to consult, design, and provide architectural drawings and construction documents, and when that company understands interiors, branding and customer loyalty, it is likely to get the contract.

"Companies are looking for suppliers that can handle their accounts nationwide," Turick says. "As retailers merge, they need experts who can attend to all aspects of designing and building stores at every level, coast to coast. This business is not as fragmented or piecemeal as it once was."

Peter McIntosh, marketing director at Cowan & Associates, agrees. "The emphasis now is on bringing all disciplines together," he says. "A lot can be lost from the conceptual period to reality if there are a number of vendors. Retailers are asking for companies to do design and construction. Some have a quick schedule to meet. It is too expensive to involve a number of firms."

Fitch currently is partnering with SRI International, a Silicon Valley, Calif.-based technology innovator that researches, identifies and prototypes advanced technologies that can be leveraged within products.

"We are working with SRI on the research and development of e-commerce strategies that reflect an in-depth understanding of consumer shopping trends," says Artus. "We are seeking ways to integrate them with traditional retailing."

Fitch sees retail stores as one of several parallel channels and experiences that will form the relationship between a brand and its customers.

"Store design will develop along two complementary yet distinct paths to address constantly changing consumer mindsets," Artus says. Products will no longer be organized around brands or categories. Instead, inspiring themes, solutions and narratives will be the basis for presentation.

"Stores will embed multiple layers of messages into design," he adds. "And they will be ready to change quickly to keep up with consumers' growing and evolving expectations."

Boulder, Colo.-based Communication Arts may make Mercedes Benz more accessible to the average customer. If not in price, in showroom.

The design firm's redesign for a Houston-based dealership has helped increase sales from 35 cars per month to 175 - an increase that's attributed to a more inviting interior design.

As partner Richard Foy describes, "Most all dealers have stressed the technological aspects of automobiles in their retail designs, but what most buyers care about are appearances and interiors of cars. People want a car that will reflect their lifestyle."

If the increased sales numbers are any reflection, the design firm is on the right track.

"The design is like a hotel lobby," says Foy. "We used a wood floor, upholstered furniture, and we created a kitchen area with bar stools."

Even the Houston dealership's parts and accessories department looks like a retail store. All throughout the dealership, Communication Arts wanted to achieve what senior designer Nick Igel refers to as "consistent threads," or design methods of regionalizing to a target market by choosing elements that make people feel at home.

"We're finding out what local customers want and holding up a mirror to their culture," Foy says. "Design is a flexible tool that, when paired with strategic objectives, can deliver results to the bottom line of a company."