Specialty store designers react to generational shifts with 'experience retail.'

Many industry watchers say entertainment and themed retail is the wave of the future for specialty stores, but some see another wave cresting on the horizon. With out-of-category competition and shifting demographic profiles, the specialty store category may be creating an offshoot of themed retail that begs for a new category unto itself: experience retail.

As INStore reported in its cover story last November, theming in retail design does as much for moving merchandise as it does for patrons' overall shopping experience. And although media giants Planet Hollywood, Warner Bros. and Viacom Entertainment, among others, have inherent eye-popping interactivity built into their retail identities, today's specialty store designs prove that there is more to the entertaining retail environment than a marketed brand. Retailers now are building brands from the ground up, using store designs that fascinate, exhilarate and tantalize - without the luxury of a current movie release or celebrity investors.

The department store challenge At one time, the competitive scales were tipped enough in favor of specialty stores that they had no need to create a more exciting presentation. Ten years ago, department stores faced a vast challenge of rebuilding their concepts following a competitive onslaught from hungry, highly focused specialty store retailers.

Today, specialty retailers face a similar task. Competition is again heated, thanks in part to department stores (see "Department Stores Ride The Wave," Shopping Center World, January 1998), which have rejuvenated themselves by creating single-stop collections of specialty departments that directly compete with entire specialty store categories. Furthermore, big-box retailers have the luxury of offering low prices and deep inventory - conveniences that eclipse the capabilities of specialty boutiques, which are buried inside the costly real estate of a mall.

To get back in the game, specialty retailers have undertaken a sweeping re-examination of their approach to business, powered by changing demographic profiles. Contemporary specialty store designers have infused their designs with experiences that inform, excite, comfort and entertain, by assigning intellectual and emotional value to the traditionally one-dimensional art of shopping.New designs for boomers Baby boomers face age, time and money pressures that have altered their retail tastes, motivating designers to compact and focus their retail message. In addition, Generation X has arrived on the adult scene with a lot of cash and a hunger for exciting retail environments, but with little enthusiasm for the merchandise once treasured by their elders.

J'Amy Owens, president of The Retail Group, Seattle, points to two Retail Group projects that reflect the new generation of shoppers. NatureMed, which she describes as the "Starbucks Coffee of vitamins," sets health products in 1,200 sq. ft. of upscale GLA. The concept, she says, aims to tap an increasingly bored, wealthy baby boomer population, ages 34 to 52, who have set the $20 billion vitamin industry on a 15 to 20 percent annual growth trajectory.

NatureMed features a bright, lively atmosphere with a contemporary color palette. A patterned floor of limestone and slate, coupled with a pearwood elixir bar, create a backdrop of natural materials to display the natural product line. Color coded products are displayed on glass shelving and several pearwood drop tables.

The small store, says Owens, offers a variety of departments to ease the often numbing process of studying vitamin container labels. She says the design reflects a need for comfort and stability. "If I'm going to swallow natural medicine," she says, "I'm going to do it because I trust this new brand. "Therefore, the store design must inspire trust."

For Ravenna Gardens, Owens' firm has put a new spin on specialty garden retail. The 2,000 sq. ft. store is aimed at baby boomers who are searching for more than garden fertilizer and a trowel. The product line includes standard garden tools and pots but also features an array of antique, domestic and imported vases, statuary, arbors, bird baths, and other unusual decorative items.

"We decided on an antique brand positioning," she says. "The design is old and soulful. It's a place that seems to have existed for years."

The Ravenna Gardens design features walls textured with heavy plaster and large cornice moldings suggesting age. White metal lattices stuffed with real moss continue the aging effect, as do gurgling fountains set in front of the lattices. A rusted motor platform is used as a display table, while antique wheel barrows and old animal feeders serve as bins.

Pomp and home improvement Restoration Hardware, also catering in part to the garden enthusiast, has a wider retail scope than Ravenna Gardens. Founded in 1980, the Eureka, Calif.-based chain began as a Queen Anne Victorian home restoration project undertaken by the company's president and founder, Stephen Gordon. In his quest for materials for the renovation, Gordon parlayed his resources into a 43-store chain of specialty home furnishings.

In concept and design, Restoration Hardware deftly merges the two retailing categories of home furnishings and miscellaneous hardware. According to Jessica Seaton, principal with Oakland, Calif.-based Seaton/Wilson Architects (Restoration Hardware's design firm), the store design aims to create an upscale residential experience, from the glass exterior framed with white wood through each of several rooms inside the store. The rooms feature high ceilings, bright, distinctive light fixtures and natural wood flooring. The 12,000 sq. ft. stores divide into eight rooms, leading customers from one category to another through tall doorways framed with classical white columns and moldings.

The bed room, for example, sells beds, linens, side tables and lamps. The cleaning room stocks fine furniture treatments and oddball cleaning tools such as oversized aluminum dustpans. The library boasts utilitarian product flair, with architecture, design, woodworking, and gardening books, as well an innovative andiron display merchandised logically around a fireplace.

Restoration's largest room, called the main room, houses Canadian miner lunch boxes, dentist mirrors, dragonfly door knockers, adult bibs with buttonholes and other novelties. The main room, says Seaton, embodies the store's vision of contemporary residential restoration architecture for the well-to-do baby boomer.

A new appeal for Generation X More difficult to classify and ultimately larger than the baby boomer generation, Generation X has sparked its own specialty retail revolution. "Generation X clearly has savvy," says Paul Lechleiter, senior vice president and principal in the Cincinnati office of New York-based FRCH Design Worldwide. "They have been bombarded with advertising all their lives. They don't believe [the hype], but they also have a boatload of money. As this group grows, a new generation of specialty retail is developing new approaches to selling and design."

The Polo Jeans Co., a new Ralph Lauren concept, has trained its sights on the more conservative male and female members of Generation X. According to James Adams, a principal with Seattle-based NBBJ Retail Concepts, Polo Jeans project manager, Polo Jeans Co.'s design devotes as much time to creature comfort as it does to product merchandising.

"This is a mall concept, but when you look at the design, you will swear you are in a huge Soho loft," he says. "The store is an open, 8,000 sq. ft. design with exposed mechanical elements. The design turns the store over to customers, in the hope that they will eventually browse the merchandise and buy.

"This kind of design is something we're seeing more of, especially for young shoppers," he says.

The younger consumer also is seeing more game-based retail environments. Last year, Renton, Wash.-based Wizards of the Coast opened Wizards of the Coast Game Center, a facility in Seattle where kids can come to meet, play games and browse for computer games in the center's retail store.

The 22,000 sq. ft. game center, designed by Planet Retail, Seattle, is split level, where teen-agers downstairs can watch a big-screen TV or play games in a "war room" filled with networked personal computers. Upstairs, Wizards of the Coast sports a main reception area, a large video game room, a space devoted to BattleTech (a virtual reality game), and an 1,800 sq. ft. retail store.

Above the entrance to the store, Planet Retail's project designer Bruce Brigham hung a snarling dragon with an 18-ft. wingspan, reaching out toward shoppers with its claws. Around the perimeter of the misshapen rectangle that forms the store, tall faux stone columns topped by gargoyles evoke the dank feeling of the dungeon of an old castle.

"The design of the facility and the store walks a line between being a cool place and somewhere parents don't want their kids to go," jokes Brigham.

Common design denominator Design professionals agree that consumer shifts - the emergence of Generation X as a spending power and the maturation of baby boomers as increasingly selective and worldly consumers - have challenged specialty store designers to develop innovative designs. FRCH's Lechleiter emphasizes consumers' need to connect, both visually and emotionally, with their retail environment.

"Whether extreme or subtle, experience has to be part of specialty store design today," he says. "Ten years ago, elegant black wood and minimalist stores were cool. But those designs are gone today because demand has changed and customer demographics have changed. Today, the value equation for a retailer includes good quality, a fair price, great service, and an experience with an edge and an attitude."

Owens of The Retail Group agrees, noting that when specialty store design is implemented correctly in the 1990s, it can have lasting resonance with consumer attitudes.

"Specialty stores have a shot at our hearts and souls," she says. "This challenge, therefore, means giving customers an experience and not just a typical sales environment. To offer an experience, store design must be empathetic, true and genuine."

Michael Fickes is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.