Many retailers have turned their attention to revamping in-store design and branding strategies to distinguish themselves in the midst of a less than robust consumer spending climate, according to FITCH, a global design consultancy.

Over the last year, FITCH executives have had an uptick in requests from retail clients looking to refresh the look of their stores, with projects ranging from remodels of existing stores to the creation of entirely new store prototypes. And merchants are going about it in a smarter way then in years past, with design, marketing and advertising teams collaborating to create a streamlined and coherent brand strategy, says Christian Davies, creative director for the Americas with the firm.

In Davies’ view, the impetus for U.S. retailers to invest more money into store design and branding has come from two sources. On the one hand, the recent recession has made the U.S. consumer more discriminating and less brand-loyal than before, so shoppers now seek out stores that offer the best value and the freshest selection of merchandise. Simultaneously, the U.S. market has recently seen an influx of new chains from Asia and Europe, which are creating more competition for homegrown companies with better-designed stores and more sophisticated digital strategies.

Davies points out, for example, that U.S.-based retailers still emphasize highlighting signage and other marketing materials within their stores. The messages might pound the brand’s name into consumers’ consciousness, but such cues are often visually distracting and add little to the shopper’s in-store experience. By contrast, European and Asian retailers stress merchandising displays to market themselves, rather than relying on signs and graphics.

“In overseas markets, the stores are extremely clean and very easy to navigate,” Davies says. “You find yourself in a very stimulating environment; you don’t have messages screaming at you at every turn.”

As U.S. chains absorb these lessons, they are rethinking their stores to make them more flexible. In the past, many chains wanted elaborate in-store architecture. Today, the focus is on creating clean, streamlined spaces, which can be tricked out with fixtures and signage depending on the retailer’s needs, Davies notes.

Below, he talked to Retail Traffic about what’s happening in the market today:

Retail Traffic: How much interest are you seeing from U.S. retailers right now in revamping their store design?

Christian Davies: It’s been a very interesting year. We saw a couple of years where there was a pause in retail development. But in the last 12 months, we’ve seen a whole series of retailers coming to us and our competition and trying to anticipate what comes next. We are seeing pro-activity on behalf of the retailers to be ahead of the curve [rather than just catching up to the changes]. They are trying to be quite cautious in terms of the scale of what they are doing, so it’s a lot of new store prototypes and remodels versus massive rollouts. But once they work on those things, they’ll be in a very strong position.

And I think one of the things that’s very interesting too is we are seeing an appetite from people in trying new things. Retailers say ‘We’ve always been in a mall, maybe we could go to other locations as well.’ And we are seeing a lot of retailers saying ‘What can we do as a brand to begin to attract the customers that we haven’t had before?’

RT: What’s behind this new mentality in your view?

CD: I think there are a few things. The U.S. customer right now is the same customer as before the recession in a lot of ways, but they are even more demanding. It’s not enough for somebody to just put a nice store out there. The costumer is not very brand loyal right now—the recession taught people to shop around and the customer is more critical. So what we are seeing now is that brands have to work harder to keep these people.

And, the U.S. customer is very much interested in change, and fresh and new. It’s about putting more emphasis on how to keep the product rotated. One of the things we’ve seen is the resurgence of visual merchandising. During the recession, visual merchandising virtually disappeared. The retailers got rid of their in-house visual departments and threw it all back to the vendor. And what you end up with, if you give control to the vendor, is a very fragmented store, filled with a lot of different points of view, which can be a complete mess.

The retailer is beginning to own that again. There is a changing dynamic in store design—you can’t have a store that’s going to be rigid and inflexible and is going to look the same for a year.

RT: What are some of the things you are working on?

CD: With a lot of our clients, we are moving from a model where we just do a single project for them to a relationship-based model. They are beginning to treat us much more as a partner—we are working with their advertising agencies, with their vendors and manufacturers. It’s quite different that it was a couple of years ago, when we would typically be hired for [a specific assignment].

I think we are going to be seeing a lot of new store prototypes over the next few years. We are seeing a real appetite for change, whether it’s an international expansion or a dramatically new phase in the domestic market. For some of our [clients], we are working on multiple prototypes. They might have 200 stores and they are working to remodel those stores, but they are also developing new prototypes.

RT: What are the trends you are seeing in store design?

CD: The shift toward visual merchandising dictates a different kind of fixture system. We are building a lot less [in-store] architecture—we are essentially creating a clean shell. One phrase we are hearing is ‘surprise and delight.’ The customers are looking for ‘surprise and delight’ and that leads to a store design that is beautifully lit, extremely flexible, with a lot of graphic programs. There is a lot more fun out there today.

RT: You mention being very impressed with some of the overseas chains that are moving into the U.S. market. What are some of the things you feel that U.S. retailers can adapt from them?

CD: I think European and Asian retailers are ahead of the curve when it comes to in-store digital and media. In the U.S., we put up a plasma screen in the store with a message on it and that’s the digital strategy. They are much further ahead. We were very impressed with Tesco in the U.K. They have a new iPhone app where you could do everything from navigating the store to actually making purchases with the app by scanning bar codes. You can also use it to get limited time price promotions while you are in the store. It feels very much like a natural part of the shopping experience. Ultimately, I don’t think that U.S. retailers cracked digital yet in any way, shape or form.

RT: What kinds of brands do you think can benefit the most from an image overhaul right now?

CD: There is a lot of exciting work being done in the luxury category right now, and also in the value category. But I actually think the most potential lies with brands in the middle of the market. I am a big fan of the work that the Gap has been doing recently—they’ve been getting back to who they’ve always been. I think for the last decade, the Gap struggled a little bit as it was trying to decide what it wanted to be. And what they did brilliantly in this last round was say ‘No, we should be more like the Gap.’ Their new store design is just a wonderful experience of a true Gap store—very, simple, very clean, very contemporary, with excellent use of fixtures and finishing and a really strong branded environment. Brands like the Gap have an incredible opportunity to regain ground they lost if they just get back to doing what they always did.

RT: Who are some of your current clients?

CD: We are working with Target on a wide number of initiatives, including their presence in retail and graphic communication in their stores. We are working with the Sports Authority and Buffalo Wild Wings, on things from brand initiatives to prototype development. And we are also working with both Microsoft and Dell on a global basis.