With heated competition between department store anchors and steady pressure frominventive specialty retailers, it's often left to design to distinguish one department store from the next. Dogged by sameness, perceived stodginess and stale customer service, the department store sector is starting to think outside its rather large box.

In a world of time-constrained shoppers, department stores have an edge over the smaller, lifestyle retailers: They are a one-stop shopping destination with extensive square footage and multiple product categories. As a result, department store designs are exploiting these strengths with fewer walls and dividers, higher light levels, more inventive merchandising and increased amenities.

Still, mall department stores often look for cues from specialty retailers, and vice versa.

"Specialty stores are typically focused at a much more targeted customer base, so they need to be a more focused machine," says Stephen Terry, COO for Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Pavlik Design Team. "Department stores, however, tend to have a much broader market identity. But they both need that focus, and they look to each other to see how the other player is executing it."

Open up and say "Wow"

In an attempt to further hone their identity, department stores have made key changes in execution. The dramatically shaded, rigidly sectioned days of department stores are officially over, says Rudolph V. Javosky, senior vice president of design and construction for Cincinnati-based Federated Department Stores Inc.

"We have clearly moved in the direction of opening up the stores," he says. "We have fewer interruptive walls and we've gotten away from department categorization. The old Macy's store had that - a grand walkway down the center of the store, with departments set in their own boutique-type setting."

Today, he says, clear sight lines are made possible by freestanding, transparent selling walls that customers can see over or see through. That way, customers can walk into the store and shop immediately.

Jay Fitzpatrick, president and creative director of New York-based Fitzpatrick Design Group, notes that an uncluttered selling environment spells relief to road-weary shoppers. He points to the company's oval-shaped coliseum design plan, executed in all Fitzpatrick's projects, including Mason Blanche.

"If a store is designed with an oval plan, there are no decisions to be made by the consumer," he says. "They come in and they immediately get it. They look to the right and see the men's department; they look to the left and see women's wear."

Robert Young, founder and CEO of Dallas-based Robert Young Associates, notes that department stores are looking to bust out of the basic store design with open sight plans. "This is one concept that is absolutely driving Bloomingdale's," he says. "Their stores have been much more free-flowing, with free-formed merchandise. No matter where customers turn, they are bombarded with new ideas and places to buy."

However, achieving such a visual onslaught is difficult without walls as a backdrop. "The open plan presents a challenge," Terry says. "Segmentation offered a better opportunity to define the space environmentally, to define the mood and romance. And that's one of our objectives: to romance merchandise and make the perception (of the store) greater than reality."

In the absence of many permanent walls, he says, fixturing and flooring are used to define, and then design is extended vertically toward the ceiling.

Driving design up the wall

According to some designers, the empty space up to the ceiling is largely overlooked but can offer key merchandising and design options.

Giving department store design vertical license can save needed design dollars, as well as give products more impact, says Fernando Castillo, senior project designer for Pavlik Design Team.

"The advantage to vertical design is that it saves a lot of perimeter build-out costs and gives more exposure to the merchandise," he says. "If you've got it at the 11-foot height as opposed to the typical 8-foot height, you get more capacity out of the wall space and less cost because you're saving on a lot of decorative millwork."

Category-killer retailers have i nfluenced some department stores to stock greater product volume on the selling floor and diminish the need for a larger stock area, Javosky points out. In that scenario, product fixtures go higher, and in turn merchandising goes higher, placing more emphasis on the actual product.

"This vertical process eliminates valances, so we merchandise up the wall to a higher height," he says. "Much of this trend has been driven by big-box users, although now the department stores have developed their own venue and expression for doing this."

Fitzpatrick points to his firm's work with Uptons to show how product and brand marketing drive merchandising up the wall. In using this space, promotional and advertising concepts are joined with store design.

"We're bringing big billboards inside the store and re-leasing the space out to different department store vendors," he says, adding that the images resemble oversized highway graphics. "They're put up high, up in the rafters, so it's not taking away from the rest of the merchandising. It transcends the idea of marketing and advertising; it's a direct product of working together with the ad and marketing departments of the stores."

In the house of glass and light

While higher merchandising and product storage is a relatively new development, store lighting always has been a necessity in giving merchandise its day in the sun. Industry members agree that, as a direct response to consumer needs, department store light levels are steadily increasing.

According to Javosky, brighter light is an offshoot of department stores' trend toward a more open-air environment. "Hand-in-hand with opening up the stores' sight lines are brighter stores," he says. "In the 1970s and 1980s, we tended to do darker stores with focused highlights on presentation, so it was more showmanship. Today, the customer wants lighter, brighter stores for ease of shopping. She wants to be able to see what the product looks like and not bring it home in natural light and see that it's a different color."

Pavlik Designs' Terry notes that five years ago, an average foot-candle reading would be about 40; now it's between 45 and 55 in general ambient lighting.

But higher light measure is irrelevant if it doesn't impress the customer. "It doesn't matter if it's bright by technical standards, it has to be perceived that way by customers," Fitzpatrick says, explaining that add-on materials can enhance that perception. "We're using bright ceilings, floors and reflective materials - and we're putting in natural light all over the place."

In fact, natural light's effect on the selling environment - as well as shopper mood and behavior - is compelling, say some experts. This effect can be accomplished through interior and exterior applications of glass and windows.

"There is a major push in the direction of (using sunlight)," Young says. "Customers are very sensitive to lighting, and they're getting more and more tired of the store that doesn't provide them with the proper level and mix of light."

The Bloomingdale's at Aventura Mall in Aventura, Fla., took natural light to another level with an entire wall of windows rising three stories high. "We see it as an important trend, because it allows customers to orient themselves," Javosky says. "So when they're in this huge, cavernous store, they have some idea where they are. They can look out these huge windows and get their bearings. It becomes a much more memorable shopping experience as well."

Terry agrees that natural light can energize the shopping experience, but he also notes that it varies greatly if not controlled architecturally by use of diffusing elements or clerestorys instead of skylights.

"So when it's very bright, sometimes it's a negative. And at night or during stormy weather, if you've counted on it, now you don't have it. But it supports certain merchandise categories particularly well, so we try to use it in those areas," he says, pointing to home furnishings as an example.

Fitzpatrick says natural light - and higher light levels in general - has an undeniable effect on the department store in total. "I think it increases sales, the attitude of shoppers and the employees," he says. "If there is natural light over their heads, they perform better than if there isn't. The old rhetoric of, 'It's too bright and it takes away from or destroys the merchandise,' is untrue. There are all kinds of reflective glass out there now that can let the good light in and the bad light out."

New customer-focused features

No matter how bright the light or how open the space, store design cannot add hours to the day. Since today's customers do in fact have less time to shop, then department stores have less time to make audience impressions. Thus, a new emphasis on customer service has given designers the charge to transform forgotten cashwraps and POS stations into customer-service hubs.

"Traditionally, we would have cashwraps spread throughout the store, without a salesperson stationed there," Javosky says. "And that was very frustrating to the consumer. Now we have central wraps with two to four POS stations, with a permanent sales representative at that center. This allows for ease of sale, with the customer being able to leave the store quickly."

Checkout areas are no longer the red-haired stepchildren of design. If they are implemented well, Young says, they make the shopping process more fluid while creating a pleasing, customer-focused amenity.

"Higher emphasis on service also will change the atmosphere, if only because there are now service hotpoints within this large space that customers can recognize easily," Young says. "The prevailing attitude was, 'That wrap counter is ugly, let's hide it.' But now, designers have to make it an obvious point of customer contact and turn it into an asset as opposed to a liability."

Although designing for a time-impoverished shopper can be tricky, many industry members agree that teamwork and shared vision will continue to push department stores into uncharted design waters.

"How do department stores differentiate themselves?" asks Fitzpatrick. "If the menu is correct - if merchandise is in place, the service is brilliant, the location is tops and the value is good - the only thing I can do as a designer is take them over the top."

The best designs always have been inspired by merchants, he says, adding that shared vision will continue to keep department store design environments changing with the times. "When merchants develop their ideas and we as designers latch onto them and build their dreams, that's when it becomes brilliant."

Will Pollock is an Atlanta-based freelance writer.

November 1998 SHOPPING CENTER WORLD/INStoreAs time-restricted shoppers continue to influence retail, the latest makeover target is the department store cosmetics counter. Traditionally a through-the-glass, ask-to-try shopping experience, cosmetics and fragrance retailing is experimenting with the open-sell layout, where customers select and test products without assistance.

"(In the past) cosmetics have been sold behind the counter and under caseline," says Rudolph V. Javosky, senior vice president of design and construction of Cincinnati-based Federated Department Stores Inc. "Shoppers would approach a counter and point to a product, and someone would show it to them. In open-sell, the customer can go behind the counter and actually take the product off the wall."

Much of the open-sell cosmetics movement is driven by a combination of customers having less time to shop and having purchases in mind beforehand. "Time has become an important factor with so much happening around us," Javosky says. "Customers want to get in and buy the tie, the fragrance, the pot and pan and then get out of there."

Javosky notes that the open-sell cosmetics concept earned initial success in the drugstore arena, where easy access helped customers make purchases quickly and easily. "We're taking that drugstore concept and moving it into the department store in a more sophisticated fashion," he says.

In another offshoot concept, called assisted open-sell cosmetics, company specialists are present to assist customers with purchases.

"It has been discussed in the industry for a number of years," Javosky says, adding that it has taken some time for the open-sell concept to gain steam. "In the past two years it really has started to take a life of its own, with the cosmetics industry having started to embrace the concept. The industry should start seeing new designs for open-sell within the next year."

Federated is working to do just that by next spring, says Javosky. "We've been working on this for more than a year, and right now we're testing open-sell prototype designs internally," he says, adding that he expects the trend to spread throughout the industry.

"Our schedule is to start construction on this concept right after the new year in a number of locations," he says. "The concept is in its infancy, but I think we're going to see more and more of it as different formats are tried out by various department stores."