The retail design industry is a comparatively new one. While fixture manufacturers and window dressers have been around for over a hundred years, the formalized practice of retail store design is a fairly recent offshoot of its sister industries - advertising and architecture. As a result, many clients are novices when it comes to selecting and working with design firms.

After 15 years in the industry, I have seen every conceivable variation of the design firm selection process and jumped through a daunting array of hoops. The mindset of the clients seems to fall into two distinct categories. Interestingly, one correlates directly with failure and the other with success.

In the former case, clients are looking for the charismatic designer who can "work that designer magic" on their stores. These clients seek the person or firm who appears to them to be trendy or who, like a waiting room nurse to the family, assures them that everything will be OK. When working with the designer, these clients offer every type of personal opinion. In one memorable case, a sporting goods retailer rejected one of the proposed color palettes because the bridge club ladies' review indicated it was too harsh. Needless to say, these projects usually go badly for everyone.

On the other side are clients who are looking for a legitimate resource to bring the power of professional design expertise to bear on their businesses. These clients understand that the "I" in design is for "In my experience" or "according to the Information we compiled," rather than "I like" or "when I shop."

The creative staff of a design firm - made up of merchandisers, designers, graphic designers, interactive designers, color and material experts, lighting designers and CAD technicians - must develop a concept that the customers will like and patronize. This group uses its collective experience and expertise to understand the client's marketplace dynamics, design an effective concept, and ensure that the strength of the concept remains intact throughout the implementation phase.

The bottom line is how well the design staff's output generates sales for the retailer. It is irrelevant what the designers like or don't like; it only matters that they identify the target shopper and identify with the shopper during the creative process. This enables the staff to work on everything from cruise ships in Finland to mall stores in Utah to department stores in Japan.

For the retailer, all of this has important implications. The retailer should hold the designer to the same business standard of financial accountability as operations, distribution, technology, sales staffing and other functional areas. The designer should work from information compiled from consumer behavior research, competitive analysis, and operational objectives to develop concepts that work in the marketplace.

Above all, everyone involved should avoid the phrase, "I like" and instead ask the questions, "What do our customers want?" and "What would work in the marketplace?"

* Diane Perduk Rambo

Retail Planning Associates 580 N. Fourth St. Columbus, Ohio 43215 (614) 564-1000 drambo@rpaworldwide.com

* Number of years in the industry: 15

* Recent retail projects:

Nike Shops; Pepsico/Frito-Lay; Silja Cruise Lines, Finland and Sweden; Carhartt; Franklin Covey; LG Mart, Korea.

* Upcoming projects:

Revlon; Playboy flagship, Asia; Apple; The Sports Authority; Auto Nation; Info flagship, Helsinki, Finland.

* Favorite retail store Muji, Tokyo: "Muji is a complete lifestyle store, and its encyclopedic offering of basics has irrevocably altered the expensive Japanese retail culture and turned the no-brand market on its ear."

* Favorite restaurant design Zen Palate, Union Square, New York: "The increasingly private dining areas connected by stairways and a bridge, and a blend of Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Western design elements provide a sublime backdrop for vegetarian dishes that are the culinary equivalent of meditation."

* Most improved brand Volkswagen: "Sales are up 61% not just because of the New Beetle, but because Ferdinand Piech as CEO knows that great brand lives in the details."

* Most admired industry figure Nick Graham, CEO of Joe Boxer: "His interactive billboard in Times Square is one of the best bits of e-commerce around."