Outlet stores have left dressed-down, rack room designs of the past for a more stylish store image.

Years ago, a design comparison between high-end and outlet stores might have been billed as a debate over style vs. substance. Shoppers who sought no-frills value were given bins, barrels and rows through which to rummage. In turn, full-price shoppers expected an engaging selling environment, with flooring, fixturing and lighting to match.

As some designers are quick to admit, however, the pipe and hanger days of outlet retailing are over. Store planners, architects, center owners and retailers agree that even a small dose of imagination makes a value-based selling space a vibrant -- if not speedy -- mode for moving merchandise.

But if value-based stores are becoming more imaginative in their design implementation, are they still their own animal? Are the differences between outlet and standard design more difficult to define? How will value and outlet retailing be affected if the stores are designed to reflect a more modern, upscale image?

Great expectations "If you go back 10 to 15 years -- and the industry really is only that old -- the outlet stores began as basic, low-end, plain pipe-rack operations, with short-term leases and low capital investment," says Barry Ginsburg, vice chairman of Roseland, N.J.-based Chelsea GCA Realty Inc. "Nobody wanted to put a lot of money into design, because they didn't know what the result would be."

Outlet store design has evolved dramatically, says Tony Camilletti, vice president of visual communications for Southfield, Mich.-based Jon Greenberg & Associates Inc. "It's definitely not what it was 10 years ago," he says. "The outlet environment as a whole has changed, as has the customer's perception of what shopping outlet really means. Also, retailers are responding, in part by attempting to change that perception.

"While [outlet] retailers would once only go into a bare, industrial-fixtured box to blow their merchandise out the door, there's more attention being paid to the brand and store integrity," Camilletti continues. "And today, the fact that customers are more educated, exposed, and they outlet shop to gain value, I don't think that along with that value they still expect to shop in a lesser retail environment."

With more inventive design of both outlet centers and their stores, consumer characteristics and expectations have changed dramatically, say many industry players. But has value-based store design fallen more in step with its full-price cousin?

"Yes, the melding of the two is continuing," says Lawrence Ebel, vice president of store planning and design/visual merchandising for Columbus, Ohio-based Glimcher Realty Trust. "Outlet stores are gentrifying because you no longer have to sneak into an outlet center with a badge of courage and creativity for people to shop off-price."

Furthermore, says Ebel, customers ought to be wooed by design, regardless of merchandise category. "The outlet consumer prefers to be pleasantly surprised rather than not have anything titillate them [from lack of design]," he says. "Eye candy is as important in value and outlet venues as it is anywhere else. Certainly, outlet stores have to be more lean and mean -- and merchandising concepts have to be wildly flexible -- but it doesn't mean that the design has to [have poor] presentation."

Spartan design need only apply? While some may agree that retailers and their customers have evolving perceptions of outlet store design, other industry members feel that the sector was and is a place for merchandise liquidation, and should not be confused with upscale retail. Diane Perduk Rambo, senior vice president and creative director for Columbus, Ohio-based Retail Planning Associates, cautions that excessive outlet design could negate shoppers' perception of value.

"The consumer wants to believe that they're getting a good deal, and if they feel that the outlet is too upscale, they will be unable to form the perception that there is value there for them," she says. "There's a value in the consumers' mind where, if you designed an outlet store with all marble, it would be very hard to believe that you're getting discounted products."

Bob Shapiro, vice president of store fixturing and real estate for Redmond, Wash.-based Eddie Bauer Inc., agrees with Rambo, noting that Eddie Bauer Outlet stores serve as product liquidators, so merchandise can leave the store as readily as it was shipped in. The environment's design, he says, matches that mission.

"Our outlet business truly is a means for us to liquidate merchandise coming out of our retail stores," he says, adding that the Eddie Bauer Outlets avoid the use of expensive materials and finishes so as to pass on savings to the consumer. "With Eddie Bauer's mantra being complete value at the outlet level, 'complete value' to us means that we're offering product at an exceptional value, and the environment is not one that is exceptionally built-out. It's a very simplified, straightforward presentation."

Fossil, a Richardson, Texas-based retailer of watches and accessories, comes from a fairly different outlet design perspective. The company began in outlet centers (the company plans to close 1998 with 31 such stores), and then moved into high-end retailing. According to Jody Clarke, Fossil's visual merchandising director, outlet retail gave Fossil its first chance to show its full merchandise palette and take design chances.

"Our outlet stores were the first places where our current and potential customers could see our merchandise in full," she says. "In department stores, customers were aware that we do watches, but they weren't necessarily aware that we also make products such as wallets and handbags."

Clarke asserts that outlet retail helped give the company room to experiment and to capture the essence of the brand's image with unique design. "As a company, beginning with outlet stores was healthy for us," she says. "We were able to try new design techniques that we thought were interesting in the outlet stores, and at the same time we found ways to evolve our image at the full-price level. And now we're adhering to that."

Stretching budgets With a good amount of emphasis placed on liquidation and value, retail designers concede that off-price store design budgets are often dwarfed by the dollars required to create eye-popping, theatrical displays at the full-price level.

"I would say that outlet stores tend to be on the lower range of the budget spectrum, because it is so often viewed as a clearinghouse," says Clarke. "So they're not thinking in typical design terms. With those limitations in mind, designers have to figure out where they're going to get the biggest bang for their buck."

"Spending the big bucks always is relative," says Jon Greenberg's Camilletti, asserting that a limited budget need not limit imaginative design. "Certainly, it always costs money to do anything, but the winning idea is how to be clever within a smaller budget. People in the visual merchandising industry have always been challenged with smaller budgets, and sometimes that's where true creativity shines best."

"I think that's true in general," agrees Glimcher's Eber. "We find that the harder we have our feet to the fire economically, the better we do creatively. Obviously, one wouldn't use a French library desk as a cash wrap for a mass merchandise outlet store. But by the same token, it doesn't have to be plastic laminate that prevents creativity in merchandising."

Camilletti notes that interplay between color, lighting and space often can make the difference in budget-conscious outlet design. In making those stores engaging, he says "a lot of people are looking to innovative approaches to fixturing, as well as graphics and color, and [unique nuances] that can be achieved with paint. There are a lot of uses for stripped down fixturing that can feel kind of fun and funky without the need for brushed stainless or exotic wood veneer."

.. by pushing design limits Despite many smaller outlet design budgets, Chelsea GCA's Ginsburg contends that, as long as outlet retailers are image conscious, the design envelope will be pushed in new directions. "People have come to understand that you can manage your image in an outlet and off-price environment as much or more so than being in a corner of a Federated department store," he says, adding that the outlet channel gives wholesalers their day in the design sun. "The wholesalers rarely get to define their own retail environment. Outlet and off-price stores give them the chance to define it themselves, and that provides sort of a unique opportunity for them."

Although Clarke notes that Fossil directs more attention to its high-end stores, she is quick to point out that outlet stores have and will continue to play an important role in Fossil retailing. "We think both the outlet and full-price store designs are very strong in their own ways," she says. "While we are spending a bit more time and effort on our full-priced stores, we feel that we have a very solid outlet store design. They both fit their own niche, and we get very positive feedback on both store types."

As with Fossil's marketed brand, JGA's Camilletti says that, in most store design, image is everything. "Today, anyone designing for a retail environment, whether it be outlet, off-price or traditional retail, has to pay greater attention to the image that they create for the consumer," he says, adding that Sears or JCPenney could someday serve as the upscale anchor of an outlet center.

"Whether [retailers] spend everything or nothing on design, the difference is how they spend those dollars and how they allocate them to a clever, imaginative approach to conveying their brand image," he says.

Although Rambo cautions against declaring value and outlet stores upscale in design, she clearly notes an industry sea change. "You wouldn't want to make outlet shopping a horrible experience by any stretch of the imagination," she says, "because consumers are still parting with their money, and they want to feel good about that. And that's really why we're seeing design improvement: [Outlet retailers] have identified more practical retail concepts, whereas in the past, the stores' design has really just been a hodgepodge."

If style has successfully infiltrated outlet retail -- as many in the industry have noted -- merchandise is all but certain to appear more tempting to consumers. And as Rambo notes, creating a value-based image oftentimes requires something other than a deep budget.

"Some of these outlet stores are a pleasure to shop," she adds. "It just takes a little more thought and a little more ingenuity to make the outlet store design work well."