Today's major design trends reflect the shrinking moments that retailers have to connect with their customers.

As retailers attempt to establish identity and build foot traffic, retail design is more and more a reflection of the evolving age in which we live. The pomp and extravagance of the 1980s has given way to a smarter, leaner 1990s sophistication. Retailers, in an information-rich, attention scattering age, are using eye-catching, user-friendly and functional concepts to help their stores stand out in shoppers' busy field of vision.

Coffee and the Internet Screenz Digital UniverseT has given the happy marriage of coffee and Internet services a new relative. The Chicago-based retailer has created a user-friendly, 1990s version of the coffee shop, serving old-fashioned java along with warp-speed Internet access. With dozens of CD-ROM entertainment and education software titles from which to chose, a network of 45 Pentium-based workstations are staffed by knowledgeable "Explorer Guides" to help first-time cyber surfers take advantage of the newest technology.

The design goal was to give high-tech a communal, friendly atmosphere instead of a techno-edgy feel. The brightly lit interior, natural woods, large graphic images, deep purples and golden yellows draw customers in as they walk by the store.

"The key [to the design project] was mixing socialization with computer fun in a space that was truly welcoming and comfortable," says Screenz's visual marketing and retail planning director Randy Sattler. "We're mass marketing the [store's] socialization aspect as much as we are the technology."

Form follows function Retail innovations come in many forms, one of which is nuts-and-bolts design functionality in a store repositioning. Employing a concept that gets dated too quickly, say many experts, either sends the wrong message to prospective customers or spells trouble for a retailer's longevity.

"We like to think we're starting a trend toward re-discovering function," says Michael Hanna, president of Rolling Meadows, Ill.-based Hanna Design Group Inc. Hanna emphasizes that, above all, functionality in store design is essential in the overall retail mix. Furthermore, he adds, it can be achieved by listening to the retailer.

"You can't just design a fabulous store with tricky little gizmos and gadgets if it isn't practical. Real innovation means listening to the retailer, asking the right questions and being almost obsessive about a team approach to design. We use retailer's assets to get back to the basics of making the selling space both customer- and retailer-friendly," he says.

The 'Personal' touch Today's customer-friendly retail concepts often combine functional design with a heightened emphasis on customer service. For example, Personal Pair by Levi Strauss and Co. offers a unique personal-fitting service for women seeking the perfect pair of jeans.

Chicago-based Robert G. Lyon and Associates Inc. created a 1,500 sq. ft. prototype store designed to draw attention not only to the Levi's brand but also to the personal fit concept. A seating area, highlighted with lifestyle graphics, accommodates an interactive computer, allowing access to the full array of Levi's product and information. For the shopper, sales associates enter measurements into a computer that recommends prototype jeans, leading to more than 4,000 possibilities in a finished pair.

To match the innovative "personal touch" concept, says Lyons Associates president Joe Geoghegan, the Personal Pair store layout was conceived as a series of customizable components. "With something this new, you've got to be able to customize the store as well as the product," he says.

Personal Pair's design -- from its unique framing and millwork to lighting and finishes -- reflects an ability to be mobile and to be reused. "The store has the ability to be installed, to withstand several years of service, be disassembled, shipped to a new location, and re-installed, ready for business again," says Geoghegan.

Themed retail confections While customization might target a "hard-to-fit" audience, the influx of theming and edutainment in store design is clearly aimed at the masses. As a spin-off of FAO Schwarz, New York-based FAO Schweetz is mixing old-fashioned retail skill with sugar-charged, themed retail. "The objective of our client was to create a memorable bulk candy store with personality and animation," says Rick Salata, chief executive officer for Addison, Ill.-based Woodmasters.

The resulting store design immerses customers in a larger-than-life, retail candy land. Talking M&M candies, a flashy lollipop tree, a walk-inside gumball machine and functional, playful fixtures dot FAO Schweetz's retail landscape. From the game board floor to the Chocolate Mint full of Godiva chocolates, the customer interaction level is high, which results in heavy traffic, soaring sales and repeat customers.

The Rainforest Cafe, although perhaps not as playful and high-concept as FAO Schweetz, takes its inspiration from both theming and education. The restaurant chain draws on the world's most endangered natural vistas to form a multi-faceted retail presentation.

Its restaurant design plan, actual rain and lightning storms at regular intervals; animated animals "speaking" to passersby; and live fish and parrots give customers real-time entertainment. With an authentic, nature-based design, Rainforest Cafe provides equal doses of restaurant cuisine and environmental awareness.

Noodle Kidoodle, a New York-based, children's educational toy and game store, also falls under the edutainment umbrella (see Shopping Center World, August 1997, p. 20). Primary colors, graphic doodles and high-impact logos on everything from shirts to interior signage serve as signature design elements.

The retailer's playful theme continues throughout. For example, fluorescent fixtures look like pick-up sticks, and the carpet looks strewn with a colorful array of paper and crayons. The store's bold visual messages are accessible even to young children.

With big-screen videos, computer workstations and in-store make-and-take art projects, Zany Brainy could be Noodle Kidoodle's interactive relative. Targeting both adult and child, the retailer's merchandise, set in a variety of price ranges and categories, rounds out the "toys for children of any age" concept.

Although continued evolution in retail store design is inevitable, the 1990s era of quick information requires retailers to mount a turbocharged response to changing design influences. A unique, specialized and customer-focused approach to store planning will allow retailers to adapt and thrive into the next millennium.

Candice Burns is president of Burns Retail Resource Inc., a Bensenville, Ill.-based retail consulting company specializing in visual retail audits for retailers and shopping centers.