Just as the theory of evolution operates in nature, it also applies to retail design: only the fittest survive.

Sunglass Hut International learned this when it embarked on a prototype design and ended up with several stores. The strongest characteristics from each store remained, while new elements were developed to make sure the design would prosper in a competitive retail market.

In order to position itself in the fashion accessory business, Coral Gables, Fla.-based Sunglass Hut International decided to combine its two concepts - Sunglass Hut and Watch Station - into one store.

"Before, watches were looked at as purely a jewelry business," says Bill Betts, visual director for Sunglass Hut International. "Sunglasses were looked at as an expansion of the optical business. Today, you can have a watch to go swimming in or diving in, a watch to wear to work, and one to wear after work. The business has evolved tremendously in the past decade. The store design is a response to that."

Like the watch and sunglass business itself, the store design also evolved. At the start of the evolutionary process, Montreal-based Michel Dubuc Concept (MDC) designed what it called a side-by-side store, first at Perimeter Mall in Atlanta and then in Coconut Grove, Fla.

"The first duo store was a Watch Station store on one side with its personality, a Sunglass Hut store on the other side with its personality, and an open arched doorway between the two," says Michel Dubuc, president and founding partner of MDC. "It was one store, but two spaces with two entrances and two exterior signs."

The two spaces had certain elements in common, allowing both to work together within the same store. For instance, while the fixtures were different for each side of the store, they were all made of the same maple and perforated Plexiglas. Watches were merchandised on the Watch Station side and sunglasses were merchandised on the Sunglass Hut side, but a display case with both products was set under the arched doorway to unify the two spaces.

"What they had in common was the use of a large amount of maple on both floors, but with different-colored inserts and different-colored patterns," Dubuc says. "The Sunglass Hut side was a linear pattern reminiscent of a ship's deck, and the Watch Station side was a random pattern of cherry-colored wood and maple. Still, maple was the base material."

Traditional Sunglass Hut oranges highlighted that side of the store, while some blue coloration accented the Watch Station side. The colors complemented each other but appeared in their own separate spaces.

Because Sunglass Hut wanted to position itself in the fashion accessory business, it wanted its stores to express commonality between the two products. In the next evolution of the store design, MDC took down the center wall to create a more unified environment.

"The Collins Avenue store in Miami was the first duo store in the sense that it had only one entrance leading you into a combined Sunglass Hut Watch Station store," Dubuc says. "Inside the store you have on one side the Watch Station fixturing taken out of the Coconut Grove store, and on the other side you have elements of the Sunglass Hut store taken out of Coconut Grove. In the middle, you have what we developed for the Watch Station concept, circular fixtures in which sunglasses and watches were combined."

The main alteration from the Coconut Grove store to the Collins Avenue store was removal of the dividing wall, thus creating one store with one sign on the storefront. For the sign, the two store logos were combined. The new logo, which is also used on the store's direct mail pieces, was created in various combinations of stacking the logos and icons to meet different store requirements, Betts says.

In the Collins Avenue store, the fixturing materials were the same wood with metal trim, but the shapes were different. The Sunglass Hut side contained large wall niches with sliding doors, while the Watch Station side had etageres and lower cases, similar to jewelry cases.

"Initially it was thought, 'Could these two fixture designs live together in the same store?'" Dubuc says. "What allowed that to happen was that they were both in maple and both using Plexiglas backdrops and the same internal lighting. It did look like the same family of fixtures."

One of the strongest visual statements in the store is a large backwall made up of four transparencies. The transparencies can be altered to show one large graphic, or two smaller ones to highlight each product category.

"People find it very exciting to see in a Sunglass Hut store the presence of watches," Dubuc says. "Both those merchandise categories on their own are great, but when we brought them together, there's a whole new feel in the store that makes it more fun. If you look at sunglasses, and you look at watches, not only are they both fashion accessories, but there are also a lot of other similarities. You're talking about metal, glass, circular shapes and even price ranges that sometimes are almost the same."

These kinds of parallelisms between the two products are what inspired the design.

"The store design is a flexible template that really echoes futuristic, spherical origins that come from the sun," Betts says. "We are about protection from the sun and time. You learn to tell time from the sun, and your sunglasses protect your vision from the sun. All these origins go back to the sun and the sundial."

Another reference to the sun appears in the design of the final evolutionary store on Lincoln Road in South Beach, Fla. In the store, huge circular shapes hang from the ceiling. The 6-foot-diameter Plexiglas circles with stainless-steel edges serve to bounce off the light from above. Other curves and references to circles are evident throughout.

For instance, a curved wall in the back of the store intersects with the wall containing the four-poster visual, drawing the eye all the way to the back of the store.

Perhaps the biggest change, and most successful part of the evolution, is the fixturing. In the Lincoln Road store, referred to as the full combo, the fixturing is identical on both sides. Instead of several 4-foot niches, as in the previous design, a continuous wall niche runs the entire length of the store. Before, each niche was separated by a mirror; now, mirrors are on a track system and can slide all along the niche.

These new fixtures have several advantages. First, because they are identical on both sides, the design is more unified. Second, watches and sunglasses can now be merchandised on either side of the store.

"For example, you can introduce the Oakley watch in the middle of an Oakley sunglass presentation," Dubuc says. Also, the quantity of each product type can be altered throughout the year, so the store won't necessarily have to display 50% sunglasses and 50% watches all the time.

Another advantage is the ability to tell a story in the proper amount of space. "You can stop a presentation anywhere along the way and start a new one," Dubuc says. "Before, a niche would hold about 48 to 50 units. If you have a 12-unit introductory package, you have to put another vendor in there and you can't make the new line stand out. In this continuous niche, you can find a lot of different strategies to do a small collection and then move on to the next fashion story."

In the future, Dubuc hopes to develop more propping elements to use in the niches. Although the fixturing is more flexible, it is also a challenge, so props will help with visual merchandising.

Because the new fixtures are made with more glass and less wood, the visibility is better. "The sides of the cases on the ends are glass so you can look in, not only through the front but also the side," Betts says. "It pulls you into the store and makes you feel like you want to look all the way through the store."

In working with the store's color scheme, the designers kept the same basic palette but altered the shades. "We've combined the orange and blue on the same wall in a sort of warm and cold treatment," Dubuc says. "It's a fairly bright orange. The blue is a powdery light blue. The rest of the walls are all white and the ceiling is a dark night blue. The two colors live very well together."

In coming to the final stage of the evolution - the Lincoln Road store - Sunglass Hut and MDC overcame many obstacles. The flexibility, which is now resolved with the continuous cases, was perhaps the biggest issue. Also, Sunglass Hut wanted to not only unify both concepts but also make the store appealing to a broader segment of the population.

"It (Lincoln Road) is a softer store," Betts says. "It's not as square and edgy. There's more round and curved surfaces. It appeals to more of a mix of female and male customers, whereas historically Sunglass Hut stores were better received by male consumers than female consumers."

When Sunglass Hut International set out to blend two of its retail concepts into one store, it needed a design that would allow both products to work together. Creating just the right environment for the Sunglass Hut Watch Station duo store became an evolutionary process. The prototype needed to combine the colors, fixtures and logos of both concepts. Michel Dubuc Concept worked with Sunglass Hut every step of the way, finishing with a design that is flexible, visually appealing and helps the retailer position itself in the fashion accessory business.