While tech tumbles on the stock market, its impact on the appearance of store interiors is growing. According to many design professionals, high-tech features such as interactive kiosks, video monitors and plasma screens are increasingly changing the look and feel (and maybe ultimately the function) of the store interior as we know it today.

Major retailers in the forefront of technology-intensive, futuristic approaches to store design include Levis, The Wiz, Disney, Ray Ban, H2O+, and Skechers, says Thom Morbitzer, ASID, design director for Worthington, Ohio-based Cowan & Associates. High-tech design is here to stay, he says. “There will always be an audience that constantly wants the newest and latest that technology has to offer.”

Add to that growing list retailers such as Nike Town, Sony Stores, Limited Too, cellular services provider Fido and music stores Virgin, Camelot, Sam Goody, and Quebec-based Archambaut, notes Steve Sutton, an associate with Montreal-based Gervais Harding Associates. Like Morbitzer, he sees tech-intensive design as a firmly entrenched feature of the retail design scene.

“The dot.com generation is computer literate and technologically savvy,” explains Sutton. “Retailers now fear without some inclusion of technology in their stores, they risk being judged as not progressive and alienating this large customer base, for whom the use of technology is simply a way of life.”

High-tech design features have also taken firm root in the retail design community itself. “Technology will definitely continue to drive design,” says Larry Binkley, president of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Total Retail Group. Adds David Schowalter, senior interior designer for Somerville, Mass.-based Arrowstreet, “We can't do without these features. They have become part of the palette we work with, just like color.”

Design in action

Fidelity Investments' new 3,000- to 8,000-sq.-ft. “investment centers,” which are being rolled out in a number of malls and strip centers, make particularly effective use of high-tech interior trappings. Customers can walk into these centers and immediately get information from several plasma screens. “Or, they can go up to a touch-screen interactive kiosk to get other kinds of information, or type in a PIN (personal identification number) and trade stocks,” Schowalter notes.

Meanwhile, a highly visible LED band offers scrolling stock quotes and news items. “This functions kind of like the barber-shop poles of the old days by attracting attention and quickly letting people know what is inside the store,” says Schowalter.

According to Sutton, designs that promote and reflect interactions with technology — such as the wall of listening posts greeting consumers at Virgin Music stores — have become major design features, sales tools, and branding messages all at once. “At the same time,” Sutton says, “stores such as Fido use leading-edge technology to deliver their services, complemented by in-store tools such as Internet monitors, well-appointed product displays of high-tech gadgetry, and an inviting clean design.”

Moving forward

Sutton and other designers believe technology will change not only the way stores look, but also how they function. “Many retailers will require smaller footprints and locations because of reduced inventory, which would be a direct result of combining technology at the store level with on-line shopping,” Sutton notes.

However, some elements will remain constant, according to Craig Hale, retail program director for Fort Worth, Texas-based Carter & Burgess.

“Technology is here to stay,” he notes. “But, if a retailer relies too much on it, and doesn't provide good customer service and value for the dollar, no amount of high-tech in-store gadgetry is going to help.”

Martin Sinderman is an Atlanta-based writer.

SIDEBAR: High-tech appeal to (almost) all the senses

The interior of sporting goods retailer Nanoq's (Nordic for “polar bear”) 25,000-sq.-ft. flagship store in Reykjavik, Iceland, takes high-tech a step further than you might expect for a location that's kind of, well, out-of-the-way.

As part of programming the interior for Nanoq, Somerville, Mass.-based Arrowstreet made use of tech tools appealing to all the senses, according to senior interior designer David Schowalter. In addition to a holographic “river” that serves as a walking path, the firm made use of “pinpoint,” or targeted, sound, he notes.

“Nanoq installed a travel agency within the store, and we created a mezzanine for it that featured a large fireplace and comfortable chairs,” says Schowalter. In order to enhance presentations of vacation spots to individual customers, Arrowstreet incorporated pinpoint sound technology to accompany similarly targeted videos. “This enables a customer to sit and watch/listen to a video without disturbing anyone else nearby,” he says.

Arrowstreet's design didn't ignore the power of olfactory stimuli in creating an atmosphere for selling vacations. To help promote South Seas vacations, “we actually got into putting coconut smells in the air to accompany sounds of the sea and video of palm tree fronds waving,” Schowalter recounts. Not that this was a hard sell in this market. “In Iceland, the South Pacific is a very popular vacation destination.”

Recently, though, the scent of coconut at Nanoq's has given way to the smell of reconstituted lasagna boiling over an open campfire. The store has replaced the smell of the islands with the “Aurora Borealis Café,” reports Schowalter, “where freeze-dried camping foods are prepared in a pot of boiling water, allowing store patrons to smell and sample the results.”