In my experience, it has become impossible to speak about store design without discussing retail branding. They are two essential sides of the same coin. To be frank, retail branding requires authoritative, strategic decision making. It is a top-down process that is not democratic if it is to be efficient and effective; it is closer to a battle plan than an election.

In the end, the only ones with the power to vote are the paying customers. In today's marketplace, customers are becoming more and more empowered, and they have a multitude of choices that allow them to decide what and when they will buy and how much they are willing to pay. To be successful, the retailer must focus on this empowerment through a selling environment that is unique, memorable and relevant.

Mansour Design begins the design process with our clients by completing three essential tasks:

* establishing a "Vision Team" composed of the top decision makers in the client organization;

* familiarizing ourselves with consumer intimacy data; and

* creating a brand platform from which any person working with the retailer can clearly understand its customer and its overall strategic mission.

Only after these issues have been addressed do we begin to three-dimensionalize the customer experience. The "brand soul" then molds into a functional selling environment with a customer-focused point of view, one that provides a strategic, sustainable competitive advantage over other retailers.

For the most part, retailers cannot afford brand shrines that are primarily brand marketing vehicles as opposed to sales generators. As a strong sales vehicle, I think we struck a very successful balance with the Sony Style store, which has very high dollar performance yet offers an engaging retail experience that is "on equity" for the Sony brand.

A few thoughts on branding: A product is something that is made in a factory; a brand is something that is bought by a customer. A store can be copied by a competitor, but a brand is unique. Brand development is the process of adding value and a distinct personality to a product or service. What makes a strong brand? A strong brand consistently delivers product range, imaginative store design, visual merchandising, customer service, marketing, people, values and culture.

* Favorite retail store(s) Joseph's London: "Joseph's is constantly evolving its concept, its point of view and merchandise. When I walk into the store, it always seems as if it has been put together with me in mind and I feel like I acquire something with every visit." Christian Dior, Paris Flagship: "A noteworthy new design that integrates Dior's history with its future in a fun yet sophisticated environment."

* Favorite restaurant design Pharmacy in London: "Designed by Damien Hirst, this is a scene straight out of 'Valley of the Dolls.' The intoxicating color scheme is based on pills. All the models, writers and actors are buzzed with the atmosphere of its ironic concept."

* Most improved retail image Gucci, London Flagship: "Gucci is firing on all cylinders. Design director Tom Ford has extended his point of view from product design to packaging and advertising, and now to the understated luxury of this London store."

James Mansour, Mansour Design 495 Broadway, 2nd Floor New York, N.Y. 10012 (212) 941-0970 mandesign@aol.com

* Number of years in the industry: 20

* Recent retail project(s): Sony Style, San Francisco; Screen Zone Multimedia; Maurices; Juxtapose; Swank Shops, Hong Kong; Early Learning Center and Dolcis, United Kingdom; and Street One, Germany.

* Upcoming project(s): Carter's Children's Wear, C&A Department Stores, Simmons/Beauty Rest, and Milliken carpet product line.