“Design is a funny word,” Steve Jobs said. “Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.” Admittedly, Jobs was talking about designing computers and other high-tech products.
Defining design may be even “funnier” when it comes to retail spaces. Is retail design about how the spaces look? How well they sell? How many people walk in the door?
To help unravel that question, Mike Ruehlman, director of design with FRCH Design Worldwide, a global hospitality and retail design firm, says retail design is all about engaging the customer using the many touchpoints that architects, interior and graphics designers have in their tool box.
“Its about creating compelling design ecosystems that are a singular expression of the brand that facilitate the customers’ experience of the brand,” Ruehlman says. Sounds good, but what exactly does that mean, I ask.
Rather than tell me, he showed me what “the ecosystem of retail design” means through three examples.
The wow factor at American Girl
The new American Girl Rockefeller Plaza store is designed to delight with age-appropriate luxury for little girls and their dolls. It is a place where every girl becomes queen for a day.
“We designed experiences that engage guests before, during and after their day in the store, using technology and in-store experiences. Guests typically spend four hours or more there. We want to give girls an experience they have always dreamed about,” Ruehlman says.
Those experiences include an expanded American Girl Salon where dolls are primped by professional stylists, with a technology interface so little girls can virtually select the hair style, nail color and earrings for their doll while waiting. This provides valuable consumer insights for the company into preferences, and makes for a more satisfying interaction with the stylist once the little girl and her doll are in the chair.
“Technology was designed to be part and parcel of the whole American Girl experience,” Ruehlman explains, which only is appropriate today as even kindergarteners are taught on computers.
Little girls can also use it to create their own doll, either online before arriving at the store so the doll is ready and waiting, or in the store’s Create Your Own Design Studio where girls can choose the doll’s hair style, eye color, with or without freckles and “the whole gamut of possibilities to customize and personalize her doll,” he continues.
With new or refreshed doll in hand, girls and their mothers can enjoy lunch or a birthday party in the American Girl Café.
This is the second engagement for FRCH with American Girl, the doll company founded by Pleasant Rowland in 1986 and now part of Mattel, having worked on an expansion project in its New York City flagship store in 2008. It came back to ask FRCH to design its “Store of the Future” concept, which you can see today.
“Technological integration within the space was more important than ever,” Ruehlman says. “The physical store empowered with technology enhancements heighten the guest’s sensory level with engaging touch, sound, smell and graphics that fit the American Girl brand image.”
Graphics in motion at T-Mobile
For mobile communications company T-Mobile, FRCH created a big, bold statement at the entrance to five flagship stores, including the Times Square location, that stand in stark contrast to the more understated expression of an Apple store, for example.
Guests are greeted at the door with engaging motion graphics that act as a “brand beacon to immerse the guest right away when they enter the store,” Ruehlman says.
The visual displays were inspired by the rich imagery of the brand’s advertising campaigns. These graphic billboards allow the stores to dial in new content to customize and personalize the experience.
These visual displays provide brand-centric messaging, but also stimulate energy and excitement that get the guest in the right frame of mind as he or she enters the store.
“T-Mobile is bigger, bolder and louder. Its CEO John Legere embodies that and it comes to life in these new retail spaces,” Ruehlman explains.
“The beauty with motion graphics lies in their ability to add architectural depth to a space with color, brand storytelling and animation,” Ruehlman continues.
“Motion graphics offer a brand the ability to quickly adapt to brand changes or special campaigns or even tweak secondary brand architectural elements to keep ahead of the trends. With technology continuing to evolve, the opportunities are endless,” he adds.
Hershey’s Chocolate World combines the old with the new
Hershey is chocolate. Founded by Milton Hershey in 1887, originally as a caramel candy company in Lancaster, Pa., Hershey moved the factory to Derry Township and created a euphoniously named town as the company switched to chocolate.
Hershey, Pa., is “Chocolate Town,” and it celebrates all things chocolate. It includes Hersheypark amusements, Hotel Hershey and its chocolate spa and Hershey Chocolate World, which now spans eight locations, including the new destination in Times Square that FRCH brought to life.
“The storyline we created in that in-store experience was to combine the brand’s nostalgic, 19th-century roots and blend them with an over-the-top, 21st-century Times Square experience,” Ruehlman says.
“We blended the two design languages so when you walk into the store you find rusticated brick and wood materials that hearken back to Hershey’s historic imagery. And you have big signage elements that are in keeping with the atmosphere of Times Square,” he continues.
Outside the store there is a large digital display that tells the Hershey story and invites passersby in. Inside guests are greeted by the pervading smell of chocolate, a proprietary scent wafted through the store’s HVAC system, and graphic elements, like Hershey Kisses light fixtures that evoke the brand.
“We looked back to utilize the inspiration from Hershey’s rich history, but give the brand a facelift in a really cool way using neon signs in the store that create a vibrancy of color that really comes through,” Ruehlman explains.
Interactive elements have been provided in the store, including a Hershey’s Kitchens bakery where guests can enjoy cookies, brownies and drinks. Also in store is a food truck/camper where guests can order s’mores, the fireside treat.
There also is a customization center where guests can personalize a chocolate bar with photographs from their phone, or staff associates can take a picture for them. “It all comes together to create a really cool experience,” Ruehlman says.
Today retailers are called upon to design dynamic, engaging customer experiences in their stores. All the design elements need to further that engagement and give the customer something more than a product to leave the store with. Retailers need to create memories.
Interactive technology enhancements, motion graphics and brand storytelling provide a wow factor that take in-store shopping from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Sad to say, retail brands will invest in these no-holds-barred expressions in a destination like New York City, but fail to think through the implications of adapting them to less-prominent locations, like the mall near you or me.
I applaud American Girl, T-Mobile and Hershey’s retail creativity, but call on other retailers to imagine how thinking bigger, bolder and more creatively in the design of their stores could engage all their shoppers, not just the ones in New York City or visiting there.