How Brick and Mortars Laid the Foundation for Experiential

By Jake Strelow, Creative Director / 05.24.2017

As brands looked to their storefronts to compete with online retailers in the 90s and early 2000s, they created more inspirational and impactful shopping experiences that helped shoppers identify with their products. Marketers noticed, and took the concept to the streets.

The Growth of Design Literacy

Consumers have become much more aware of design over the last decade, demanding more beautifully designed products and environments than ever before. Why is the general public more well-versed in design now than in the past? With the proliferation of well-designed retail stores and restaurants, consumers are immersed in it, and this has raised the bar and reset the expectations for what people want from a retail or shopping experience.

Good design in our collective built environment is everywhere in a way it wasn’t just twenty years ago. There are other factors that have brought the appreciation and understanding of ‘design’ into the mainstream – the popularity of home improvement shows, design competition based reality shows and real estate makeover shows and new media. All these things have exposed people to great design. Focusing on the origins of and pervasiveness of good design in our everyday experiences can help us leverage the power of the built environment to influence consumer feelings.

Redefining the Shopper Experience in the Internet Age

Stores were not always this interesting or engaging. What happened?

It goes without saying that everything in the last twenty-five years has been subject to the influence of the Internet. Retailing was hit especially hard by the new digital world to the point where people wondered if traditional storefronts would survive. Brick and mortar retailers realized they needed to up their game in the face of intense competition from online retailers. They weren’t going to win a customer’s business on price because the online retailers would almost always beat them. Along with more personal customer service, the main distinction and asset they had was the physical environment in which to shape the shopping experience.

The design of that environment became an essential tool to drive traffic and create a memorable and enjoyable event. Stores had to offer more engaging and imaginative environments that would shape the experience and emotional connection consumers would have with their stores (and their brand).

Building Brand Connections

The shopping experience is the place where the relationship between consumer and brand happens in a visceral way. Just as people still buy books made of paper and vinyl records, there is something fundamentally human about the sensory interaction and relationship we have with physical objects. It goes without saying that environments also provide a physical place for people to interact, commune and build relationships. If the internet is transcendent and ephemeral, then going shopping with friends to try on clothing is immanent and essential. Humans need a variety of experiences, ones that engage all of our sensory receptors. The question for retailers became: what kind of experience should we create and is that experience worth the trip, worth the time, worth the effort?

Won’t You Take Me To…Nike Town!

Before the dawn of the internet age, before Amazon laid waste to Borders book stores, Nike laid the groundwork for the future of retail. Nike pulled an end run around their distributors like Foot Locker and department stores by building their own store where they could control every detail of the shopping experience. By using the architectural space, the displays, lighting and graphics to embody and express their brand, they transformed their products into icons. If you were around then and were familiar with the typical shopping experience, you will remember that this was a big deal. People would make trips to Nike Town not necessarily to shop but to marvel at the creativity, innovation, exuberance and even the audacity of the space. Gigantic graphics showed Nike sponsored athletes like Greek gods presiding over the temple of sport itself. A new standard was set, a guide to rehabilitating a lackluster retailing experience that company after company would imitate to counter the onslaught of low priced online invaders.

Greatness By Association

By this time in the early 1990’s, retailers had figured out production, distribution and product differentiation and created a world that offered consumers an array of quality items to choose from. With so many relatively equal options, the strength and appeal of a company’s brand could be the deciding factor in consumer choice. Brand, a company’s DNA, was given new weight in the business world. Brands are an experience manifesto that declare alignment with consumer’s values, personality and identity. Saucony and New Balance may make a better running shoe, but buying Nike puts you near the pantheon of Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson and Serena Williams. Call it vanity or aspirational marketing, the truth is that people care about who they associate with, which contributes in a large part to their identity as a human.

Now, all successful clothing stores have their own personality and look. You wouldn’t confuse a Tommy Bahama store for Aeropostale or lululemon. Conversely, department stores, the former “anchors” of monstrous shopping centers, struggled in this new world. The very variety of their offering diluted the strength of their message and ability to design unique spaces in any coherent, interesting way.

Thinking Differently

Apple deserves mention here. It has pulled off a neat trick of using a minimalist interior design aesthetic, at once associating itself with the modern international style of mid-century masters like Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson while also creating a pristine canvas upon which its totem-like products can stand out. Its white, silver aluminum and light wood materials also function like a “blank slate” onto which we can all project our own idiosyncratic psychologies. Their stores, like their products are both incredibly personal and universal. Steve Jobs eternal drive for perfection emanates from everything we see, touch and feel in these stores. The store, like the iPhone, is reduced to its simple essence. The result is striking, they made computing technology personal and friendly in a time when it lacked warmth and humanity.

Building a Brand

This new era of retailing proved that the experience mattered. The variety of distinct experiences has proliferated in the retail, dining and hospitality sectors, from Dave and Busters to the W Hotel. Companies use architectural design to market and advertise themselves, much like how we all dress to communicate our position in society, personality and mood that day. Evaluating the interior design of a store, restaurant or hotel is like peering into the psychology of the target consumer. The form, materials, colors, graphics, the sound and scent of a space will either align with a consumer’s aspirations and desires or it won’t. Knowing who you are and who your customer is, is critical for success.

The larger lesson here is to understand that design is more than making something functional look beautiful, sleek or whimsical. We design to please ourselves, yes, but we are not who the art is for, it’s the people who live in and engage with the environment. Designers must approach their work with the specific audience in mind and understand that choices about the layout of a space, its color, form, materials and lighting create a mood and a feeling in a consumer that will contribute in a crucial way to their overall experience, encouraging them to engage or steer clear. The key is to translate a brand’s identity into the dimensional world so the consumer gets something positive from interacting with it. Nike, Disney and Apple all pioneered the evolution of the brand experience, but it’s up to designers to keep pushing that thinking forward, discovering new ways to create engaging experiences that pique their fans interest beyond the retail space and into consumer’s everyday lives.

If you want to talk more about design at retail and the evolution of experiential marketing or want to talk about designing your next experience, contact us!

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