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What's driving retail: Flexibility

Robert Thiemann, founder and managing editor of spatial design publisher Frame, unpacks the design challenges of building a retail space that can be both flexible and comprehensible.

Why do you think that creating truly flexible retail space has become key to a successful in-store strategy?

Increased pressure from e-commerce forces retailers to double down on the one thing that online shopping can’t offer: a physical, multisensory experience. Transforming from points of sale to points of experience, successful brick-and-mortar stores across all categories no longer only sell products. They also host events such as product launches, talks, pop-ups and even cultural exhibitions or film screenings to entertain and educate their clientele. Therefore there’s a stronger need for flexibility than ever before. Store layouts need to accommodate change overnight to make events of all sorts happen. Moreover, an increasing number of retailers experiment with adapting in-store inventory and the way it’s merchandised to the preferences of their online following. Slowly but surely visual merchandising is making way for design by data.

How can spatial designers overcome the challenge of designing a space that is both highly flexible, but also offers some sort of structure to the customer journey?

Flexibility can be achieved in two ways. In the overall layout of the store certain areas can be dedicated to events. In fact, these more or less empty spaces should be able to host everything from pop-ups to screenings. Secondly, the displays in the spaces with a commercial focus should facilitate transformation. They should be able to be moved to another position or accommodate a different kind of product without big financial or human efforts. By separating commercial from more ‘cultural’ areas the store architecture can remain the same no matter which event is taking place or which products are on display, safeguarding the integrity of the customer journey.

What, in your opinion, are some particularly notable examples of flexible retail space?

One store that springs to mind is Frame Awards 2019 Multi-Brand Store of the Year winner United Cycling. Apart from the fact that it looks like no other bike retailer, it sports products suspended from the ceiling that clients can interact with by simply lowering them with the click of a button. Schemata Architects designed an entire store concept around similar vertical movement. Its outlets for Japanese streetwear brand Descente Blanc are built around clothing racks that serve as suspended stock rooms: whenever staff need to get a certain size or colour of a product, they lower the suspended racks. Flexible in an entirely different way are eyewear brand Gentle Monster’s famous in-store installations, which resemble works of art and change every four to six weeks.

Publication date: 05.09.2019