Store design and brick-and-mortar retailing in a decade or two

Retail is the future. It’s tradition. If all of the oh-so modern and mathematical forecasts are to be believed, then there won’t be any stores left in a few years’ time anyway. After all, “rational” thinkers predict that we will all be buying everything online by then and brick-and-mortar stores will simply serve as museums. I don’t accept this. 

Firstly, fear-based news may get the most attention but there is less substance to it than more encouraging projections. 

Secondly, distance selling, currently blamed for crippling competition, has been around for centuries – consider pre-Christian trade routes, the first Le Bon Marché sales catalogue (from 1856, incredibly) and trade in fresh produce. Fleurop has also been sending flowers worldwide for more than 110 years. And yet we still have flower shops.

Thirdly, the forecasts do not consider one key element. At the end of the day, we’re “just” people. With an ingrained need for human interaction and good feelings, not the quick buzz of a bargain. And that is where the potential lies.

Retail is about doing things. Not just profiting.

You need only take a quick look back at history, and modern brain research confirms it: the focus in recent decades has been on very rational aspects such as progress, mechanisation and digitisation. We can already fly to the moon as tourists, play god and clone other creatures and bring about stock market crashes with money that doesn’t even exist. These strange miracles are dominated by people’s extrinsic motivations, our drive to prove and assert ourselves. Monetary success, an egocentric career, autonomy, apparent life hacks and coolness are what count.

These are certainly of immense importance in our present post-industrial society, but our history, politics and now also our environment already show the deep and painful tracks we have left, slowly revealing to us our limits. An urgent rethink is required. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, however, as we carry the solution within us – our intrinsic motivations: for happiness, health and self-preservation, social belonging and the multifaceted power of love. 

Strategy: human interaction

Extrinsic motivations are easier to describe and reflect how we see ourselves. They can even be taxed by the revenue authorities and verbalised in newspapers or visualised in Instagram accounts. But they come and go. Even Facebook has fallen out of fashion again.

Intrinsic motivations elude verbal and visual representation and involve our subconscious, our feelings and our inner desires, which may have been dismissed in recent years but are now making a comeback with renewed attention, fascination and power – whether that be the cult of body and fitness, healthy eating or the urgent need for everyone to simply get along and also in relation to nature. People are realising: we only get one life. There is only one Earth.

Retail is tradition. With a future

While on holidays in Egypt with my children last year, we strolled past a store which seemed somewhat makeshift to our European eyes. And yet it still held mysterious (magical?) appeal. A well-worn red carpet led us inside, where we stared in amazement at the small bottles, sorted by colour, the frayed but opulent seating area and the impressive chandelier: broken, but still unforgettable given its sheer size. We were first asked how our day was going and which type of tea we would like. (Instead of the usual “Is there anything I can assist you with today? ... No, thank you, I’m just browsing” blah-blah.). No, this was not a tea shop. The water bubbled in a beautiful copper kettle. My astonished children were gifted a mini-bottle with Oriental designs and the hospitality we were shown made us feel at home and charmed. Using signs and gestures, we managed to discuss with the shop assistants the delicate touch needed to produce essences and the magic of scents, spices and fine oils... Afterwards, we asked ourselves why all we have in Germany is the very chemical oriented perfume selection offered by frequently heavily made-up women at Douglas...

My intrinsic motivation responded: I didn’t “buy” any perfume, because I already have a bathroom full of it. But I “spoiled” myself with two indescribably bewitching aromatic and body oils (vanilla and sandalwood), which both came with stories which are surely also some form of traditional marketing strategy but showed me one thing: it’s the encounter that matters, not the commerce. I learned something about scents and their tradition while also experiencing a moment from the Arabian Nights. Of course, I did haggle and “rewarded” myself because it was a pleasure and an experience, a delight for the senses. Not everyone who entered this wonderful shop went on to buy something, but everyone was offered tea and a place on the red velvet sofa. Back home, you only get offered something if you make a purchase. We demonstrate arrogance, without showing pride in ourselves.

Mental concepts – new and old marketing knowledge

Why am I telling you this story of what happened to me?

This form of Mediterranean retail hospitality got me thinking. And it embarrassed me how we really only put in a great deal of effort in Europe when it comes to marketing, economic efficiency and profit strategies, without considering the customer’s real needs. Namely, the need for interaction, dialogue and reliability. 

This is where I see potential. Especially for retailers. Perhaps that is also one of the reasons why online trade is booming: why not cut out the moody shop assistant and neglected store when the product costs the same online anyway and will even be delivered to my home nicely packaged?

It used to be price. Now, value is everything. 

The fact is, stores that do not engage with customers at a personal level lose any customer relationship. 

It is not the much-decried online trading which is the problem, but the brick-and-mortar retailers who have handed customers to online retailers on a plate through their modern/rational, whitewashed and purely profit-motivated peddling of our products. That is the nub of the matter. And precisely where YOUR opportunity lies: to fill your store with life, dialogue and enthusiasm. 

Dialogue and resonance - two magic words. In this age of hollow transactions and 90% return rates, we long all the more for the emotional and thus more effective components: store design concepts with charm. A space for tradition and honest craftsmanship, for individual flair and authenticity. Room for owners who stand in and behind their beautiful stores with their names and passion. Presentations which enhance and frame the product. Concepts designed to boost how employees and customers feel. We need smells again, the right music and sounds, velvety materials, wood that you long to touch, smiling faces and little treats and gestures for our children.

There are no beautiful or ugly stores, just suitable or unsuitable ones...

Even large online providers have rediscovered the strengths and opportunities of implicit concepts and are opening brick-and-mortar stores where they can more easily offer experiences, food for the senses and dialogue. 

Research conducted at the Charité clinic in Berlin showed that an intensive care unit design that promotes greater interaction and dialogue and provides a more sensory experience leads to a considerably and measurably faster healing process. What does this mean for retailing? Well-designed stores that appeal to our senses subconsciously affect how we feel and behave. Essentially, they have greater sales because it’s more fun shopping in them. 

Anyone who loves their store will present it lovingly (store furnishings do not necessarily have to be expensive to have an effect) and will value their products, employees and company philosophy. You cannot go wrong if you seek to charm your customers and make their lives better, rather than simply looking for what you can get out of them. After all, retailing is about meeting people. And people want to be loved. There is no point in taking a passive approach: the future is what WE make of it.

About the author: 

Stefan Suchanek is an aesthete, retail designer, consultant, speaker and lecturer in visual rhetorics, presentation and reasoning at the AMD Academy for Fashion & Design in Munich. He draws his expertise from knowledge of traditional design theory, evolutionary biology and brain science to design more interactive, intelligent and mindful business spaces and showrooms: spaces which bring forth a positive response, value people and boost sales by creating a lasting feeling of well-being through meaning and sensuality.