Walk this way

It may well constitute the very basics of retail store design, but the challenge of enticing customers to visit every square foot of the shop floor demands a constant turnover of creative ideas from designers and retailers. The way the shoppers can be allured, tempted and seduced into the four corners of a store can mark the difference between mere shopping and an indulgent, sensory experience. Retail as theatre demands sets, props, smoke and mirrors.

There is an obvious commercial imperative to make every inch of the shop unit work hard, as rents are negotiated on floor space. But approaches to wresting the most out of this space can vary significantly depending on the brand. At one extreme there’s Ikea’s enforced route way, where every path must be trodden and every product regarded. Or, as Ikea rather innocuously puts it: ‘While exploring the store, visitors may be inspired to pick up a few extra products.’

Here, shoppers make a kind of deal with the devil: I’ll walk all the way around your store as long as you promise to show me lots of good products at low prices. Does it work? Well, Ikea attributes a large part of its success (worldwide sales of around E17bn and 500 million visitors in 2006) to this format. A spokeswoman for the company says the majority of visitors want ‘to explore the store and be inspired by all of our ideas and solutions’. And for the more focused customer there are shortcuts marked out, although some visitors have complained that these are not always obvious enough, adds the spokeswoman.

At the other end of the scale there’s a company like Apple, which is concerned with offering products that empower people and put them in control, according to Portland Design Associates director of retail Lewis Allen. ‘The Apple stores reflect this by allowing you to choose where to go, giving a nice wide, open space to walk around. This fits what the Apple brand is about,’ he says.

Most stores fall somewhere between these approaches, with a bit of cajoling and carrot dangling providing the impetus to move through the space. Clever use of lighting, route ways, signage cues, special promotions and even large-scale ‘exhibition’ objects, such as Dunhill’s vintage cars, are methods of catching the eye. Another enticement technique is the strategic placement of zones where customers can taste, smell or touch products. ‘It shouldn’t just be a passive journey. People want to try things and need motivation to keep going at a certain pace,’ says Allen.

Retailers can also take cues from exhibition design. Fashion brand Bench opened its first stand-alone store in Sheffield’s Meadowhall shopping centre earlier this month, taking just this theatrical or exhibition approach. Created by Barber Design Consultants, the 2,700 sq ft store recreates a Manchester house from 1989, referencing the brand’s origins. Features include an avocado bathroom suite, signature items such as a Game Boy console and iconic record sleeves from the Happy Mondays. ‘We have managed to bring together history, technology, art, music and the range of Bench product to create this story concept. We’re trying to create feature points that people will explore and talk about and that will create a conversational link between customers and staff,’ says Bench head of retail Greig Fowler.

Women’s fashion chain Coast is developing its stores with retail and brand environments agency Household, launching a concession format in Debenhams, Oxford Street last month. In department store environments a different approach to navigation is needed, says Household insights director Michelle Du-Prât. ‘We’ve treated the footprint like a normal store but with a convenience mindset. Customers pick up on visual cues for them to ‘stop’ and shop easily and quickly. The format has driven sales up exponentially in first month of trading,’ she claims.

Perhaps the most obvious means of guiding people through a space is the walkway. However, according to Dalziel & Pow director David Dalziel, there is a dilemma in the minds of retailers over whether walkways should be used to move people into every corner, or simply to guide them in and out of the store. ‘Prior to the arrival of [owner] Philip Green, BHS removed all the walkways and let people meander around. It was chaotic, with people getting confused, so they reverted,’ he says.

Dalziel also believes that the importance of sight lines is often overlooked. ‘Long views are very important, but many stores don’t take care of them, instead merchandising on all the corners. You need long views that show destination points. Dangling cardboard above people’s heads for navigation is one of the worst crimes a retailer can commit.’

This article was written for Marketing, 26 September 2007.

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