Design for a better shopping experience

shoppingWalking in the customers’ shoes is the first step in developing an effective and responsive strategy for both shopping centre and store design.

We humans have designed and studied ideal animal habitats for generations. We have designed wonderful sanctuaries for highly social animals, such as gorillas, and built places where they can live and thrive. So why do retailers and shopping centre operators so often come up short when it comes to designing shopping environments that people actually enjoy being in?

This issue is now being addressed with increasing urgency as the simple transactional needs of people are now being increasingly met by non-physical retail. Attend enough industry conferences and read enough of the business media and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the technology revolution has an answer for everything when it comes to creating great shopping experiences. If only it were that simple. Emerging technologies, from robots to mobile POS, beacons and the omnichannel ‘endless aisle’, have an important role to play in contemporary retail settings.

Some technologies show great promise in removing the pain points that make various aspects of shopping completely miserable. How often do we find ourselves unable to navigate our way around a store or a shopping centre? Why is it always so hard to find the product we want in our preferred colour and size? Not to mention the ire of having to stand in a crowded pathway to pay for the merchandise in our shopping cart. The list goes on.

Technology is coming up with answers to these, and many other, problems that have plagued retail stores and shopping centres for years. It would be misguided, however, to believe that removing pain points technologically is a magic bullet for improving the instore shopping experience. Let’s take a step back and look at what we are trying to achieve – we want to create a great place for humans to interact with each other and with brands, and to complete transactions. Technology is an input into that process, but it is not an end in itself.

Designing such go-to places for shoppers must begin with a fundamentally human-centred approach; that is, founded on behavioural and empathic analysis of consumers. Design and place management must then be brainstormed to determine how best to respond to the results of the analysis.

Calling on empathic research

Empathic research in retail is a shopper-centric design process that uses observational tools to understand the user experience. It captures real-life data on demographics, specific behaviours, preferences and needs, essentially inquiring what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes. A simple example of an empathic response is designing a kids’ clothing or toy store with aisles wide enough to comfortably push a pram. Amazingly, some children’s stores don’t accommodate this. Another example is a large sharing table with newspapers and magazines at a people-watching spot. A third example is extra seating, with signage in extra large font size, in places where the customer base is older. Once you have a full understanding of the suite of basic needs of your customers, you may find that large-scale technological or infrastructural responses are not necessarily the top priorities. Micro-changes are often the most valuable and the most overlooked.

Human needs and experiential retail

Despite the recent hype over experiential retail, the concept has been around for centuries, without being coined as such. Traditional markets have been a place for both commerce and social interaction ever since the beginning of towns. Today, when we go to a market it is typically a fun experience. It’s a special day out, with a raft of incidental and planned social opportunities, not to mention sensory stimulation on a grand scale – seeing, smelling, hearing, touching and haggling. Markets are perceived as a place where you are likely to find a diverse range of things to do and buy that you don’t expect, and you won’t find anywhere else.

Markets feel inviting and comfortable because they are casual, sheltered, intimate and there is an established level of social trust – the stalls are left wide open for anyone to browse and try the products on offer. The perception of the traders being locals and advocates for the product adds to building that trust, enabling friendly chats and bartering with the customers.

Sephora, Apple and Microsoft are examples of contemporary retailers that have successfully taken on board some of the attributes of traditional markets. In each of these cases, the stores are ‘open plan’, displaying a colourful range of products waiting to be pressed, touched and played with.

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 9.29.18 AMThe display tables and store spaces are generous and comfortable, offering people room to socialise with each other and interact with the products. The large display panels take up some of the walls but the static images gently sit back in the corner of one’s eye, letting the products stand out. The store staff are seen frequently and they actually look approachable, with smiles and friendly mannerisms. The wide walking lanes offer ample space to move around, even when the stores are crowded.

More importantly, the staff are well-trained, knowledgeable and helpful. All three of these retailers have paid attention to what makes people feel great in a shopping place. Getting back to some sociological and placemaking basics is essential. Often store designers are concerned with the form and function of individual design elements, rather than considering the retail space holistically. Lighting, furniture, signage, digital screens, architectural finishes, technology – these elements need to be designed as part of an overarching experiential strategy. Walking in the customers’ shoes is the first step towards developing an effective and responsive strategy.

Julia Suh is owner of Urban Toolbox (urbantoolbox.com.au).

Michael Baker is principal of Baker Consulting (www.mbaker-retail.com).

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