In search of the new shopfront
As the role of retail changes in our lives, the role of shops is also changing. There’s still a customer journey but it’s not a linear beeline to the store – it’s turned into a loop. We talk about the convergence of online and physical shopping but in reality, the use of the internet is creating divergence.
For example, you read in social media on your commute about a friend’s new gadget. You research it online at work at lunchtime. You go to a retail outlet to experience it in real life. Then you read some reviews and compare prices. Many of us do this in-store on our mobiles. You make the decision to purchase and do so using your tablet from your bed. The item turns up in a designated locker at your local train station. You enjoy trying it out and tell your friends about it on social media. They then seek it out. The loop continues. You can look at that as convergence but it’s also useful to look at it as divergence – the shop doesn’t need to do all the work any more.
So why are we still creating shops that do all the work?
Customer expectations are evolving. Pretty soon, shoppers will not expect to walk out with a bag. The new expectation is that your purchases will be delivered to you, leaving your hands free to fully experience the rest of your shopping expedition, whether it’s clothes shopping, a dining experience or entertainment. All you really need to do in a shop is experience the product in the best possible way in its best possible environment. Lots of stock won’t be necessary, just demo or try-on stock. It could even extend to food shopping, where supermarkets will start to merge with restaurants. You try out the food by eating in, than have the ingredients delivered to your home to re create it.
As the role of shops changes, so does the role of shopfronts. The origin of shopfronts came from the high street, where originally, people sold goods from their homes. In medieval times, as the role of cities evolved, traders freed up the ground floor of their dwellings for commerce and lived in the upper floors. Of course, the windows of the ground floor became bigger and more glazing was incorporated so customers could see in. The art of window dressing evolved and with it came the need for awnings to prevent glare and shelter customers from the elements. Here in Australia, awnings became a permanent and required feature of the streetscape, resulting in the creation of divided building elevations and the plethora of signage on our high streets.
A different game
Amazingly, with the invention of shopping malls, the architecture of the shopfront didn’t change all that much – glass windows of ever-increasing size remain the norm, with some stores even opting for swing doors (again of increasing size) despite the fact that we no longer have to keep the weather out and the mall environments are relatively secure after closing time. Unlike high street pedestrians, only a percentage of whom will be in shopping mode, mall shoppers are all in shopping mode. Those customers aren’t being swept to the side in the wake of other travellers just trying to get from A to B. So you’d argue that window displays in malls don’t have to be as aggressive or as eye catching as in a high street. You could further argue that they don’t need to be there at all – they are forming an obstacle to customers entering the store.
We’re playing a different game in malls. On a street frontage, we need to protect the store from the elements and entice customers to cross an inflexible lease line to enter the store. Where security needs are high, those customers may even have to be buzzed in or enter through a security lobby – what a pain. It takes commitment on the customer’s part. So window shopping takes on a much more important role, especially on streets with nighttime pedestrian traffic when the stores are closed.
Malls don’t have these limitations. There’s no weather. We have “in the zone” shoppers moving at low speed looking for something to buy. We want them in the store so they can see, touch, feel, smell or taste what we’re selling. So why do we distract them by creating large and complex window displays that make them stop and think twice before they come in? A wide, welcoming opening leading to an enticing store interior is what’s important. Of course, it’s important to have a display of what’s new at the front of the store and you still have to get the customer to cross the lease line. What I’m saying is, remove the barriers and make it easy for them to do so.
Crossing the line
To do this, we need to either harden or soften the lease line. By hardening, I mean making the lease line so solid and opaque with such a tiny opening that it creates an overwhelming curiosity in customers. The likes of Hollister and Gilly Hicks have done this by creating architectural facades with absolutely no views into the store and a dark, mysterious interior. In doing this, you’re putting a lot of faith in the strength of your brand alone to attract new customers. It’s a risky manoeuvre, as the stores will continue to look the same from the outside even as seasons or merchandise change, but it will be successful for the Abercrombie and Fitches of the world, where the offer is so well-known that it’s sought out. The Gilly Hick’s store in Westfield Stratford in the UK had a storefront that consisted of a huge video wall, supposedly live footage from Bondi Beach. It took the idea ridiculously far, particularly as it would have been dark at Bondi during British shopping hours.
The safer and more productive option is to soften the lease line as much as possible. What you do is create a 3D inclusive space which is part of both the mallscape and storescape.
Westfield Miranda has some great examples of soft leaselines. The Hype shoe store has a shopfront that isn’t glass but consists of floor to ceiling timber fins that create a louvre effect. Depending on the angle you look at it, it’s either closed off or open. The most intriguing aspect is that it changes from closed to open as you walk past it. There’s little in the way of window display but a fantastic array of shoes visible just inside. The temptation to enter is irresistible.
Scotch and Soda has no display window. In fact, the shopfront is the open end of a huge tent that forms the store. Again, what’s near the front is important but not nearly as important as getting customers inside.
Yellow Earth in Melbourne’s Emporium has a long lease line and has dispensed with the idea of glass in favour of an undulating shopfront sculpted from tensioned rope. What an eye catcher. Not only does it disrupt the idea of shop window but it offers tantalising glimpses of what’s inside.
When designing Attik Clothing at Warringah Mall, McCartney Design faced the challenge of a 60-square metre shop with a six-metre lease line and a six-metre high shopfront with a column in it. Floor-to-ceiling glass would have blown the limited budget right away. Our solution is an open framework that forms part of the mallscape but also gives form to the rest of the store. There’s an ambiguous space around the leaseline where the customer is in both the mall and the store. There’s no real window but there’s space for a mannequin to casually sit on the stairs. It’s designed for maximum customer flow into the shop and through to the over-sized dressing rooms at the back where the real selling takes place. It’s the chain’s best performing store.
Now you see it, now you don’t
But what happens when you remove the shopfronts altogether? It’s happening more and more in Asia, where some malls are becoming a mall/department store hybrid. But unlike department stores, which are increasingly laid out by brand, the latest ones are laid out according to the customer’s lifestyle and mood.
At Siam Discovery Mall, the latest development by Siam Piwat, there are still conventional stores but the top floors are given over to ‘hybrid retail’. It’s a series of labs themed around lifestyles: the digital lab, the street lab, creative lab and play lab. Linking everything is a four-storey digital and merchandise display wall that serves as a shopfront for the whole collection. Because the mall curates it, it’s easy for them to rotate and replace displays and keep the whole thing dynamic and fresh.
It’s one possible direction for the future of the shopfront and indeed the future of retail itself.
“Retail is not about shopping anymore,” says Siam Piwat CEO Chadatip Chutrakul. “It’s about creating an ever-changing experience for customers so it feels very dynamic and energetic.”
Gary McCartney is the owner of McCartney Design.mccartneydesign.com.au
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