Design drives retail and brings the best out of great retail concepts. This session, moderated by Victoria Leavitt, managing director – Middle East, of global design consultancy Fitch, discussed the role of design and innovation in delivering a truly differentiated shopper journey and helping local retailers keep pace with changing market and consumer trends.
“Two words – design and innovation – have acquired great significance in modern retail. Businesses need to constantly innovate with design. A mundane store ambience can be a downer for visitors. It requires an attractive design to pull in footfall. Retailers today are looking within and beyond to devise innovative store designs that can impact footfall,” says Leavitt.
For Nisreen Shocair, president, Virgin Megastore Middle East, using design to position the store as a lifestyle destination means concentrating on big as well as small details. “We scout the world over for design ideas. Every region can bring a new element to the Middle East. For example, Berlin offers some great ideas specifically in the do-it-yourself category. Similarly, the US is better than the rest of the world in omnichannel, seamlessly integrating online and offline,” she says.
Jim Ragsdale, brand director of Mikyajy, also looks to different global sources for each specific requirement in redesigning the company’s network of over 200 stores in the Middle East. “When we undertake exercises to standardise processes and design elements across our network we look to big chains in the US. But when it comes to creating visual appeal, we take inspiration from Europe – it could be London, Paris or many other cities. There we don’t look for big chains but mom-and-pop stores that have greater freedom to bring in innovation,” he says.
Raza Beig, CEO of Splash & Iconic, believes local retail has come of age in the matter of design. “Historically, local retailers looked west and east for design ideas, just like we did in Europe and the Far East. But there’s been a dramatic change over the past few years. We don’t really need to look outside to seek design inspiration these days, having established a lot of best practices here. Ideas come from within, with an incredible amount of innovation happening in the region in terms of style and design. And with the local market maturing, we take a lot of inspiration from our consumers whileincorporating changes in design elements in our stores,” he asserts.
Neelesh Bhatnagar, CEO of Emax, also looked outwards for ideas but feels local retail is now several steps ahead of the very sources they once looked to for inspiration. “Seven-to-eight years back when we were considering setting up a big box electronics concept, we looked beyond the region to search for ideas. We took inspiration from Saturn in Germany while designing our big Emax store in Sharjah. Ironically, when I look at Saturn now, I feel there’s been no improvisation over the years unlike what we’ve done at Emax, fine-tuning our model on the basis of consumer opinion,” he says.
Leavitt feels creating a differentiated in-store experience is crucial for the success of any brick-and-mortar set-up. She sees many of the ideas informing design elements being generated by unearthing shopper insights.
Shocair agrees, but she points out that design insights cannot emerge from traditional consumer research, which gather basic data on demographics, occupation and so on. “That’s just scratching the surface. We need to go deeper and gain consumer information from different avenues, not just standard market research. A good example is gaining feedback and insights from loyalty programmes as well as online research through social media. We have used such information and insights constructively while adding new design elements in our stores,” she says.
Miloš Ryba, research director, emergingmarkets for Planet Retail, also believes in the power of social media. “Retailers across the globe are strongly leveraging multichannel, especially social media, which heavily influences purchase decisions. Take the example of US-based Nordstrom that is using Pinterest to advertise its products and allows shoppers to check out and share their views about the collections,” he says.
Beig, on the other hand, feels one-to-one conversations with consumers to seek their feedback are more effective in throwing up interesting insights. “Such insights led us to change our font size thrice in the last 20 years and incorporate five changes in our retail format. Since the last three years, each one of our stores is going for a new look to cater to consumers looking for exceptional value and experience,” he says.
Ragsdale says Mikyajy undertakes an interesting exercise to generate ideas, filming customers moving around some of its select stores and then tailoring its store layout in tune with the observed customer movements.
Leavitt sees a trend of retailers seeking to strike a fine balance between globalisation and localisation while designing stores. She cites the example of Starbucks that infuses local elements into its standardised global design to cater to local communities in the locations where it operates. There’s also the human element within stores, she says. “While working with our clients one of the things we always think about is the different touch-points – physical, human and digital – with all three being of crucial importance,” Leavitt stresses.
Ragsdale talks about the serious challenge Mikyajy faced when the network had to replace 500 men with women staffers in its Saudi stores. “We had about six months to train the new workforce in our beauty and lingerie stores, which was a huge challenge. Even design elements underwent changes, with visual merchandising of pricing becoming more prominent to assist our female staff aswell as customers,” he says.
Beig feels the human element has been neglected in the region, which is unfortunate and definitely needs attention. Ragsdale says the storytelling methodology also helps captivate customers and retain them for a longer time, translating into higher sales. “Storytelling is very important for us too. But since we are an electronics store, we have followed the principle of electronics simplified to ensure a meaningful interaction with every consumer,” shares Bhatnagar.
Leavitt, who has worked with many retailers, says stores always look to surprise and delight visitors. But while a fresh look is important, ensuring flexibility is also crucial. That’s best achieved by using modular furniture, correct positioning of product offerings and so on. Shocair, too, expands on the advantages of modular fixtures. “Our loyal customers visit us three-to-five times a week, spending 30-to-45 minutes in-store. We feel the constant need to offer them newness in showcasing our portfolio of 360,000 products. So we regularly introduce changes in our outlets in terms of product offerings, layout and visual merchandising, especially of key areas in the store that attract more attention. We have modular furniture on wheels that can be positioned differently within minutes. We pay special attention to visual merchandising, which generates and retains consumer interest,” she says.
Beig also points out that modular fixtures have been part of Splash stores for over 15-to-16 years.
Shocair talks of the idea of a blurredline when getting the right furniture in place and working on the visual merchandising. This exciting and challenging idea – blurring the line while keeping it interesting but not confusing – has clicked in retail, she says.
Another blurring of distinctions is occurring in the design elements of high-end, bridge and value stores. “Even groceries and departmental stores are adding innovative design elements. Take the example of the newly refurbished Tesco Watford Extra store unveiled in Hertfordshire in August. It is spacious, particularly near the entrance where Tesco has positioned Harris+Hoole, the Bakery Project and a food-to-go area, highlighting its desire for the store to be seen more as a leisure destination than a standard outlet,” says Ryba.
He also highlights other emerging trends such as brick-and-mortar retailers seeing consumers checking out products at stores and buying online, pointing out that the reverse is also happening. “We have seen a shift from showrooming to ‘web-rooming’, where online retailers are setting up their standalone stores. A great example is Kiddicare in the UK, formerly a pure-play operator, which acquired former Best Buy big box sites because it realised the need for physical stores. Retailers are also increasingly merging online and offline by bringing clicks into bricks,” Ryba adds.
Bhatnagar sees everything now depending on the sheer experience brick-and-mortar retail provide to visitors to counter the competition from online.
“That requires constant innovation in zoning, formatting, cross-selling and even positioning merchandise. Shoppers in the Middle East are early adapters. They like to switch and experiment rather than build brand loyalty. This keeps us on our toes in terms of offering new products in a great ambience,” he says.