Opinion - Prioritise flexibility

Catherine Marson, regional head of design at property services group Styles&Wood, argues that building flexibility into design is key to futureproofing stores for changing customer trends.

Advances in technology have had a significant impact on nearly every aspect of life, but none more so than how we buy. The retail sector has had to adapt to take into account the shift towards e-commerce, which currently accounts for 17 per cent of the entire retail market, according to the most recent ONS statistics. This is putting pressure on physical stores to adapt to complement the broader customer experience. In response in-store design must prioritise flexibility, to allow retailers to adapt at short notice.

While a recent study from Vista Retail Support showed that 81 per cent of shoppers see stores as vital, what they want from this space is becoming much complex. In response to the popularity of e-commerce, retailers have looked to create a more enhanced experience for shoppers in store. Incorporating digital features has been a key tactic and there is still a huge amount of scope for this to grow. For example, wayfinding technology to help direct shoppers around large department stores, augmented reality, and ‘endless aisle’ touchscreens which allow customers to browse a retailer’s online catalogue in-store, are all set to be key trends over the next few years as retailers look to capitalise on the showroom effect.

We’ve also seen many retailers look to include additional services to make the most of their space. Coffee shops, concession stands and experiential areas are all being built into stores more regularly to help boost customer engagement.  

To meet these new demands, store design has to be flexible. While customers may be engaging with more experiential formats, their preference for what this consists of can change very quickly. Being able to keep the instore experience fresh with new approaches will be key to holding customer’s attention and loyalty. The ability to quickly alter how products are displayed and the services they offer, depending on the trends and popularity will also remain really important.

To accommodate this, we’ve seen an increase in a ‘blank canvas’ style fit out of stores, based around a modular design that can be changed instantly dependent on need with as little disruption to the rest of the shop as possible.

As well as keeping the layout flexible, interior design is also kept neutral and interchangeable. Where previously retail chains may have created a brand identity in their stores by having a set colour theme and imagery painted on to walls, we’re now seeing technology take over, thanks to the ability to make changes and incorporate new ideas at short notice. Video screens and interactive boards are being increasingly used to highlight particular products and offer a more digital experience to customers. We expect to see this trend rise as the cost of such technology falls, offering better value for money than continuously paying for a new interior design to be applied to stores each season.

It’s not only retailers and designers that need to take note of this however. Landlords need to make their space compatible with this flexible model to appeal to occupiers, and ensure a store fits their needs for a considerable length of time. This goes beyond just offering an open-plan, blank canvas. M&E provision should be over-estimated to take into account an increased need for electrical hardware, while lighting and flooring should be kept neutral to suit a range of requirements.

Demands in the retail sector are changing so rapidly, it’s almost impossible to predict exactly what consumers and retailers will want from physical stores in the future. Instead of anticipating what might be needed, it’s best to make sure a store’s design can adapt to any range of demands that might be asked of it, rather than having to employ expensive refits at a later date to keep up. Despite the growing trend for e-commerce, physical stores are still clearly a key part of the sector, they just need to work harder to match consumer’s digital needs. By building flexibility into the very core of a store’s design, retail space can move with changing demands easily and ensure it retains its place in the market.


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