Why designer-architect Luis Rueda thinks that the pandemic has made the standardized retail experience obsolete

Olivela pop-up store in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Render produced by HMKM's in-house visualization team.

Formerly of HMKM – a studio that had a 30-year run in New York City and London before closing its doors this month – creative director Luis Rueda has worked with the likes of Starbucks, Herman Miller, Sonos and Nike in the span of his career. The designer-architect works with world-class brands to create intuitive, immersive consumer journeys from concept to construction. Here, he and HMKM architect John Michael O'Sullivan share their views on how the pandemic has rendered the standardized retail experience obsolete.

In hindsight, perhaps the easiest part was shutting up the shops. The COVID-19 pandemic forced stores across cities, countries and continents to close their doors as staff and customers alike went into lockdown. And while isolation tested the e-commerce capabilities of bricks and mortar retailers, coming out of lockdown and opening shops once more will test the very purpose of their retail space.

People are emerging into a changed world, and it is one that will require new rituals that balance safe human contact with the sheer joy of being social again. Within the shopping context, that allows retailers to think boldly, to reimagine retail so it is more in sync with changing consumer behaviour and sentiment. Now is the time for retailers to consider their stores from a new perspective: what should the role of this space be, in this location, for this customer? The days of retailers having carbon-copy shops across locations have passed. If every store needs to be a destination of purpose, then that purpose will be different from shop to shop.

The days of retailers having carbon-copy shops across locations have passed. If every store needs to be a destination of purpose, then that purpose will be different from shop to shop

This requires retailers to have direct conversations with customers, both to build trust and to understand their needs. They will already have the benefit of pre-coronavirus shopping data, giving insight and analysis into store specifics – but this will need to be scrutinized within this new context. Who exactly is visiting, what items are most popular, what time of day or week are busiest? Only by drilling into this data, and overlaying it with current customer conversations, can new format strategies be determined. So, retailers must put feedback mechanisms in place and invest in market research to dip into the current expectations of shoppers and understand what will draw people into the physical retail space after this period of shutdown.

It is time to use data harvested during customer interactions to make decisions on what products or services to offer in each location. Nike pioneered this idea with the opening of the Nike Melrose By You store. A good portion of the product and services offered in that store reflect the preferences of consumers in the area. And this is constantly changing to reflect the season, aesthetic and practical preferences. The result is that the store is in close ‘conversation’ with its consumers. Digital technology means this dialogue between consumer and brand can take place at all brand touchpoints, regardless of location.

The commercial world has had to reassess and regroup to respond rapidly and be flexible with its infrastructure to rethink the best use of its physical space

Before the pandemic, it wasn’t unusual for brands to blanket the landscape with stores, all selling the same items, and often offering a standardized experience. But the past few months have fundamentally shifted our shopping behaviour. From DIY to food, horticulture to technology, automotive to fashion, the commercial world has had to reassess and regroup to respond rapidly and be flexible with its infrastructure to rethink the best use of its physical space.

As consumers were forced to stay home – as well as turn to online – they also turned to local stores for their shopping requirements. To what extent this localized behaviour will continue as people increase their movements remains to be seen. But there’s no doubt that the past few months have meant people have adapted and often enjoyed smaller, more personal experiences that retail chains can learn from as they offer more heterogeneous experiences.

If social distancing means fewer products can be displayed and fewer shoppers are allowed in at any one time, those items featured in store must have the best chance of resonating

There is a new urgency for more customization of stores: if social distancing means fewer products can be displayed and fewer shoppers are allowed in at any one time, those items featured in store must have the best chance of resonating with the visiting shoppers. As new shopping rituals emerge, there will be a shift toward a more tailored experience which will help improve brands’ real estate portfolios – if each store is a single word, those separate words combine into a sentence that builds the complete brand narrative.

Read our series on how COVID-19 could impact retail design here.

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