Respect for the Consumer in Retail Environments

by: Maureen Mitchell Boyer
Maureen Boyer, AIA, joined ELS as Director of Retail, bringing more than 30 years of experience on commercial retail projects all over the world.

I feel strongly that the commercial vitality of a city is the most important factor necessary in order for that city to thrive. Our task as architects is to imagine and then to provide the physical framework that will not just support but will enhance the commercial uses that ensure this vitality. We do this by creating meaningful and complex spaces where people can interact.

In the past, many commercial retail environments were designed—intentionally—to be very formulaic, clear, and easily understood. If you look at the history of ELS’ practice and most of the projects, you will see that the firm’s work has always been about creating very layered design solutions. This complexity is by design, allowing for flexibility and for incremental change over time. The process of renewal results in private and public places, including outdoor spaces buildings and the spaces between buildings that endure with a quality of agelessness.

An active outdoor space gives a visitor the change to amble or pause.

The word is evolving quickly. Any of us can shop more conveniently and more easily from home now. Look no further than the recent Amazon purchase of Whole Foods for the latest example of how our collective need for convenience and efficiency has permanently changed the consumer landscape.

Of course the purchase of Whole Foods is more complicated and strategic than simply their mission to satisfy consumer demand for convenience and efficiency. But for us as U.S. consumers our ability to make the choice of whether to shop in-store or online will be undeniably improved. Amazon recognizes the need for both online as well as brick and mortar stores which is why they are opening physical bookstores and have now bid for Whole Foods. In buying Whole Foods, Amazon would get upscale buyers with over 450 physical stores which can double as distribution centers in prime retail locations.

But in spite of all this convenience and efficiency, the reason we don’t all do 100% of our shopping online, and the reason that we never will, has to do with the experience we seek when we get up off our couches. We all go to the marketplace to shop in order to be in a social setting. We go to interact with the people that sell us things, to learn about and to experience the things that we buy, anything from a loaf of bread to a pair of Vans, to a toaster.

What this means is that designers need to consider every moment of the customer experience and provide a response: from arriving via multiple transit options, to walking through the front door to finding what we came for, to pausing for something that we didn’t come for and then deciding on a cup of coffee or a place to buy lunch… The stakes are much, much higher, because while no one has to leave their couch, many of us still want to and thankfully are able to do so but only for an experience that satisfies us.

Malls are changing, too. I remember not so long ago having a recurring conversation about amenities in the mall common area. Even a simple bench—these were seen as places where people were going to be sitting and not shopping. These things were actually debated. It seems hard to even remember that time now. That attitude has been completely overturned.

This is a space that functions as a street, a café, and a sidewalk marketplace

And this is why I feel very sure that we are living in a time where the opportunities for great design to impact and to enhance the experience in the public realm are greater than ever before, and great design is getting more respect than ever. Complexity is a fact of our daily lives. As architects of the retail experience, we have always paid attention to the communities where we work. We look at factors such as connectivity, locale, climate, orientation, and of course demographics. The difference is that now we are better able to work with clients, who also understand the imperative of developing a program that stems from a deep understanding of their particular audience.

Less and less often do you see retailers trying to be all things to all people. Instead, retailers are using analytics to understand who their core customers are—their tribe, if you will. Advertising back in the day was about talking at consumers: “This is what you need—this kind of beverage or this kind of dress.” But now retailers want to understand what their customers what, and they have a better ability to do that now because they can track the decisions that customers make and fine-tune what they offer and how they present it.

There is much more emphasis on listening and understanding. And consumers want help navigating through the bewildering array of choices that modern life offers. It’s a much better time to be an empowered consumer.