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Retail as a stage: Today’s extension of a centuries-old philosophy

July 30, 2020

By Craig Hale

While COVID-19 has temporarily changed shopping, people crave the social interaction and retail’s experiential moments

Since theater began, the stage has served as a backdrop for the story and the actors. The Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, Greece, is widely considered the first permanent theater. The skênê (or scene) was the backdrop that hung or stood at the back of the stage. This scene was usually permanent and was only modified with simple embellishments. This unmoving backdrop continued through the time of Shakespeare.

Of course, times change, and so has the theater. Interestingly, over the years the retail world has embraced many theatrical elements in store design and visual merchandising, which help focus attention on the merchandise or reinforce the brand in today’s retail venues. While the merchandise has been the star of the show in the retail world for many years, we are seeing a major shift—experiential design is becoming mainstream.

Recently, the COVD-19 pandemic has put much of the retail world into an undefined “intermission.” Our retail experiences have gone through a revolution rather than an evolution. Many of our experiences have been put on hold while others have become sanitized and distanced. While the future is still uncertain, one thing has been proven: We humans are social animals—and eventually will we (safely) return to our social and retail norms, even if it’s a new normal.

The bon COOK office headquarters is a showcase for dining and lounge spaces, along with highlighting the kitchen products the company offers.

Application of theater in retail

Just as plays come in different genres—comedy, tragedy, musical—so too does the retail experience. The design of a car dealership is much different than a jewelry store, for obvious reasons. Apparel often takes one of two routes for its store design:

  1. In mainstream apparel stores, the product is presented in such a way that the merchandise carries the store’s ambiance. The walls are often covered with product. Much of the mood of the store is created by the colors and visual textures of the product. As designers, we factor in that changing backdrop and highlight other portions of store—the product displays, the entryway, storefront, checkout, and lighting.
  2. In high-end or exclusive apparel brands, the store takes on more of a museum quality where the environment is elegant yet subdued, so the apparel and/or accessories can be the focus of attention. This approach might be considered minimalist or a “disappearing design.” It allows both the product and the store to reinforce the brand.

An excellent example of disappearing design is the NorthPark Center in Dallas, Texas. The subdued design of cream brick with accents, polished concrete floors, and infusion of controlled natural light is elegant and showcases the abundant sculptures and artwork. It also presents each retailer’s storefront as though they were pieces of art. 

At iFLY Indoor Skydiving facilities, the design is about the experience, including the glass cylinder wind tunnel and the curved lines throughout the retail space. (Architect of Record: Hodges & Associates Architecture).

Experiential design takes center stage

In theater, a well-designed stage can enhance the script, the performance, and the experience for the audience. However, the stage cannot overcome a poor cast or story. In the retail world, it’s similar: a well-designed store cannot fix clunky merchandise—the longtime star of the show—or the experience.

What’s happening now is that the product and the store design must share the spotlight with the overall experience. The star of the show is the experience, and the merchandise plays a supporting role.

As experiential retail grows, designers need to focus on new aspects—things we may have never considered before. Customer traffic flow is still important, but now the experience of customer queuing is critical as we adjust to COVID-19 and new queues that allow for distancing. Previously, retail experiences were reserved for inside the store. But now, it’s critical that we envision what the consumer journey looks like before the customer walks in the door. The audience no longer sits back and enjoys watching the show. They are now fully immersed and part of the show.

What’s happening now is that the product and the store design must share the spotlight with the overall experience. The star of the show is the experience.

Queueing theory, which originated in the early 1900s, is a mathematical study of waiting times. It helps businesses manage queue lengths. Used effectively, stores can serve customers efficiently. As we anticipate queues being longer, now is the time to make that part of the shopping experience—perhaps art installations, live music, or screens that tease the in-store experience.

At iFLY Indoor Skydiving facilities, the design is about the experience, whether it’s the glass cylinder wind tunnel or the curved lines throughout the retail space. It’s an immersive experience—from potential guests watching outside the iFLY location to personalized queuing and sharing the rush with the current skydiver, whether new or a veteran. Not all stores will offer such an adrenaline-rush experience, but experience is the name of the game today.

The bon COOK office headquarters in Birmingham, Michigan, is a perfect example. The bon COOK leadership team believes the kitchen is the most loved room at home—the place of choice for family and guests, and a space for making meals and memories. The bon COOK headquarters artfully juxtaposes a high-profile studio kitchen with classic dining and entertaining spaces, flexible workplace arrangements, and airy offices. From its reimagined studio, bon COOK is a showcase for dining and lounge spaces, as well as the kitchen products they sell. It accommodates workshops and cooking classes and provides a work environment for up to 25 people.

At iFLY, experiential design is truly center stage—including the opportunity to get photos and video. (Architect of Record: Hodges & Associates Architecture).

The next experience

Traditionally, the store design was carefully crafted to bring the customer into an interactive state with the merchandise. Some of the more thoughtful designs kept the stage simple, limiting the detailing in places where it could enhance the experience and truly be appreciated by the customer.

As we move forward and the scene changes, our adoption and refinement of experiential design will continue to evolve. And the design solutions that are created in response to real world conditions will evolve with our expectations and needs. Flexibility in design will be key to future success in the customer experience. 

  • Craig Hale

    Having worked in the architecture and engineering industry for more than 35 years, Craig provides oversight for the architectural and engineering needs of some of the top retailers, restaurateurs, and grocers in America.

    Contact Craig
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