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An Introduction to Retail Design

The ancient Greeks did it in the agora; the Romans did it in the forum; Persians did it in the bazaar (“the place of prices”); and Arabs and Berbers did it in the labyrinthine souk. Today, whether we’re home in our underwear, duty-free at the airport, or tapping at our phones, shopping still makes the world go ‘round.

Retail design illustrations by Leif Parsons

The biggest improvement on the agora, however, didn’t come until the first department stores opened in the 1800s. One pioneer opened in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, in 1838 was a draper’s shop called Bainbridge. By 1849, weekly revenue was reported by “department.” Until then, bartering and haggling had ruled the market, but these new stores, which sold goods at fixed prices in fixed places, allowing exchanges and giving refunds, changed the nature of the retail transaction forever.

Following World War II, American department stores (and the newly ubiquitous automobile), to their own detriment, drove suburban traffic into massive shopping malls, a trend that has, in more ways than one, spelled the demise of Main Street. Conceived in its modern American form by Austrian immigrant Victor Gruen, the mall was immersive, convenient, and in-your-face; soon parking lots replaced open fields and we got to know food courts and chain stores.

Malls have begun to fade somewhat with the growth of everything-under-one-roof, in-bulk warehouse retailers. It’s been some four decades since Meijer—–in an act of retailing prescience and an urbanist’s nightmare—–introduced the first big-box shop, aptly called Thrifty Acres, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Montgomery Ward hit post offices in 1872 with its first mail-order catalog, but it would take more than a century for this kind of direct marketing to reach its present apex. Today, direct marketing has found its ideal form: the Internet. The ability to do research, compare notes, and hunt down the best deal online 
is making consumers both savvier and less likely to set foot in an actual store, which means that 3-D spaces have to engage our emotions in a way that 2-D images and logos never could—–and the smart ones are doing it by design, selling carefully staged experiences that transcend mere monetary transactions.

Alongside the rise of stay-at-home Web shopping (with its cache of credit-card info, shopping history, and algorithmic you-might-also-like suggestions), we’ve also seen a compensatory surge in novelty brick-and-mortar boutiques.

OMA’s $40 million Prada “Epicenter,” which opened in New York in 2001, might be the splashiest shop in decades, and it furthers the notion that shops should be as conspicuous as the consumption they house.

London-based design studio BarberOsgerby immersed visitors at this past April’s Milan furniture fair in a cavernous, dim, and mineral-looking space clad with anechoic foam to demonstrate a Sony chip that, when integrated into furnishings, turns them into audio speakers. Here, shopping is as much about the shop as the goods, and this experiential interior confirmed that the do-room is the new showroom.

Modeled on the here-today-gone-tomorrow shops that peddle Halloween costumes and fireworks, the pop-up store is nimble enough to communicate with customers in the local vernacular without all the headaches of permanence. In the past decade it has drawn shoppers in droves with its ever-imminent expiration date. Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo was one of guerrilla marketing’s highest-profile pioneers with her 2004 Berlin pop-up, but everyone, from Delta Airlines to Target and eBay, has now “popped up.”

Another innovation, the concept shop, started to hit its stride in the early 1990s with the Milanese 10 Corso Como, a gallery-cafe-boutique-bookstore that the New York Times later called a “hipper-than-thou-but-user-friendly lifestyle emporium.” The idea was to winnow the breadth of the department store into a tightly curated inventory, turning retail departments into themed “environments.”

Some things, however, will never change: “No matter where in the world our customers live they have basic human needs. Everybody needs to cook or 
eat or sleep and they will always need a price tag,” says Ikea’s U.S. communication and interior design manager Linda Fossman. “We have a website and catalog, but the store is important as a place to meet the customer.” So it is, with new tools and old sleights of hand, that retail spaces are becoming not merely places to indulge the gimmes but destinations to fuel aspirations and the imagination.

  • 101 retail design people illo thumbnail

    Glass Appeal

    There’s a fine art to getting you to gape—one that shop-window designers of all stripes must learn.

  • 101 retail design mirror illo thumbanil

    A Poor Fit

    Even high-design dressing rooms, rare as they are, rarely function or inspire as the shop floor can. That may be changing, though.

  • 101 retail design vending machine illo thumbnail

    Patent Vending

    Rescued from its long tenure as the home of processed snacks, the vending machine is enjoying a moment of unprecedented glitz.

  • 101 retail design mobile shopping thumbnail

    Just Browsing

    Personal devices are the new frontier for shops peddling their wares. Have a look at how your toddler will shop.

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