Can design future-proof retailers against the five-year cycle? Australia’s top designers are tackling the challenge head-on, with Russell & George undertaking the refurbishment of Aesop Doncaster and Geyer re-imagining banking retail for Suncorp.
Orginally published in Indesign Issue 70. Words Leanne Amodeo Photography Aesop by Trevor Mein & Suncorp by Hugh Hamilton
It wasn’t too long ago that retailers were panicking at the surge in popularity of online shopping. Everyone had an opinion as to whether the Internet would become our new one-stop-shop and whether storefronts would simply turn into some nostalgic relic of days gone by. But panic isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For many retailers it was a call-to-action and their response is to give customers something the Internet never can – a memorable tangible experience.
The role of designers in creating positive experiential retail environments shouldn’t be underestimated. Good design is an investment and a well-designed fitout adds brand value, as well as helping to future-proof businesses, in much the same way as giving outstanding service does.
Unsurprisingly, bespoke design is something successful companies like global skincare giant Aesop has long utilised to maximise brand longevity and customer loyalty. As part of a recent plan to upgrade their brick-and-mortar offerings, Aesop engaged design studio Russell&George to renovate their Doncaster store in Melbourne. The brand’s changed a lot since co-directors Ryan Russell and Byron George first designed this outlet’s original fitout in 2008, and their renovation needed to reflect that. Although they kept the existing ceramic wall and floor tiles, a new custom stainless steel display unit and sinks, service counters and a bespoke light fitting were installed. “It creates a dialogue between old and new,” says Russell. “But also makes it look more contemporary; it was the next step forward for the space.”
The insertions are deliberately bold and highly tactile, referencing artist Marcel Duchamp’s infamous found objects. However, for all their memorable sculptural qualities, they are hyper functional and so they need to be, in order to bring the store in line with the latest global retail service methodology.
This is an approach that places customer experience at its core and determines best practice for customer engagement. So the designers carefully considered the positioning of the sinks, as well as how customers are greeted when they enter the store and two service counters were put in to speed-up the point-of-sale (POS) process. It’s a dynamic yet straightforward configuration that makes the most of its customisation to attract first time passers-by.
In regards to future-proofing, this simple design strategy is a small piece in a much bigger puzzle that also includes the application of quality materials that can outlast the five-year cycle. As Russell explains, “Future proofing a retail space is about showing a high level of design rigour, achieving a sense of timelessness and utilising innovation to make the customer experience as interactive as possible.”
The Doncaster refurbishment undoubtedly nails this, as does another project, the recently completed Suncorp concept store at Westfield, Parramatta, by interior design practice Geyer. It’s an interesting case study in exemplifying the possibility to future-proof retail businesses through design, because Suncorp is not a retailer in the traditional sense of the term. It’s a finance, insurance and banking corporation, but they were very clear in their brief.
“The client wanted the new store to deliver a meaningful experience to customers and the bottom line was to design a store not a bank,” says Geyer’s creative design leader, Tim Giles.
It formed the basis for a two-day workshop where the interior designers and client co-created the design outcome. The resulting concept is based on the notion of a sandbox – something you can play around with and change.
Generously sized table is also used for multiple purposes...
From a future-proofing perspective, it was important the new fitout was flexible and could be reshaped and remodelled as required. So the componentry is modular and able to be reconfigured, while implementing a tablet-based service (as opposed to having tellers) allows staff the freedom to roam. A generously sized table is also used for multiple purposes, from seminars to informal conversations, which incidentally creates activity in the space.
Encourages customers to dwell
This casual environment projects Suncorp’s commitment to wellbeing and the store even sometimes boasts a ‘kids space’ that goes a long way in helping to relieve customer anxiety. One of the scheme’s more unexpected features is the positioning of the ATMs at the rear of the store, rather than at the front. “We wanted to create an environment that encourages customers to dwell,” explains Giles. “So if they’re already in the space then they’re more open to interaction with staff.”
Only made possible through a solid understanding of the retailer’s business.
These small positive in-store experiences add up to a good overall impression of the brand. And as with any outstanding example of design-enabled future-proofing, this is only made possible through a solid understanding of the retailer’s business. Designers need to proactively engage in rigorous discourse that challenges anything ordinary and, where possible, involve the client in the design process. Outcomes will be all the more robust and most likely very well received.