talking shop

Having crafted a stable of acclaimed fitouts for clients including Aesop and Crumpler, Melbourne studio Russell & George is well-placed to discuss the changing face of retail. Directors Byron George and Ryan Russell talk to Gillian Serisier about their design process.

Australians reportedly spent $13.5 billion in online sales in the last year. How can design, and specifically your work, facilitate this evolution for bricks and mortar retail?

Ryan Russell The physical store is becoming an elaborate advertising platform for brands, as well as a connecting device to the online platform. Store design must address both environments, be it a virtual online space or the physical offline space.

Modern retailers have the ability to provide shoppers with a unique experience in order to access the brand online. For example, your body might be scanned in-store in order to access the brand’s online presence. For us, the online and offline experience is exactly the same in attracting new people to a brand: both rely on people walking past or clicking on a link, or searching the brand out — be it online or on the high street.

As designers in the retail sector, we have also become advisers to our clients when it comes to the spaces they should create. Sometimes this means advising them not to build a physical space, but rather designing a methodology that will then lead to a designed physical environment. It is important to understand whether a brand actually needs a physical retail space or not at a particular time in its evolution.

What is the most important question you ask a retail client and how does the response shape your approach?

Byron George Who do you think you are? The more unique, clear and concise the response, the better the final outcome. It is fundamental for a retail client to know exactly who they are and what they stand for.

The less clear the response, the more challenging it is for the designer to push and find elements that make the client stand out.

In several of your stores for bag brand, Crumpler, you have used bag components to construct elements of the store.

What was the impetus for this approach?

RR Using the actual product to create a store immediately connects the Crumpler product to the customer and allows the customer to connect with the brand in an unusual way -it creates a talking point or story, however abstract. The key thing is that the conversation is about Crumpler: their product, its durability and diversity of uses.

Your recent [inner Melbourne suburb of] Prahran store for Crumpler is based on this idea of the ‘theatre of retail’. How does the design explore the fusion of physical and digital space?

BG The fundamental role of any store is to provide a customer with a type of experience that they cannot get anywhere else. I don’t believe this has changed at all since stores were first designed.

For Crumpler Prahran, as with all of our stores, key words that resonate are ‘advocate’ and the ‘unpredictable’. Advocate is chosen, as brands no longer simply have customers; they need to strive to have advocates. An advocate will shop the brand, but then also talk about it and recommend it to other potential advocates.

These advocates then want something unpredictable in a store environment. They don’t want to be bored from season to season — they want to be inspired and have a physical, then an online, dialogue with the brand. The Crumpler Prahran store attempts to merge these two ideas. In action the connection is not overt, but subtle.

Though online and offline are generally treated as two separate spaces, the two do talk to one another. Capturing the attention or imagination of a customer online is completely different to capturing the attention of someone in a physical space: the customer needs to be reminded that the other space exists to ensure a complete connection to the brand. It is not as simple as putting a web address on your packaging.

In our opinion, it doesn’t really matter if a customer is buying online or offline, but by fusing the two spaces, the retailer creates a far more layered conversation with the customer that goes beyond merely selling the product.

How do you think retail design will shift over the coming years?

RR The main challenge will be exactly the same as it always has been: how to foster loyalty in your customers.

Despite, or perhaps because of, globalisation, there is an increased interest in this idea of local and/or interesting one-off stores that speak to a particularly local audience. There is a real polarisation of the market between the large global chains selling at very discounted rates to thousands of different markets, and the local, one-off craft-based retail experience. The middle ground seems to be disappearing, which is an issue for mid-range shopping centres the world over. The challenge will be to bridge both ends of this spectrum, moving a lot of products in different markets, but with stores that are bespoke for a local population.

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