To make the award-winning fixture for custom men’s retailer My.Suit (see page 34), Grand + Benedicts (Portland, Ore.) was given a hand-drawn sketch and asked to make the thing come to life – solving engineering challenges, choosing materials appropriate to both the design and the budget, and tweaking the design to make sure it actually performed on the store floor the way it did in the designer’s sketch.
Fixture manufacturers assert that a scenario like this is more and more common in their world. It’s what people on all sides mean when they refer to the partnership retailers and designers are looking for from their suppliers.
This world seems to be coming alive again as retailers and consumer product brands begin stirring – building some new stores, renovating existing ones, creating vendor shops and merchandising programs.
But that world is not simply flipping back the calendar pages. A lot has changed in the last three years, and the relationship between retailers and brands, their design firms and their manufacturing suppliers has changed.
“In 2008 and 2009, retailers began laying people off and condensing their store planning departments,” says Reggie Medford, Grand + Benedicts’ director of sales. “And they turned to us to become more engaged. It began with our taking a bigger role in the design of the fixtures. It has evolved now to the point where we do extensive project management.”
That role might begin at the very outset of the project, coordinating everyone’s activities; then extend through the fixture manufacturing process, managing schedules and quality control; and finish with the delivery and installation of the fixture systems. “We function as a one-stop shop doing a lot of the things the retailers’ own people used to do,” Medford says.
“During the down time, manufacturers could no longer be simply manufacturers,” agrees Jackie Glanz of MG Concepts (Central Islip, N.Y.). “We had to become problem-solvers, so we added a lot of value to get or keep business. We took over a lot of engineering from architects and project management that retailers used to do.”
Another fall-out of the bad economy has been a lessening of shoppers’ brand loyalty, says Randy Miller, project manager at WD Partners, the Columbus, Ohio, design firm. The pressure on retailers and brands to create, express and support their brands has risen. “Consumers have more options,” says Miller. “They need a compelling reason to go to a particular store.”
This is creating big challenges for store designers – and they’re passing that on to their suppliers. “The retailer’s brand is increasingly being incorporated into fixtures,” says Kent Williams, design consultant at Lozier Corp. (Omaha, Neb.). “For years, they’d just stick a shelf in and fill it with merchandise. Now they want upscale finishes, colors, the incorporation of graphics. So designing those fixtures for them becomes an even greater challenge than building them.”
Today, manufacturers are tasked with solving retailers’ merchandising goals with engineering capacity or flexibility; finding ways to customize the look of the fixture for specific brands; and reducing manufacturing costs by making slight engineering modifications or changes in material.
For example, though Lozier has built its business with standard fixture systems, it knows many of its customers these days are looking for their own, individually branded looks.
“We’ve come up with multi-purpose shelves,” says Williams. “If a retailer that’s not set up for apparel wants to promote, say, local football jerseys or team t-shirts, we have a fixture where the shelves can be taken out and replaced with vertical inserts and hooks for displaying apparel.”
Similarly, the company is modifying its stock shelving systems, which have traditionally come in 4-foot modules ideal for bulk merchandising. “As consumers become savvier, it’s a challenge to the retailer to create some excitement, to break up the long merchandise run with some focal points and opportunities for vertical merchandising,” he says.
Lozier created ways to break up those long merchandise runs with vertical ribbons. “We’re not reinventing the wheel with every product, we’re still working within our standards,” Williams says.
Some challenges are less design-related and more about retailers’ operational needs.
“One large retailer asked us, ‘If we take our high school employees, can they literally, physically set this up?’” says Leo Galey, owner and president of KC Store Fixture (Kansas City, Mo.). “The more we could make it simple – just open the box, fold it open and get the merchandise and product on the floor in a quick, efficient fashion – the more they could knock off a half-hour of set-up time over a thousand stores. That becomes significant.”
Another challenge is knowing aspects of customer behavior that the retailer doesn’t.
“The procurement group has its eyes on the budget and isn’t always thinking of the critical design elements,” says WD’s Miller who, as project manager, is increasingly involved in fixture design and selecting manufacturers. “For example, we learned in some of our testing that sharp corners on endcaps in grocery stores tend to be detriments to customers going down the aisles – a 90-degree corner on an edge is physically repulsive to them.”
But, he says, putting a rounded corner on an endcap adds costs to the overall unit price. “So, we rounded off the corners and found other ways to cut the costs of making it,” Miller says. “It’s become a critical job to identify and separate the critical elements of a fixture design from those things that can be adjusted.”
As retailers continue to prioritize doing more with less, they’re looking for fixture suppliers who are creative problem-solvers and also understand their brand. Or, as Grand + Benedicts’ Medford says, “They’re looking for a supplier that’s an extension of their company, that’s willing to immerse itself in their brand DNA.”
“They love it,” he says, “when you can complete their sentences.”