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Carly Hagedon

Customization Nation

Specialty stores are combining customization and immersive experiences to better target desired shoppers, as showcased by Nintendo, New Era and Build-A-Bear Workshop




Specialty stores make up a big segment of the industry – from toys to leather goods and numerous categories in between. In this competitive landscape, however, niche retailers must make an impact to garner attention and push customers to visit physical stores.

According to Brent Hodge, director, merchandising and creative for fireplace and home goods retailer Bromwell’s (Cincinnati), one solution is in-store experience. “People are now in retaliation and craving these tactile, sensual experiences,” he says. “It’s about finding that balance between giving customers a compelling reason to come in and interact in a physical space without making it cumbersome.”

And a key to finding that balance is keeping your customers in mind: “Retailers can’t be all things to everybody, nor should they try,” says Kathleen Jordan, principal, Gensler (San Francisco). “There’s nothing wrong with putting a stake in the ground and being true to the brand message.”

While Build-A-Bear Workshop (St. Louis) is primarily for kids, 25 percent of its merchandise is actually sold to teens or older consumers, according to Cincinnati-based FRCH Design Worldwide, the design firm that recently aided the retailer in creating a new store experience in Portland, Ore.

“They have such a great brand and following, but their target consumer can potentially outgrow the experience,” says Robyn Novak, vp, FRCH. “The design was an opportunity to reassess the experience … and create a more relevant and meaningful store for parents, children and guests.”

Taking cues from the name, Novak explains they focused on what “Workshop” really means and designed an environment to elevate product. Starting with a boldly updated storefront, the store encompasses a minimal, clean aesthetic. In addition to tasking FRCH, the retailer utilized a U.K.-based company to reinvent its branding; together they toned down the in-store graphics and colors.


And although the company had received critical success for a previous prototype that used in-store tech, children were more interested in playing with the product. Therefore, the design teams lowered the digital presence and created social media opportunities and apps that shoppers can use after their journey to purchase. That way, customers can focus more on the experience as it’s happening around them.

When Checkland Kindleysides (London) was tasked with designing Buffalo, N.Y.-based New Era’s debut store on historic Carnaby Street in London, they knew making the experience memorable was key. With the NFL growing in popularity in the U.K., “we wanted to raise New Era’s presence in Europe,” says Jack Seymour, designer, Checkland Kindleysides.

A big hurdle was opening the store within a four-month turnaround to coincide with the NFL’s exhibition shows scheduled to take place at London’s Wembley Stadium; and to manipulate the design to complement the old building’s quirks and create pockets of discovery. In the end, the store exudes a contemporary, sleek feel with dark, masculine hues and materials mimicking those from stadium architecture, as well as diamond-weave textures found in fitted baseball caps.

Customization was also an aspect of the experience the design teams aimed to highlight: “One of the big features was the custom bar,” explains Seymour, where shoppers can customize every aspect of their caps. “We have material swatches and a digital platform where customers can choose what badge goes on the front, the colors of the thread and stitching, and then [it] can be delivered to their home, and they still get the full experience in-store.”

While custom offerings are a big trend, not every specialty store has to follow that model.

Nintendo (Kyoto, Japan) recently revamped its New York outpost in Rockefeller Plaza, with the aid of San Francisco-based Gensler.


“Nintendo does not currently have any customization offerings, but it doesn’t need to,” says Jordan. “Like sports retailers or any store surrounding an action (e.g., Williams-Sonoma, Michaels, etc.), Nintendo has the innate ability to provide the DIY experience that customers crave.”

The store is simple, with unobtrusive fixtures and cashwraps, supporting the locale’s colorful graphics and props. Floor-to-ceiling windows allow views from outside, while the video game influence was amplified through a 15-by-8-foot, 6-millimeter-thick LED gaming wall that’s viewable from the Plaza.

“You have to make your brand accessible without alienating your fan base,” says says PJ Sadler, regional general manager, Nintendo of America. “Nintendo has always been an inclusive brand, and the store reflects that value. Our draw is the same as most specialty shops: Consumers are loyal to certain brands … [and] they want a space to call their own that speaks to that passion and allows them to be transported for a period of time.” 


Nintendo, Kyoto, Japan

Gensler, San Francisco


Opto Intl. Inc., Wood Dale, Ill.

Photography: Richard Cadan, Fairfield, Conn.


Build-A-Bear Workshop, St. Louis

Design and Architecture
FRCH Design Worldwide, Cincinnati: Rob Depp, vice president; Robyn Novak, vp, creative managing director; Dave Middendorf, director, brand strategy and insights; Doug Bunker, creative managing director, graphic design; Mike Ruehlman, associate director, graphic design; Lori Kolthoff, vp, creative managing director resource design; Jonathan Rolke, architect; Bryan Goodwin, architect; Antoine Davis, architect.

Idea is Everything, U.K.

Build-A-Bear Workshop, St. Louis

Armstrong Ceilings, Lancaster, Pa.

Fixtures and Furniture
Triad Mfg., St. Louis

Mats Inc., Stoughton, Mass
Silestone, Sugar Land, Texas

Villa Lighting, St. Louis

Form, Function & Finesse, St. Louis
Bish Creative Display, Lake Zurich, Ill.

Walton Signage, San Antonio, Texas

Benjamin Moore, Montvale, N.J.
Corian, Wilmington, Del.
Wilsonart, Temple, Texas
Octopus Products, Toronto
Pionite Decorative Surfaces, Auburn, Maine
IFS Coatings Inc., Gainesville, Texas

Construction Management
Epoch Design Group, St. Louis

Stuffing Machine
Glenmount Global Solutions, Portage, Ind.

Storefront Metal Panel System
Metal Design Systems Inc., Cedar Rapids, Iowa

General Contractor
Lakeview Construction Inc., Pleasant Prairie, Wis.

Photography: Inti St. Clair, Seattle



MasterClass: ‘Re-Sparkling’ Retail: Using Store Design to Build Trust, Faith and Brand Loyalty

HOW CAN WE EMPOWER and inspire senior leaders to see design as an investment for future retail growth? This session, led by retail design expert Ian Johnston from Quinine Design, explores how physical stores remain unmatched in the ability to build trust, faith, and loyalty with your customers, ultimately driving shareholder value.

Presented by:
Ian Johnston
Founder and Creative Director, Quinine Design

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