Blogs & Perspectives
5 Keys to Designing Stores for an Uncertain Future
A strategist from a major retail design firm shares his tips for navigating the “Zero Horizon World”
THIS QUESTION LIES at the heart of what’s called the “Zero Horizon World” – a place where change comes faster than we can adapt. Our evolving notion of obsolescence has long since moved beyond the basic durability of something to its alignment with fashion, and today we need to account for a rapidly changing digital landscape.
In the physical world, eventually everything wears out, and the antidote to this for business was a cycle of re-investment, specifically: refresh the image, accommodate new service models, and evolve the offering and layout based on accumulated experience. Renewal was, and is, essential. And retail has layers of renewal cycles that have always served to keep experiences refreshed, new merchandise, seasonal merchandising, music and a trickle of new technology.
In this past world of reimagining, the consumer was excited and attracted by something new. In the Zero Horizon World, what’s new is no longer constrained by the physical world, and can be radically different than what we expect. Knowledge isn’t a library, it’s Google; convenience is no longer synonymous with drive-thru, it’s DoorDash; and fashion trends aren’t discovered in aged department stores, but Tik-Tok— at least for the moment. (Hello, metaverse?)
Spending millions of dollars to design and construct a store or restaurant today can feel as risky as making a fleet of sailing ships a year before the steamship comes along. But it’s a business reality that renewal and renovation must happen – no options to hibernate for a decade and time travel doesn’t exist. There is no guaranteed way to future-proof a design, but there are strategies that can minimize the need for drastic future remedies for shortsightedness. Here are five approaches to designing in the Zero Horizon World:
1. Don’t reimage, reimagine.
Designing for an uncertain future should always involve evaluating the status quo deeper than surface level. This can be a challenge for any business that has been wed to incremental change. We always question clients for the reasons behind past decisions, and often they don’t know. Now is a time to get your house in order. Declutter with an eye towards keeping what matters to the guest experience, discarding the residue of long-gone ideologies and regimes, and displaying what (truly) makes your brand distinct for the long haul.Advertisement
2. Smaller is better.
As the classic Reddit question posits “would you rather fight 100 duck sized horses or one horse sized duck,” I agree with the faction that would choose the giant duck. Being big means it’s hard to move and hard to adapt. Plus, there are just more opportunities to drive more revenue from the same space. We use some sophisticated modelling tools to actually optimize (i.e. “right-size”) the retail box. It’s better to edit than add merchandise as more categories move online or to BOPIS models.
3. Plant in containers, not the soil (this is a metaphor).
Minimize the number of walls and millwork that are permanent. In a new retail facility concept for Honda, our design team at ChangeUp made the space adaptable so that changing layouts or adding services are not only painless but avoid the sunk-cost anxiety of tearing out once precious “assets.” This approach can be especially important in businesses that have franchisees or dealers who often see once “required” architectural expressions turn into eyesores or signals of the past.
4. Stick with the herd but be heard.
It is rare that one brand can, on its own, move the mountain of established patterns and expectations of customers. Determine what about the design is established by the herd (the category) and don’t try to change into an outlier. For the most part, any driver could go from their own car into a different car and still drive it. Fundamental changes are not unilateral, they have momentum and become adopted because the herd moves. The design challenge is to make the familiar distinctive, not introduce change for change’s sake. (The exception: You have unlimited resources.)Advertisement
5. Zero-sum upgrades.
Computer software used to be loaded from a handful of floppy disks (that icon still used in many programs meaning “save”), then it moved to multiple CDs, and now it comes through the firehose Internet. Yet the megabytes have become gigabytes of code for virtually the same tasks. The programs get bigger (a.k.a. bloated), with new features, but the old features don’t always go away. In the digital world, cost of memory has become ridiculously low, so we take it in stride. Building costs have not. Adding features and services to a concept should be looked at not as additional, but reappropriated costs. This is good discipline, and worth the cultural and political pain.
In a business climate driven increasingly by accelerating consumer behavior changes, economic cycles, evolving marketing priorities, and ongoing product trends, physical assets will always be the laggard. Designing for the Zero Horizon World of constant change requires a philosophical shift and next-level creativity to ensure that physical retail remains the preferred way people shop and strengthens the brand for a future that will always be as close as tomorrow.
Embracing Whole-Brained Thinking in the Design Journey
Strategy needs creative, and creative needs strategy—yep, having both is really the only way of unifying all disciplines with a common vernacular with an eye toward building a strong creative vision that is foundational to the processes. Hear from Bevan Bloemendaal, former VP, Global Environments & Creative Services at Timberland, how to connect the dots between disciplines, claiming and creating a clear differentiation for the brand and ensuring that any asset (experience, product, ad, store, office, home, video, game) is created with intention.
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