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Jazzed Up in New Orleans

Talk of customer engagement, experiential stores and clicks to bricks flowed during the 17th annual International Retail Design Conference in The Big Easy



Jazzed Up in New Orleans

Keynote presenter Adam Alter during IRDC 2018. Photography: Richard Cadan, Fairfield, Conn.

The International Retail Design Conference (IRDC), a three-day knowledge feast of retail design best practices and trends, networking and inspiration, presented annually by VMSD, traveled to New Orleans this Sept. 5-8. It proved yet again to energize and engage the more than 400 creatives in attendance from the U.S. and abroad. A quick search of the conference hashtag, #irdc2017, on social media reveals countless inspirational quotes from influential speakers, attendee banter and snapshots of retail, culture and cuisine (beignets!) discovered (and eaten!) during self-guided tours of the enigmatic city.

On the packed agenda were more than 25 sessions, during which themes of reinvention, flexibility, authenticity and engagement within the retail space emerged. Keynote presenter, New York University professor and best-selling author Adam Alter’s session, “Drunk Tank Pink: The Unexpected Forces that Shape Our Thoughts, Feelings and Behaviors,” examined how certain colors, scents and the presence of nature can influence shopping behavior. Virtual reality popped up as a way to expand the store sans construction, while Generation Z’s burgeoning buying power has officially joined the conversation. And everyone’s favorite whacky whirlwind of visual merchandising prowess, The Iron Merchant Challenge, took a delightfully spooky turn this year.

“The world of retail is changing dramatically, but it’s not broken,” said John Bricker, principal and creative director for architecture and design firm Gensler, during the session, “Cadillac House: Designing the Brand Experience.” That concept of “change” would be articulated in more ways than one during the conference. 

Jazzed Up in New Orleans


Opening keynoter Peter Kim during IRDC 2018. Photography: Richard Cadan, Fairfield, Conn.

“I don’t take fashion lightly. The power we have is incredible,” said Peter Kim, founder and chair of Hudson Jeans, who kicked off IRDC’s first day with an irreverent and honest discussion about his journey to save his parents’ failing apparel business and the creation of his premium denim brand. Wile Hudson Jeans had found success, Kim realized that over time, it had become “all about the money and not about the culture and vision it was supposed to be,” leading him to retool the brand and steer the business back to its original objective: to create a culture that empathized with and connected with its customers. 

With that objective and its five pillars of “art, performance, service, community and product” in mind, Hudson is set to open its first physical store in 2018 in its home city of Los Angeles. The location will be a sensory experience that appeals to both Generation Z and millennials and is flexible to allow for performances and community events. “We’re creating retail that’s a non-retail spot,” he said. 

Jazzed Up in New Orleans

Photography: Richard Cadan, Fairfield, Conn.

The idea of retail spaces shifting from transactional to experiential was also the blueprint behind the Cadillac House breakout session, in which Cadillac’s associate director of brand partnerships and experiences, Nathan Tan, and Gensler’s Bricker addressed the strategy behind the car company’s interactive brand house in New York. Inside the space exists a café, a lounge, a workspace, a retail lab for emerging designers, an art gallery and a multi-use runway for fashion shows, dinners or concerts. Virtual reality allows Cadillac to display its full line of inventory. “Change is good,” Bricker noted. “The single-use space is out. Transformation must be considered in the design process.”


Thursday’s general session, “United Outside: REI’s Journey to Redefine the Flagship Retail Experience,” walked attendees through the outdoor retailer’s process to create a Washington, D.C., flagship – a 51,000-square-foot store within a decaying former arena and ice house – that was more than just a place to shop. Relying on input from its local co-op members, REI developed a store that is big on community engagement, activity and experiential elements such as a café and an outdoor courtyard, complete with fire pits. Global for-profit thrift retailer, Savers, along with Tesser, presented “Fixing the Wardrobe Malfunction: How Savers Re-imagined Reuse Through the Power of Design,” and explained how it adopted mission-centric branding to help build existing customer loyalty and attract new audiences.

Jazzed Up in New Orleans

Closing keynoter Michael Koch talks about retail experiences. Photography: Richard Cadan, Fairfield, Conn.

VMSD’s Editorial Advisor/New York Editor, as well as founder and president of Embrace Design, Eric Feigenbaum, echoed the experiential retail sentiment in his talk, “The Best of Brick and Mortar: Design and Desire,” explaining how the new in-store focus is on “brand immersion” that also achieves the right balance of physical and digital. “A walk through the store should be like a walk through your website,” Feigenbaum said.

That continuity between in store and online was also discussed during the interactive panel, “Why Visual Merchandising is More Critical Today than Ever Before,” wherein Harry Cunningham, Vera Bradley’s head of store development, noted that in order for Vera Bradley stores to accommodate the brand’s new home goods component, it launched a shoppable virtual reality experience in its SoHo store in New York. “We found that customers were engaging for seven to eight minutes, which was beyond expectations,” he said. “We were able to expand the store without any construction at all.” (The store will be featured in VMSD's December 2017 issue.)

Similarly, at Thursday morning’s Sponsor Case Studies, IRDC presenting sponsor InfoComm Intl. (now AVIXA), moderated a conversation with several audiovisual (AV) design firms, including Britelite Immersive ESI Design and Float4, on how AV experiences draw people into stores and help to increase engagement, dwell time and sales. Closing keynoter Michael Koch, senior director of store development for Samsung (Seoul, South Korea), explored “The Transformation of Experiential Retail” via the retailer’s 56,000-square-foot Samsung 837 brand experience center in New York, which sells nothing but coffee. “It’s a place where people come in and relax and learn about our products,” he said, citing how technology has changed how we shop, how we live and how we work.


Things took a more hands-on turn during three new interactive workshops, wherein conference-goers had the chance to witness and influence an architectural sketch, create nostalgia-driven mood boards and participate in the “power of failure.”

Jazzed Up in New Orleans

The winning 2017 Iron Merchant team. Photography: Richard Cadan, Fairfield, Conn.

Jazzed Up in New OrleansJazzed Up in New OrleansJazzed Up in New Orleans

Some of the winners recognized during this year's Award Luncheon. Photography: Richard Cadan, Fairfield, Conn. 

Winners of the 2017 Designer Dozen Awards were fêted during this year’s opening cocktail reception, sponsored by Opto Intl. After an extensive voting process by VMSD’s Editorial Advisory Board, the coveted 2017 VMSD/Peter Glen Retailer of the Year award went to Seattle-based retailer Inc., which was announced during the VMSD Awards Luncheon. Other winners included Megan Stone, founder, principal and interior designer with The High Road Design Studio, whose design of medical marijuana dispensary Level Up won “Best in Show” in VMSD’s International Visual Competition; Los Angeles-based firm Dan Brunn Architecture was awarded VMSD’s Retail Renovation of the Year for its sculptural transformation of specialty apparel retailer Road to Awe’s first brick-and-mortar location; and the Purple Team, helmed by IRDC presenter and The Ohio State University Assistant Professor of Interior Design Rebekah Matheny, now holds the winning title for 2017’s Mardi Gras/Halloween-themed Iron Merchant Challenge.

Jazzed Up in New Orleans

The VMSD editorial staff with some of the 2017 Designer Dozen winners. Photography: Richard Cadan, Fairfield, Conn.

During the self-guided NOLA Inspiration Tours, attendees were challenged with snapping photos of their surrounds and posting them on social media using #irdc2017; the lucky winner would receive a free registration to IRDC 2018. VMSD staff members selected Cathy Clark of CallisonRTKL for her artsy  ’gram of a greenery-covered building. To cap off the conference in grand fashion, this year’s closing party took place at the magnificent and historic Latrobe’s on Royal.

Jazzed Up in New Orleans

Partygoers at Latrobe's on Royal. Photography: Richard Cadan, Fairfield, Conn.

Next year, IRDC fills up its travel coffee mug and heads west to Seattle, Oct. 2-4, at the Motif Hotel. For more information on IRDC 2018, visit or look for the hashtag #irdc2018 on social media. 


InfoComm Intl. (AVIXA)

Reflect Systems

Alpolic Materials
Mack Studios

Architectural Systems Inc.
Grottini Retail Environments
Impact Specialties
Kendu In-Store Visual Solutions
Opto Intl. Inc.

Axis Display Group
Chandler Inc.
Circle Visual
Karen Pearse Global Direct
LaRosa Mannequins
Lux Design & Construction Ltd.
Materials Inc.
McRae Imaging
Premier Fixtures
Process Retail Group
RCS Innovations



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