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Designing Retail Stores For Customer Intuition
06 March 2018

An inspiring retail design and fit-out can do a lot to motivate customers away from their computers and back into malls, shopping centres and bricks and mortar retail. One leading designer believes the answer is creating a retail experience that aligns with customer intuition, intelligent real estate selections and understanding the behaviour of the ‘bullseye’ customer.  

Aloof customer service is not always the fault of disinterested staff - they’re probably as indifferent to their working environment as we are to shopping there. As shoppers, we often walk into stores, wander around aimlessly and quickly leave without understanding why. No amount of effort by a store manager or assistant is enough to engage us. Why is that?

According to Retail Designer Callie van der Merwe, Founding Partner of retail design specialists Design Partnership (DP) who have offices in Sydney, Johannesburg and Cape Town, many retailers make the mistake of forcing people into counter intuitive behaviour.

“People walk the way they drive. They walk left, they seek the left, they move in a clockwise direction so if you are going to force people into other behaviour they are going to feel uncomfortable in the space without understanding why they do.”

Creating spaces that align with intuitive behaviour is a major part of the DP philosophy. When they were asked by Standard Bank in South Africa to design their branches for a demographic that was older than the bank’s online consumers, DP recreated the mindset that banks were key partners at pivotal moments in the lives of their customers: first student loan, car loan and home loan to name a few. They began by engaging with their customers from the outside.

“In malls people only slow down if there are things they can look at, but when they get to banks they speed up because there’s nothing to look at,” said Callie.

For Standard Bank, DP curated an emotive front of shop to attract footfall and reverse a long held perception of exclusivity. Callie understood that if somebody wanted to purchase a car the bank was the last point of contact when it should have been the first. To cut through that disconnect DP showcased aspirational items accessible to the average customer if they went into the branch and made enquiries about the bank’s products.

“We stand at the intersection of creativity and commerce,” Callie said. “The fundamentals of commerce have to be there. By and large clients tend to see creatives as someone who is going to make the front pretty. The way we curate the front is in the way people behave so if you don’t understand that 80% of your profits will come from 20% of your products then you are going to design for the wrong areas or platforms.”

Once inside, installations were conducive to customer comfort and included coffee shops and seats for customers to sit on at tables rather than counters. They divested from tablets and digital devices and used patterns, palettes and finishes appropriate to discussing a customer’s finances. They even removed signage out of respect for the ability of each customer to intuitively find his or her own way.

“Signage is a failure of design. By and large people move intuitively, they want to layer things according to importance,” Callie said.

Facilitating the intuitive behaviour of the bullseye customer extends to locating stores in close proximity of complementary stores. There was a time, some eight to 10 years ago, when Toys R Us were one of the world’s dominant toy retailers before they speculated on the online shopping revolution and began disappearing from our shopping precincts. At the time, Toys R Us were lacking traction in South Africa and approached DP to help them understand why.

From researching the behaviour of Toys R Us customers in established stores, DP concluded that the Toys R Us bullseye customers were not mothers or fathers accompanying their children but rather, mothers shopping alone. DP positioned a Toys R Us store within eye shot of Woolworths in the belief that grocery shopping behaviour would be replicated with toys if there was a visual incentive. DP were right, profits increased exponentially and visual proximity to Woolworths became a prerequisite for future stores.

“If as a designer you cater for the bullseye audience then those to the right and left will follow. There’s a thing in physical retail that people watch people before they watch things. It’s called swarm intelligence. You don’t get that in digital space, you only get that in retail space,” he said.

Because it’s a reflection of consumer confidence, spending in the retail sector is used as an indicator to measure overall economic performance. The correlation should be made between the performance of retailers who are trying to create an immersive, multi-faceted experience for their customers and those that are idle. For Callie van der Merwe the evidence is clear.

“When we engage with clients who are willing to walk the path of total consumer engagement and affect the back of house workings of the mechanism, in addition to us (because we can only change the front), then we’ve got a good outcome - a great outcome.”