Sy Perkowitz – Architecture Aids in Retail Branding

REBusiness Online

May 15, 2018

As brick-and-mortar retail centers evolve to compete with online retailers, architects are helping developers and tenants with the evolutionary process. Shopping Center Business, sister publication to REBusinessOnline, asked four architects for their insights about how developers and retailers are grappling with the questions of branding. Sharing their thoughts are Sean Selby, principal with Boston-based Arrowstreet; Simon Perkowitz, principal with Irvine, California-based KTGY Architecture + Planning; Jim Baeck, principal with Baltimore-based Design 3 International (D3i); and Frankie Campione, principal and creative director of New York City-based CREATE Architecture Planning & Design.

REBO: Specific to architecture, how is retail branding evolving?

Selby: The days of retailers being all things to all customers are over. Retailers are discovering that if they focus on their core mission and what they do better than everyone else, they’re more successful. For example, L.L. Bean is regarded as the greatest outdoor outfitter in the world, supplying their customers with all the gear needed to hike, paddle, and play outside. Arrowstreet has helped L.L. Bean roll out a number of stores across the country in a variety of locations and settings. Walking through their stores is like walking through one of their catalogs. Barnboard walls, fish tanks stocked with brook trout, and displays of the iconic L.L. Bean boots create a “-cabin in the woods” aesthetic. The guiding principle throughout our work on new L.L. Bean stores is to create an experience in the store that matches what the brand means to the customer. Their LEED Silver-certified hunting and fishing store format is modeled after a traditional Maine hunting lodge, complete with a stone fireplace and oversized porch. The mezzanine of this two-story building offers consumers a space to interact with instructors while handling equipment. True to the brand, sustainability and sensitivity to the environment were key factors in the design process. We used salvaged materials to minimize waste and improve energy efficiency. L.L. Bean is a great example of a retail brand that lives and breathes its merchandising strategy. The most successful retail brands today have a look and feel that reflect the true essence of their brand no matter what part of the world the store is located in.

REBO: When it comes to large retail centers, what are the most important architectural considerations for branding those centers? 

Baeck: Today’s large retail centers must create an invigorating experience that appeals to intended users. This can be accomplished through integration of light and color, scale and juxtaposition of physical elements, landscaping and creative uses of open space. Today’s architectural challenges include creating a unique-to-market destination that must be able to accommodate non-traditional anchors and a wide variety of prospective tenants, from a yoga studio, spa, learning center or comedy club to more conventional retailers, services and dining. While the visual appearance might attract visitors to a center, the experience and true of integration of features and functions is what really brands a center. 

Perkowitz: Architects and developers are collaborating to create places that seem as if they have been built over time with a variety of uses and points of interest, while incorporating the latest technology and most modern amenities that will appeal to today’s educated and well-traveled customer. The place may not be a retail center as we have known them, but rather a district with a mix of uses that may include shopping, recreation, residential, office and other uses. At Provo Towne Centre, KTGY Architecture + Planning is working with Brixton Capital to reimagine a 134,000-square-foot anchor into a mix of uses. Conceptual plans include adding hospitality, retail, office and a sports court to under-used parts of this 20-year-old enclosed mall, creating a destination that creates community.

Campione: It has taken a while, but most shopping center developers have finally realized that their centers need to once again be desirable destinations. This was lost somewhere along the way. Rollout, stamped prototypes became the norm and cookie-cutter buildings engulfed the nation. It didn’t matter where you were in the country — it all looked the same. This was great for tenant brand recognition, but architecture and, more importantly, the destinations became banal. Now the most successful centers seem to be those that haven’t lined up a stack of prototypes that don’t relate to each other but that have created an environment that speaks a certain vernacular to the user. Developers are balancing the tenant desires of brand recognition with the image the developer wants to portray in their own portfolio as well. We are finding the developers are pushing tenants to up their game, to create a better-looking façade or work with local municipalities in what will be accepted by the communities they serve. We have always felt the centers we design should use the local vernacular or an interpretation of the same to remain timeless and elegant. 

REBO: When it comes to prototypes how do chain retailers set themselves apart from competitors? For example, we see buildings that are instantly recognizable as a former Pizza Hut because the roof on that prototype was so much a part of the company’s branding. How do retailers and architects approach decisions like that today? 

Selby: For every Pizza Hut roof or McDonald’s golden arch, there are probably hundreds of examples of gimmicky architectural logos that were forgotten as soon as they appeared. We aim to establish the essential attitude of a brand and design an atmosphere around its essence. Starbucks is a solid example. The coffee shop has thousands of locations in different settings, and whether they are stand-alone stores or coffee stands inside other stores, their attitude stands out in their soft lighting, material and color palettes, the clean lines of their displays, and the functionality and fit of their lounge space. We have achieved this coffee shop feel for Starbucks within the new urban Target stores we are designing. Their locations provide a more comfortable and laid-back aesthetic from the bold retail experience of Target’s brand, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that their coffee is always delicious. 

Campione: The phrase “it has good bones” is becoming commonplace. You need to balance budget with desires when reusing a former building, especially one that has brand recognition even when it is vacant or dark. We convince the new tenant or the developer providing a turnkey space to use “the bones” but reskin. We’ve been given quite a number of dark spaces to revamp. Most recently we converted a Toys R Us into a Trader Joe’s and Old Navy, a Linens ’n Things became a Nordstrom Rack, and a Hooters became a Starbucks. None of those new tenants want to look like the former, but that doesn’t preclude you from reusing the structure and giving the building a new identity. And we find the transformation greatly rewarding. 

Perkowitz: KTGY Architecture + Planning created a modern and contemporary look for the retailer expansion of SouthBay Pavilion in Carson, California, making way for Forever 21’s F21 RED brand to establish a 17,000-square-foot store. KTGY provided design services for the renovation of the shopping center, as well as for the adaptation of the store branding for new retailers to the site. Large contemporary letters and clean lines create visibility for the F21 RED store, both from the curb and inside the enclosed retail center. The exterior entry design incorporates stone veneers, metal louvers and wood siding, resulting in a fresh and enduring feeling that resonates with this Southern California destination. While reimagining the design of the retail center, KTGY used textured walls, up-lighting and clean, contemporary storefronts to create a space that feels open and is easy to navigate.

REBO: With the growth of experiential retail, how are architects collaborating with retailers to ensure the success of their concepts?

Baeck: Collaboration is essential. All parties must be fully invested in this process. Vigorous debate and examination of fresh and creative ideas will yield original, innovative concept and designs. In every area, from overall look and feel, fit and finish to implementation of technology, the goal is to be fresh and new, while still understanding what consumers want or will accept.

Selby: Our work includes concepts that are pushing the limits of “experiential” retail. Rock climbing gyms, skydiving, bowling and other venues are redefining what a retail center can provide for a community. These days, people aren’t going to retail centers to only shop or be entertained. They want to try new things, get fit, and experience life in new ways. The old “lifestyle centers” were nice, but now people want to have more participatory activities. The result is more foot traffic, more families, and more time spent at these centers. Experiential retail requires more creative and interesting architecture from the old concept of white box spaces filled with merchandise.

REBO: How do you incorporate technology into today’s retail spaces? How does this impact branding and retail experiences?

Baeck: This is one of the most exciting areas in retail and development today. Developers can now work to create digital master plans that seamlessly integrate technology to create a connected, responsive and exciting experience for consumers as they move through a development. Examples might include LED screens planted throughout the landscape of a project that develop and display targeted messaging based on virtual but real-time information about shopping patterns and habits. Upon entry, a clothing store with an understanding of the same can present individualized offers. The experience extends to other components within the development, whether a restaurant, cinema or health spa. The implementation of technology becomes a way to extend and expand the brand and distinguish it from competitors. While some may say that people are intimidated by this approach, the fact is that technology has and will continue to influence the way developers build, the way consumers shop and the way we live. In order to be successful, developers must be at the leading edge as we all become familiar with and conditioned to this reality.

Selby: If it’s an Apple store or a Verizon store, technology is front and center and everything else integrates into that. But for most every other retail space, technology plays a support role. For example, all of the new Target stores rolling out this year are small urban formats, a fraction of the size of their suburban big-box locations. Because they can’t physically provide shelf space for every sku they rely on purchasing and demographic data to determine the right merchandise mix for the surrounding neighborhood of that location. Their technology backbone has to be seamless for their customers. For example, in the 16,000-square-foot Boston Target location we designed, the customer can access visual menus of alternative electronic items if what they’re looking for isn’t in the store. They can order it on the spot for pick-up later or have it delivered to their home. Retailers today have also integrated technology to provide self-service check-out stations that provide speed of transaction for consumers. With this seamless integration of technology, Target can concentrate on the store presentation and brand awareness that everybody understands is unique to Target.