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Innovative, customer-centric public spaces make for engaging shopper experiences — retail architecture needs to embrace this

Retail outlets today are plagued by challenges. More and more customers are turning to e-commerce websites, leaving many shopping outlets to cope with declining profits and, to make matters worse, a deep identity crisis. Retail architecture can be used to turn this around.

Although overall online expenditures remain fairly limited compared to offline budgets, they’re increasing at such a rapid rate that many physical stores are having to fight to survive.

The question is no longer whether there’s a need to adapt, but how urgently adaptations need to be put in place.

Recent events have, unfortunately, proven that failing to adapt and reinvent physical retail spaces can be disastrous — the former gifts giant Toys ‘R’ Us is a classic example of this. After being forced to close more than 800 stores, it became clear that the days of traditional outlets are numbered. The question is no longer whether there’s a need to adapt, but how urgently adaptations need to be put in place.

Architects and designers should engage in debates on the reinvention of retail spaces. That way, they can work to provide time-resilient products ready to face the challenges of today’s market. Before we can put in place changes to make this happen, though, we need to look at the current format and how it’s failing to meet the end user’s need.

Shopping should be a social experience

Humans are nothing if not sociable animals. As such, architects should make it one of their primary concerns to help people to connect with their surrounding communities. Take the Greek Agora, the Roman Forum or the Middle East’s souks. People attended these market squares not only to get food and other products, but to meet, discuss politics and grab some respite from the working day.

Human interaction is one thing digital platforms are yet to match, regardless of how much they invest on good websites and customer support.

Replicating these timeless institutions is essential if vendors are to resist the downfall of physical retail. By hosting an environment which encourages people to stay connected, as well as being close to offices, homes and even hotels, retailers can contribute to something bigger than the pay packets of senior executives — community integration.

This ultimately works to make retail outlets more appealing, putting them back into the foreground of public life. Human interaction is one thing digital platforms are yet to match, regardless of how much they invest on good websites and customer support.

According to the PwC study, ‘Rethinking retail: The role of the physical store’, 71% of consumers have indicated that a store’s employees play a significant part of their shopping experience. On top of that, 75% want to interact more with real people (rather than the technological equivalent) when shopping, but the retail industry today is failing to cater to this. In-store salespeople have seen their roles axed in favour of the expansion of shelf space — the human side of the shopping experience is no longer seen as a priority.

In order for retailers to really stand out from the crowd, these experiences need to be characterised by an innovative use of space.

Any great brand (or brand identity) is built on trust. Without it, the prospect of offline shopping is nowhere near as appealing, and shoppers become more and more likely to turn to the digisphere. Designers and retailers can combat this by uniting to create a more social shopping experience, but in order for retailers to really stand out from the crowd, these experiences need to be characterised by an innovative use of space.


Elite Mall by RMJM

Frank Grillo, the Chief Marketing Officer of the marketing agency Harte Hanks, has called for “rich experience bazaars” which prioritise consumers as an integral part of shopping. Retail architecture and interior design concepts have the power to reimagine the use of space and floor plans to deliver experiences that consumers can’t find anywhere else. The goal is to create a resilient store whose experience is near-impossible to replicate — this is something which should be addressed from the very start of the design stage.

The architect and the space which he or she envisions is pivotal to the retail experience — whether that’s through memorable engagement with the senses, hyper-personalisation or the integration of online and offline shopping.

…but what is RMJM doing about it?  

RMJM put forward such a vision for Souq Extra’s Dubai Silicon development, a new mixed-use project which aims to enhance the public’s retail experience by drawing on local culture. RMJM was also tasked with designing a mosque in the neighbouring plot, presenting us with another unique challenge — how could we ensure that the commercial and religious components of these projects would work in tow with one another?

The community mosque is around 500 square metres in size and made to hold around 300 worshippers. On top of being a highly spiritual building, the mosque draws on modern architectural principles and features a glowing glass facade looking over a prime access road. RMJM harmoniously and respectfully integrated the daily lives of the locals into the design process, taking into account their routines and desires at every stage.

Gate Avenue by RMJM

Gate Avenue, another RMJM project in Dubai, also stands out for its ability to accommodate retail into the society which surrounds it. Situated at the heart of the Dubai International Finance Centre, Gate Avenue succinctly blends urban landscapes into a pristine retail environment. The space is geared towards leisure, networking and relaxation — three themes all central to the concept design.

An open, customer-centric area houses retail, service, food and beverage outlets to instantaneously meet demands of the local community, while simultaneously offering up larger destination retail, restaurants and hotels which will be sited en route. This quality, inventive nature was recognised in the Cityscape Global Awards 2017, where Gate Avenue won the Retail Project Award in the Future category.

It’s time to reform retail

Reinventing retail is no easy task. Engaging with customers from a design perspective isn’t as linear as following predetermined steps and creating the meaningful relationships which are crucial to success in the industry, so it makes sense to adopt a hybrid approach which utilises both on and offline outlets in harmony.

Online outlets can be used to maintain a strong sales presence, while physical retail stores can promote overall brand identity. Digitally-savvy, customer-centric experiential retail outlets are well poised to survive in today’s competitive market. To help make this a reality, though, architects and designers need to step back from the drawing board and immerse themselves in the socio-economic issues driving this need for change.

It’s time for new ideas and visions to be brought together, reinventing the ways in which we socialise and do business in public arenas — this is the only way which we can ensure that offline retail doesn’t become a relic of the past.

Read more about RMJM’s vast experience in the retail sector in this post.


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