A group of people sitting at tables.

Under the Hood: Retail

Retailers are on the front lines of consumer trends. To understand how they keep their edge, contributor Mimi Zeiger got “under the hood” with five designers who have deep roots in the sector: Aaron Birney, retail design director, Gensler Los Angeles; Andrew Bornand, digital experience director, Gensler San Francisco; Owain Roberts, retail design director, Gensler London; Alan Robles, experience designer, Gensler Los Angeles; and Kate Russell, retail design director, Gensler New York.

Image: The open layout of the Microsoft Surface Pop-Up Store in Manhattan

Graphical user interface.
In Los Angeles, Dylan’s Candy Bar appeals to everyone’s sweet tooth.

How is the focus on customer experience changing retail?

Kate R: Retailers address the whole experience of the customer’s life. That has many implications. For example, the categories of specialty retail used to be much more defined, but that’s not true now. You have to understand the products that are typically shown together, but also suggest how they might merge and what happens when there’s a bit of everything in a space.

It’s not just that categories that don’t seem to go together are converging, but that the experience components of art, food and fashion are also starting to come together.

A lot of department stores that abandoned food 40 years ago are now thinking of how to incorporate it. American department stores are starting to look at food in a new way because they see successful examples in the U.K., Japan and South Korea of how to incorporate fresh food and make it part of the experience. But they also see smaller U.S. retail establishments that make the café and fresh, organic food an integral part of the design.

A man playing a game.
Technology adds to the customer experience at Aetrex, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

What’s the place of technology in today’s retail experience?

Alan R: The realignments between online and in store are the most significant change in retail right now. Some retailers limit what you can buy with soft checkout, using your smartphone, but others let you buy anything you want — you can wait and it will be there in an hour.

Owain R: It’s very hard to impress people with technology because it’s omnipresent. It’s tempting to put smart devices or their content in stores, but customers already have it on their phones. Technology works best when you don’t see it, when it’s intuitive, when it helps the retail experience. It can’t be just a gimmick.

Andrew B: Technology becomes obsolete quickly, so the cost of creating an experience that depends on it has to pay for itself in a very short time. That’s why most retailers would rather let customers use their own smartphones as the point of interaction, rather than have to install something in the store. But a smartphone doesn’t lend itself to viewing luxury products or high-ticket items. For those, you really need to see a bigger picture or greater detail to be engaged.

A store with a variety of clothing.
Uniqlo San Francisco creates a multilevel retail experience that mixes the real and digital.

What’s the place of technology in today’s retail experience?

KR: The best technology is seamlessly integrated, enhancing the experience without people noticing that it’s there. If there’s an interactive component, it needs to be unique.

Andrew B: Uniqlo’s new San Francisco store has a “magic mirror” — while looking in it, you put on a jacket, for example, and you use gestures to change the color. It’s engaging — something newer and better than you could find elsewhere.

Aaron B: Retailers often want to localize their stores, which can be prohibitively costly. Technology can create a place-specific or personalized message. Microsoft is a good example: the digital ribbon in its stores creates synergy with the online experience. It tells stories about the products and helps tie each store to its community with locally relevant messages.

KR: The opposite of adding technology for technology’s sake is addressing service as a really important component of any retail setting. The expectation of service as a differentiator happens at every price point now.

A person looking at a display of clothing.
Topshop’s Los Angeles store offers complimentary personal shoppers, VIP fitting rooms and concierge service.
A table with a chess board and game pieces on it.
Fine home goods sold at Hudson Grace in San Francisco have a gallery-like appearance.

As retail designers, how do you approach luxury and authenticity?

Aaron B: Luxury is always in the eye of the beholder, so defining it in a broader sense hinges on a shared sense of the difference between luxury and something less. As designers, we have to make sure that we’re speaking the same language as our clients and their customers.

AR: As the design develops and constraints arise, we often find clients fighting for the concepts that convey these core principles in the most authentic way. Authenticity is frequently how luxury differentiates itself.

Aaron B: Authenticity can elevate a brand at any price point. Take El Pollo Loco, the quick-serve restaurant chain. Some of the grillmasters have been with the restaurants for 20 years. They have a following, like chefs at “name” restaurants. As designers, we look for these nuggets of authenticity — things that are as memorable to the people who work there as they are to their customers. If we can bring them forward in the design, the resulting sense of authenticity helps set the brand apart.



Mimi Zeiger

Article Editor
John Parman (Gensler Firmwide Communications)

Web Story Editor
Kendra Mayfield (Gensler Firmwide Communications)

Image Credits
Michael Moran/OTTO Ryan Gobuty (Gensler—Los Angeles) Nacasa & Partners, Inc. Chris Leonard (Gensler—New York) Michael Townsend (Gensler—San Francisco)

Gensler Retail Contacts
Aaron Birney (Gensler—Los Angeles):
Andrew Bornand (Gensler—San Francisco):
Owain Roberts (Gensler—London):
Alan Robles (Gensler—Los Angeles):
Kate Russell (Gensler—New York):

Learn more
Read the full issue “Dialogue 23: Talking about … How leisure grabs us with experience” Follow Dialogue 23’s developing stories on our blog Gensler On