Flexibility in retail: how innovative design thinking can support our retail community in a new era

16 December 2020

As the shape of the bricks-and-mortar future shifts, designing for retail experience is more important than ever.

As designers, we have an immense responsibility to our retail clients. We need to respond to their briefs and budgets whilst simultaneously creating designs that target the right markets, embed brand narrative, support customer experience initiatives, and ultimately add value. That responsibility is now magnified tenfold as we determine how best to help clients navigate an uncertain landscape that’s virtually unrecognisable from this time last year.

What must we do to achieve these objectives for our clients amidst a new world where change is the only constant? Where the memory of lockdowns remains fresh and in-person experiences are still coloured by concern for public health, financial constraints, and a massive shift to online shopping?

As 2020 draws to a close, in a world much changed from the one we’ve long known, we must begin looking to the future. When it comes to retail, we believe that future is in flexibility.

If there’s a positive to lockdowns, it’s that we’ve all had to rapidly learn how to do more online. Adoption of technology has advanced, as digital tools have become essential to engage with colleagues and clients alike. We’ve worked online, shopped online, banked online, socialised and met online, connected and strengthened communities online.

But what has this meant for retailers, and how has it altered the industry’s outlook? Is bricks-and-mortar dead, or is it simply changing? How does that transform the customer experience and what excellence and effectiveness look like in the world of retail?

Overseas, COVID-19 has instigated an ecommerce boom. In New Zealand, 2020 has seen ecommerce sales grow considerably on their 2019 counterparts, with online spending in the first nine months of this year rising a massive 22 per cent on the same time period in 2019, according to research undertaken by New Zealand Post.

At the onset of the first lockdown, many Kiwi retailers put incredible energy into swiftly moving their operations online, only to be faced with a dilemma when the pressure diminished: how to pursue two channels equally but without the resources to effectively manage both. In answer to this quandary, some quickly returned to a familiar store-centric or store-only operating model, but there’s something else that indicates that bricks-and-mortar is far from death’s door.

Even with the ecommerce shift that’s been playing out for the last decade or so being rapidly accelerated by 2020’s pandemic, a uniquely human desire remains strong within our retail expectations. We’re a social species, and we yearn to get back into the real, sharing energy and experiences with like-minded people.

The concept of experience is crucial here. While recent surveys by Forbes have demonstrated the confronting truth that 59 per cent of shoppers actually prefer to shop online, numerous studies have shown there’s one thing that brings people out in droves: experiential retail.

The reality of our post-COVID world is that physical footprints and property networks are likely to shrink. But as this happens, the opportunity arises to distil the best of retail into concentrated and focused experiences, as well as to diversify into innovative offerings.

In 2020, everything has been challenging for retailers. Beyond health, they’ve had to contend with a sharp and sudden shift in how we interact in public, as well as a massive increase in online shopping. As overseas markets grapple with their own issues, Kiwi retailers are also struggling with supply chains — something that comes into particular focus over the holidays, when the reality is that even if demand is there, the stock might not be.

Perhaps remaining relevant and compelling is the easiest of these challenges to overcome. Particularly in times of crisis, we gravitate toward businesses that stand for something — companies that align with our values and show a strong moral compass. Throughout 2020, we’ve seen remarkable empathy within our community to support local — to respond emotionally and financially to the struggles of our restaurateurs and retailers and to seek engagement with businesses on a more human level.

Sadly, some businesses won’t survive — at least not without a significant shift in their operations. This is where we designers need to put ourselves in our clients’ shoes. After all, our goal must be to help them win with their own customers in order to maximise business success, so how can we harness the best of our design thinking to support them? To lower their costs and risks whilst helping them offer the best customer experience?

With so much unpredictability swirling around retail, we believe the future of the industry is flexible — and that the key is in fitout.

If we design for resilience and adaptability, we can create physical stores that aren’t confined to one space and that instead have the ability to be deconstructed and redeployed depending on the needs of the retailer.

We’ve used iterations of this model to great success with the Sustainable House of Westpac — a modular, customisable design that’s saved Westpac time and money by cutting fitout timeframes from 12 to 4 weeks and reducing construction waste by 50% — and our pop-up shopfronts for Westfield Newmarket, which greatly improve our client Scentre Group’s flexibility and sustainability by allowing them to easily reconfigure the same space for any number of new tenants or centre-led initiatives.

In addition to reducing fitout costs and time, the flexible nature of these designs allows retailers to tailor their physical store size and property network to their needs at any given time. They can be just small enough to reduce overheads and offer an intimate in-person customer experience, or they can easily expand to capitalise on peak sales periods like the holidays.

We believe we can use variations on these flexible designs to support retail success in our new world, creating customisable physical spaces that assist retailers in maintaining financial viability as well as in offering memorable, compelling, and relevant customer experiences.

Living and shopping wholly online is ultimately a hollow way to live, and fleeting Instagrammable moments aren’t enough. But the way our customers feel when they leave our shops? That’s everything.

2020 has fundamentally changed our retail landscape. Instead of thinking in a context of ‘getting back to normal,’ we should instead start designing for a new normal, where flexibility gives retailers power and agency over their businesses as they operate in an uncertain, ever-shifting world.

At Context, we’re looking forward to harnessing the collective energy of our team’s design thinking to come up with creative, future-proofed solutions that help our clients succeed with their customers — and to seeing what our peers in the design community can create.