By  on March 12, 2002

DESIGN GURUS ARE BEING ENLISTED TO CREATE RETAIL ENVIRONMENTS THAT ARE JUST AS COOL AS THE CLOTHES.

As stores continue to fill sales floors with merchandise similar to that of their competitors -- and while a sluggish economy forces many consumers to tighten their purse strings -- designers who have retail units, as well as specialty retailers, are seeking out ways to differentiate themselves from each other in order to increase foot traffic. One sure way to entice shoppers, while reinforcing brand identity and providing a unique sensory experience, is through sleek and savvy store design.

"Decor is at least one-third of the shopping experience [in addition to goods and service]," said Paco Underhill, managing director of New York-based Envirosell, a retail and consumer research and consulting firm. "To seal the purchase, retailers must go beyond by making the experience fun and accountable from parking lot to parking lot."

Underhill said the ideal store is one that appeals to a cross section of the public and that "pulls the customer all the way through," not only to make a purchase, but to understand what the store sells. Most importantly, he added, store design should make a sales transaction as painless as possible and plant the seed for the next visit.

According to Underhill, a store's design should serve multiple purposes -- from a residence to a cafe to a gathering place. Whether a multifunctional store is too overwhelming varies for each customer, but Underhill said the majority will prefer the convenience of one-stop shopping.

Although a distinct store design is important, Underhill said function -- not just form -- is important.

"I am not impressed with someone who spends $40 million on a 'wow' store because that's expected," he said, listing the new 30,000-square-foot Rem Koolhaas-designed Prada store in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood, which opened last December, and the Disney and Nike chains, as examples.

The Prada store features a "wave" that runs the length of the store in pale, inlaid zebra wood, descending from the entrance down to the basement and rising back to street level. It has dual functions -- the side that descends can be a really big shoe display, or morph into an amphitheater with seating for hundreds to view a stage that mechanically unfolds from the smooth, ascending side. The store also features plasma-screen monitors, glass dressing-room doors that frost over at the touch of a button and America's first round glass elevator.

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