FRCH worked on this Tru by  Hilton hotel in Oklahoma City

A “golden age” in retailing is coming.

Really?

At least that’s how Norman Roberts, vice president and managing creative director for FRCH Design Worldwide, interprets the future for bricks-and-mortar retail, five or so years down the road.

Maybe it’s wishful thinking and way off — and considering FRCH’s wide portfolio of clients, from upscale and mass retailers to hotels and food and beverage companies, Roberts is keenly aware of budget cuts, downsizings and challenges of the moment.

“We are going through a very painful process — retailers and the industries that service them. But it’s a learning curve that is reshaping retail into something better,” he says. “I strongly feel there is a new exciting era of retail ahead, transitioning from a distribution retail model to an experiential model, from transactional to emotional.

Saks Fifth Avenue on Queen Street in Toronto.  Bill Waldorf

“In this golden age,” Roberts continues, “we will really understand the value of that bricks-and-mortar experience — touching things, trying things on, being in a communal space shopping with other people. The physical store will incorporate the tools of online and other technologies and then celebrate what only can be done in a physical environment — the sensorial and social.”

He sees retailers — the smart ones — applying the good aspects of shopping online to the bricks-and-mortar experience. “Online retailers have taken the transactional [hassle] out of it. You click once and you are out. Credit card information is stored. Your personal profile is stored. They know what your size is, what colors you prefer. How can you bring that to bricks-and-mortar retail? That’s what we need to focus on — how brick-and-mortar shopping evolves to echo what’s happening online.”

In “the golden age” of retail, Roberts envisions:

  • Stores getting smaller with less inventory.
  • Store associates as “brand ambassadors” who establish personal connections with consumers.
  • Department stores as “ecosystems” with a cornucopia of food, beverage and entertainment offerings, services and brands.
  • Selling floors functioning as ever-changing “stage sets.”

Roberts, who is based at the 18 East 17th Street offices in New York of FRCH, which also has offices in Los Angeles and Cincinnati, firmly believes physical stores will remain the primary place to shop. He agrees with industry pundits who think Internet sales will plateau at about 20 percent of total retail sales, even though shoppers are being heavily influenced by online researching and browsing. His reason: “Online is always two-dimensional. It’s a picture of the thing. It’s not the thing. When you are in a store and at a brand, you’re making personal connections with the sales people. You are trying things on. You are touching the fabric. It’s all those sensorial things that we still judge a piece of clothing by.”

In the “golden age,” stores get smaller with edited-down selections so the sea of merchandise sameness recedes and less back office space is needed. “We’ll see a slicing and dicing up on current spaces to accommodate more manageable footprints,” Roberts says. “Massive stores and high rents are not what brands are going to need in the next generation of retail — they need compelling stories that connect with consumers on an emotional level, and all of that will impact lease terms, maintenance budgets, store design budgets and the size of stores. It’s part of a larger presentation of a brand where the personal connection happens.”

The next generation of retailers will have “a very hard time” committing to long-term, expensive leases, Roberts believes. “With the rise of digital retail and lowering of the hurdles to enter the business, we now have an exciting but very fragmented retail-brand landscape churning with new brands and ideas. This is not an environment, business-wise or culturally, that will embrace investing millions of dollars into a ten-year lease.”

There’s a different financial model. “Retailers must embrace the fact that bricks-and-mortar space is not a sales-per-square-foot equation. You can’t just use the same old calculus,” Roberts says.

As ‘ecosystems,’ department stores will fill many more needs of the population aside from just showcasing brands. “You could easily slide a boutique hotel in Macy’s Herald Square, or a coworking space,” Roberts says. “Coworking spaces create a community.”

He sees “the store as [a] window…Bring that expression and experience inside the store,” Roberts says. “Windows on the street aren’t enough…Quick turnaround, inexpensive bursts of creativity and storytelling will be pulled inside the retail space to create immersive environments that move beyond the limited engagement windows now have.”

He also sees stores operating more like ‘stage sets’ with selling floors designed to change quickly — one day a wide-open floor plan, another day a stretch of intimate shopping areas. It’s all about movable walls and fixtures, adaptive decor, signage and lighting that can be adjusted for varying effects, moods and messages, all to create constant newness and readily expand or contract categories based on sales trends.

Stores of the future must have “a strong clear [point of view] around what makes a brand or retailer different. And this needs to be established immediately. Consumers need to know the moment they walk in the store (if not before) what is trying to be said. What the brand/retailer stands for. If that ‘a-ha’ moment is missed, you really have to question the value of having that physical retail space.”

Although retailing is undergoing a great rationalization and many aspects are changing, Roberts suggests, “The basic rules of retail are the same: good product and good service.”

Norman Roberts 

At FRCH, the goal is to see something new with each project, maintaining an “open, exploratory mind” that factors in learnings from other categories and external forces shaping consumers wants, needs and preferences, Roberts says. Collaboration, he adds, is part of the culture of the strategic design and architectural firm.

Discussing some recent projects, Roberts notes FRCH worked with the Saks Fifth Avenue team to create interiors for the Saks collection of specialty stores in Greenwich, Conn., including Saks’ 10022-Shoe, The Collective for contemporary merchandise and The Vault for fine jewelry. “The challenge here was to take categories traditionally housed in the footprint of a department store and move them into freestanding boutiques. You have to think of the storefront, signage, street views, the customer flow in a different way. It’s a different journey.”

FRCH also worked with Macy’s to create a prototype for the Backstage off-price format. “The challenge was taking a department store looking inward and reshaping the real estate to address changes in consumer habits.”

With T-Mobile, FRCH worked with that company to create five flagships in different cities involving “bringing a physical sensorial experience to an intangible product.”

And with Tru by Hilton, FRCH teamed with the hotel company to create a new format to suit younger travelers, the Airbnb/hostel generation where “the core of their stay is the central social hub, not the individual room. This incorporates coffee shops, coworking spaces, gaming spaces, a bar. Tru by Hilton reverses the typical budget hotel experience where the rooms are the focus. This is a budget hotel with a very active experiential social hub, where the rooms are secondary.”

Among the retailers of today that impress Roberts, he cited Dover Street Market for building change into its DNA; Anthropologie for being theatrical with” cultural installations that have nothing to do with product per se, but are about having a space that is intriguing and different, and Farfetch for building tools to bring online tech to physical retail, like Amazon used technology to bring physical retail online.

He also cited The Line, an online retailer of luxury that also has two physical locations, in New York City and Los Angeles, called The Apartment by The Line. “You walk into a fantastic apartment where everything is for sale, the furniture, the jewelry, the tableware, the stuff in the closet. You can have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. It’s a totally different look at what the function of a retail space is, and of course they ship to you. They didn’t start with how much sales per square foot should we do. They started with ‘what is the experience we want the customers to have? What do we need them to know about our brand?’ They have a point of view. It’s more niche. This is a destination. It’s an immersive experience and a very human, memorable experience.”

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