Designing for the Perfect Wave

Sept. 1, 2007

By Carol Tisch | Photography by Benny Chan/Fotoworks

Confronted with a project that arose from a sea of white space, the design team at Gensler attained every designer's dream and created an innovative branding and design concept for a major surf and skate retailer.


It is only fitting that a retailer with 900 surf and skate stores would hire the design world's big kahuna to overhaul its flagship brand. But as Gensler rolled out an initial 20 reimaged Pac Sun stores, they did not expect Pacific Sunwear of California Inc. to challenge them so quickly with the design equivalent of surfing's perfect wave.

In effect, Gensler was asked to preside over the launch of a retail concept that did not yet exist; one which they would holistically develop in tandem with the executives at Pac Sun. Ted Jacobs, Gensler San Francisco's retail principal, recalls: "We had just completed the renovation of the Pac Sun stores, which was very dramatic in terms of the evolution of their brand. The prototype was finished, and we were rolling those stores out all over the planet, when the client came to us and said they had identified a white space in the market."

There it loomed: The elusive big wave every designer dreams of. The white space, Jacobs and his team were told, was primarily at malls all over the country, and was specific to footwear. "They explained that consumers could go to a Stride Rite or a Marshalls and find shoes for 20 bucks; or go to Prada and buy shoes for 450 bucks; but from the mall or mass market perspective, there was really nothing hip and cool to provide the latest fashion trends in footwear at $100 or $125," says Jacobs. Pac Sun asked Gensler to help develop a concept that would leverage that white space. 

Flash forward two years from that meeting, and the market void is filled with a new retail paradigm called One Thousand Steps. Nine prototypes, which have broken every convention in mall-based footwear retailing, are expected to amount to 800 stores nationally. What's more, the solution is design-based from concept to completion.

The design goal for the store prototype was to bridge the fine line that would appeal to both ends of the spectrum: those early adopters who would come in for hip, fashion shoes; and the mainstream audience that would best respond to an environment and product assortment that was totally new, but still familiar.

"That is our strength," explains Jacobs. "We have interdisciplinary teams; each team is made up of a brand strategist and a writer in addition to graphic designers, interior designers, architects and product designers. We all work in tandem in an orchestrated fashion-in parallel, as opposed to in series" [which is the traditional model in the rest of the world].

Interdisciplinary teams consisting of brand strategists, writers, graphic designers, interior designers, architects and product designers, worked in tandem to create and refine the concept of One Thousand Steps-Pac Sun's third retail brand. larger image

This particular project was to be Pacific Sunwear's third retail brand. At the genesis of this project, the client owned more than 1,000 Pac Sun and d.e.m.o. stores in 50 states and Puerto Rico. "They came to us with a business plan that had a sense of price point, a sense of the customer type-age bracket and so forth. They had a sense of what the product buy would be, although they had refined none of these things," notes Jacobs.

In fact, as Gensler's strategists hammered out the brand positioning statement, researched names, developed the logo mark and brand identity, the executive team at Pac Sun started to develop their product buy based on what the design team was finding: who would shop the stores, what they were looking for, what the product would look like, and the environment of the actual store," says Jacobs.

At this stage, as in every new project, the Gensler team took time out for a ‘convention exercise'. Step by step, team members review the ‘conventions' of a business, an industry, a retail format-and then question those very conventions. Here conventions under attack had to do with shoe stores. Convention number one: Shoe stores sell shoes. "We asked, ‘why only shoes'? People don't buy just shoes; certainly women think head to toe," says Jacobs. "So we broke that convention. We said we need to have accessories: bags, belts and watches from the best brands that also could be sold in this store."

Convention number two: Shoes are displayed on walls. The Gensler group questioned why indeed shoes have to be confined to wall space. "We recommended floor-based fixturing, and Pac Sun said, ‘Great, let's do that,'" recalls Jacobs. The third convention they obliterated was the traditional "80/20 rule" in shoe stores-where 80 percent of stockable space is relegated to the back room. "The tiny bit that's left over is your store-your brand presence. And
if you're thinking about leasing and spending all that money, that's not a lot of bang for the buck," explains Jacobs. 

Gensler's solution was to flip-flop the dynamic of the 80/20 rule, leveraging the physical size of the space to create as much room for story telling and product display as possible by bringing the stock to the front of the store. Indeed, it allows for a much larger brand and story telling space, but perhaps even more important, the layout keeps the salesperson out front with the customer, instead of in the stock room.

"Everybody who's bought a pair of shoes knows that when a sales associate goes into that back room, they may come back out, and they may not," quips Jacobs. "By placing the stock in the front of house, we allow that connection between the customer and sales associate to maintain." That premise is the substance of Gensler's design, and the new paradigm initiated for the footwear industry.

Though the shoe boxes are out on the selling floor, they are hidden behind walls that are essentially custom cabinets that slide. When the sales person slides a door open to find a specific size or style, there's a sense of theater, with some shoes actually displayed on lighted glass shelves. What's more, associates climb up on ladders to reach certain products, adding to the presentation drama. 

Gensler leveraged the physical size of the space to create as much room for story telling and product display as possible by bringing the stock to the front of the store. larger image

Theatricality is enhanced with a footprint that encourages discovery as customers flow through the store. The design breaks yet another shoe store convention; instead of a single room, the selling space is divided into three separate customer touch points. The front room is devoted to dress shoes. A center area, which Gensler designed as an iconic, glowing architectural orb, features the cashwrap function as well as accessories (bags, belts and watches). The third room is dedicated to sport shoes, and at the very rear of the store is a back wall with illuminated cubbies that display new products. "It's the bug light, if you will, to draw people all the way to the back of the store for the entire experience," explains Jacobs.

At the very rear of the store, a back wall with illuminated cubbies displays new products-a strategy Gensler refers to as a "bug light" effect, drawing customers all the way to the back of the store to ensure the entire retail experience is realized. larger image

The store's front window itself is a graphic element tied directly to the notion of change. It is a living billboard, with the glass used as a palette for art and for product promotion. Consumers can always clearly see all the way to the back wall, where the light and products are ever-changing.

"The number one thing with customers is they're fickle. Even though something is amazing the first day, the next day it's not so amazing. That's important to Pac Sun because their customers-mall customers-are in the mall every week," emphasizes Jacobs. To that point, Gensler developed the ability for change throughout the store; whether through lighting, imagery, or obviously to highlight changing product. 

The choice of materials was also critical to the all-important sense of discovery. "Everything is custom and proprietary to One Thousand Steps," states Jacobs. And everything is ambiguous, so customers can read what they want into materials. Organic patterns are printed on fiberglass or embedded in glass, but they are nebulous. Metal surfaces appear to be wood, but reveal no specific wood; branch motifs decorating seats and cabinets are unidentifiable. "We didn't want customers to say, ‘that's an oak tree,'" he adds.

But the design was not about to go untested. "The Pac Sun team is very progressive from the standpoint of understanding retail and retail prototypes," says Jacobs. "Internally, they always refer to their stores [and certainly the new ones] as laboratories, because they know nothing is fixed in the retail world, and the customer is fickle."

Gensler built a full mockup of the prototype store in Pac Sun's warehouse; tested it, tore it down, rebuilt it, tore that one down, and continued rebuilding until the mockup was acceptable to everyone. "Even the ensuing prototypes-the first three or four actual mall stores-were considered laboratories," recalls Jacobs. "Pac Sun wanted the consumers to kick the tires and see what was working and what wasn't."

Theatricality is enhanced with a footprint that encourages discovery as customers flow through the store. The choice of materials was critical to this all-important sense of discovery. Everything is ambiguous, from the organic patterns printed on fiberglass or embedded in glass, to the metal surfaces that appear to be wood, but reveal no specific wood. larger image

What has worked is a boutique-type, well-designed retail environment that is extremely functional and new. "For One Thousand Steps' customers, kids 15 to 25, it's all about getting away from mass homogenous brands. There's a backlash in this market segment against the ubiquitous nature of retail as it is today," concludes Jacobs.

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AUDIO | VISUALBose(800) 999-2673 DOME CEILINGPenwal Industries Inc. | 1(909) 466-1555FIXTURESNational Mallfront | 2(623) 412-2220FLOORINGFritztile (terrazzo) | 3(800) 955-1323Dodge-Regupol | 4(866) 883-7780 LIGHTINGJuno Lighting | 5(847) 827-9880 SIGNAGE | GRAPHICSNational Mallfront |6WALL COVERINGS AND MATERIALS (METAL WALLS)National Mallfront | 7STOREFRONT (METAL/GLASS)National MallfrontCENTER ORB (FIBERGLASS)Penwal Industries Inc. |8REAR FOCAL WALL (FIBERGLASS) Penwal Industries Inc.

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One Thousand Steps
239 Los Cerritos Center
Cerritos, CA 90703 


Pacific Sunwear (client)
Kim Bennett, project manager
Michelle Tomlinson, director, visual design

DESIGN FIRMGensler2 Harrison St., Ste. 400San Francisco, CA 94105 Ted Jacobs, principal(415) 433-3700PROJECT DESIGN TEAM

Ted Jacobs

Kamol Prateepmanowong

Genesse Rosal

Amanda Moskowitz

Dian Duval

Erich Mele

Janice Natchek


Raymond L. Goodson

Ericksen Ellison & Assoc.

PHOTOGRAPHERBenny Chan/Fotoworks

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