NCIDQ News: Why We Design

Sept. 1, 2007

By Deborah Steinmetz

A steady increase in the number of online shoppers has added a new level of importance to the design of retail environments.

A friend who is a seasoned shopper, relayed the following story to me. She has her share of shoes, lipsticks, red-orange tops, khaki pants and no fewer than six black slips. Yet, when her husband recently asked her if she could
go clothes shopping for him, she responded, "We can't do that anytime soon-do you want to pay a babysitter while we spend even more money buying clothes?" Seeing the hurt expression on his face, she reconsidered. "Hey, let's put the kids to bed, you draw up a chair next to me at the computer, and we'll buy what you need tonight." Two online stores and a few clicks later, her husband was on his way to looking sharp in less time than it takes to read one bedtime story. Is this the way shopping has changed? And, if so, what are the implications for retail stores, retail designers and consumers?

Last year, consumers spent more money shopping online for clothes than they did buying computers. With interactive features that allow for free returns, "virtual" dressing rooms and the ability to zoom in to view a product, Internet shopping is clearly here to stay. Yet, big box establishments continue to expand into rural communities across North America. Envirosell, a human behavior research company that studies retail environments and supermarkets to better understand the relationship between design and human behavior, is headed by CEO Paco Underhill. Author of numerous books and articles on the topic, including Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, Underhill states, "When people ask me if Internet shopping will ever replace ‘brick and mortar' shopping, I tell them absolutely not. People still like to shop with all five senses. The supermarkets, toy stores and clothing stores that incorporate the senses in their design will be ahead of the game whether they are a part of the Internet or not."

However, a recent National Public Radio report indicated that both clothing and furniture retailers-market segments in which industry representatives have been adamant that people would continue to need to "sit and touch" its products-are experiencing booming sales online. (Any interior designer who makes a portion of his or her income from product reselling will quickly confirm this).

Creating an experience for shoppers, not just focusing on product and placement, has almost become the norm. Concentrating on specific customer groups and designing retail experiences to target and match these groups is the current trend in retail design, according to Bruce Bingham, who has been designing stores and restaurants for more than 20 years ( The other important advancement in retail design, in my mind, is the focus on recycling and remanufactured materials and energy-efficient design elements. For example, my community is the lucky recipient of a Whole Foods store that arrived in our town a few months ago. From their Marmoleum checkout counter tops to their use of compact fluorescent light fixtures, I am delighted to see the supermarket's efforts toward sustainable design.

Our industry must continue to make sustainable practice a standard in all interior environments, including retail. As part of that trend, my firm is designing spas for Ageless Remedies in the Southeastern United States. Known as Med Spas, they include skin care consultation and treatments that focus on healthier skin as well as a retail apothecary stocked with unique products. The thrust of the design is the use of natural, eco-friendly materials to create a warm, inviting environment, while also meeting the business owner's requirement of selling more products and services.

According to Envirosell research, "A good store involves an ongoing dialogue between store designers, merchants and consumers. The difference between stores that work well and look great in the flesh and those that don't, often has nothing to do with price points and inventory and everything to do with a well-executed strategy based on human needs. The more pleasant the customer finds the environment, the longer he or she will stay in the store, the more departments he or she will shop, and the more items they will purchase."

Creating pleasant environments and focusing on human needs is at the core of an interior designer's work. While my friend may have saved time shopping at her computer for her husband's new wardrobe, I can bet that her next lipstick purchase will be made at an upscale store with fabulous lighting and beautiful glass cases of cosmetics where she can smell, touch, see and hear the sounds of commerce.

Deborah Steinmetz serves on the board of directors for NCIDQ and is founder and principal of Steinmetz & Associates. She is licensed as an interior designer in Louisiana and Georgia and maintains offices in both New Orleans and Atlanta. Over the past 30 years she has concentrated her business on tenant service needs of ongoing lease management. Her corporate projects have received design awards and national publication. For information about NCIDQ, visit

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