Editorial: Another Trip to the Mall

Sept. 1, 2008

I've often wondered why it is that women seem to love spending time in a shopping mall, while men tend to dread even the mention of it. Is the stark contrast between the sexes with regard to shopping really hard-wired into our DNA or does the design of retail environments have something to do with how men and women feel within a space?

I came across some recent research on product design preferences that offers some insight into this apparent gender disparity. In their article, "Towards Female Preferences in Design—A Pilot Study," which appeared in the International Journal of Design (vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 11-27), authors Lishan Xue and Ching Chiuan Yen suggest that men are more concerned with the overall structure of a product (such as its shape), whereas women are more driven to take notice of organic forms, details and textures. Further, "men tend to go after products that possess functional elements or express technological savvy, and that have an image (perhaps to be seen as branding), whereas women prefer items that show a well-perceived form and that offer usability. These product design preferences can also be generally applied to the design of physical environments and furnishings," the authors conclude.

While a well-designed store is unlikely to get me to frequent my local mall more often, it may play a role in how much time (or more importantly, money) I spend during my visit. And if males make up a large part of your client's customer demographic, then it stands to reason that the design of the retail space should take into account not only branding requirements, but gender differences as well.

Regardless of whether you are male or female, there are some trends in retail design that appear to be universal and that will continue to influence the design of retail spaces in the months and years ahead. According to Troy Schewhr of fixture management company F.C. Dadson Inc., the following five trends will continue to thrive in retail design:

Sustainability. While it is clear that sustainable design is more than a passing trend, Schewhr is correct in his assertion that more retailers are jumping on the bandwagon to stay in tune with environmentally-conscious consumers. (For a prime example of sustainable retail design, see our Photo Essay on the new REI store designed by Gensler).
  • Digital Media. Beyond just a wall of flat screens playing branded content, technology is opening up a world of possibilities for retail stores. Self-serve kiosks, dynamic light displays and motion-interactive elements are also becoming large parts of the high-tech movement, according to Schewhr.
  • Design for Experience. All of the senses are being taken into account with the design of retail-hearing, smell, taste, and touch are being summoned to create a complete sensory experience. All these elements work to create a sense of comfort, increase dwell time, and influence purchases.
  • Home-Inspired Design. Bricks and mortar stores are now providing the comforts of home in their locations. Lounge furniture and big screen televisions have replaced plastic chairs outside fitting rooms (thankfully). "Whether they're serving as a welcomed respite for the weary shopper or entertaining the uninterested companion, these lounges promote relaxation and provide retailers with more time to reach shoppers," states Schewhr.
  • Streamlined Design. Sleek, unadorned fixtures, monochro-matic color schemes, and minimalist design in general are finding a home in a wide-range of retail locations, and it's easy to see why: with little to distract, the products are front and center.
  • Given the downtrend in spending in our economy, the reality is that the design of a retail environment isn't likely going to pull us out of a recession. But in this highly-competitive market segment, you can certainly give your client an edge in earning repeat business with customers, and maybe (just maybe) another trip to the mall by an unenthusiastic male.

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