Retail in Asia

In Shops

CEO Talking Shop: Why store design matters

When Chinese sports retailer Li Ning’s flagship stores opened in Beijing and Shanghai this year, they were sporting a different look to give shoppers a different kind of brand experience.

Amsterdam-based retail design agency Storeage said Li Ning’s new look is a true celebration of the jump, the leap and the slide that makes each sporting moment great. At the same time, the concept is in sync with Chinese culture, using materials like bamboo, and a color palette of reds and golds.

Leendert Tange, partner and co-founder, Storeage, said store design definitely makes a difference in providing a unique brand experience. He shared his insights with Retail in Asia.

Retail in Asia (RIA): With stiff market competition in the retail space, it is said that it is becoming increasingly difficult to compete for shoppers’ attention. How does store design help in this area? Why should retailers give it importance?

Leendert Tange (LT): For retailers the product is inherently generic. Anybody can stand up in the market and start carrying a similar assortment. Becoming the retail brand of choice is the ultimate goal and in a world where Internet is dominating the options for price comparison and even convenience, design has become most important tool to connect to the consumer’s heart. It makes the retail venue distinguishable at first sight; it is the tone-of-voice and tone-of-image that transmits the common values with the consumer. When developed right it allows for change within the store so it stays in touch with actuality and the life of the consumer.

Retail is actually the most exciting industry to be in and it has a lot to do with the impact of the Internet, which puts an enormous pressure on physical stores. Retail requires a new way of looking at the market.

RIA: What is your concept of a ‘good’ design? What are the major factors you consider when designing retail spaces? Why is a market-specific approach important?

LT: I believe good design provokes a reaction; it invites, engages, tells a story and asks questions. Inherently design is a transmitter of a message. It is emotional, and where a story contains a whole lot of words, a picture tells a thousand. As such, good design is all about provoking real time conversation, with real people.

In each market this will be slightly different. Stories and words have sometimes different meanings, contexts are different, materials and colors might provoke different reactions. Good design needs to be locally relevant. It allows the local flavors to speak and incorporates them where possible.

Design has a lot to do with aesthetics. The power of design connects to an emotional level. In the physical store, the message it puts forward is that this brand really takes care of their products in the same way that I do. The idea that the store is just a warehouse where there are a lot of products is over. The store is a physical experience. The idea that you can be everything to everybody doesn’t exist anymore. As a retailer, you must make a choice and design is a very strong expression of that choice.

RIA: Beyond attracting shoppers and giving them a good in-store experience, what are the other benefits of a good store design for retailers?

LT: There are plenty. When stores are designed well, next to creating longer term customer loyalty, it will benefit sales on the short term and it even allows the retailer to influence his or her sales because it offers the store flexibility in how to use furniture, how to merchandise. It balances highlights and volumes, it creates stopping power, it creates visual relief of the monotony bigger stores can suffer from sometimes, it allows for smart solutions like integration of interactives and playful learning or engagement with the retail brand. It also offers opportunities to explore more than just products available on the shop floor, thus deepening the choice for the consumer. And I haven’t even touched on the sometimes operational benefits.

For me it also has a lot to do with creating conversations, meeting real people and consumers being able to approach your product. You can never, however, separate the online and the physical store. You will need to be online, you will need to be on mobile and you will need a physical store. But the functions of each one of them are different.

Shopping is about matching the product and the consumer. Matchmaking starts online when consumers research on products they want to buy and it is celebrated and concluded when they meet the product and the brand face to face. In the physical store, you can create conversations and help shoppers make the choice and find the perfect match to their need.

RIA: Can you share your experiences in designing retail outlets and shopping malls in Asia?

LT: One of our most recent projects is designing the new flagship stores for the fashion brand Cocoon. Coming from a traditional fashion and wholesale background, the brand is struggling to define it’s own identity in the physical store.

Storeage has defined a store on the power of transformation where the design is celebrating the fitting room as the place of transformation from caterpillar to butterfly, or everyday person to beautiful woman if you wish. The design refers to a woven Cocoon, which in the fitting room area encapsulates the consumer, and on the retail side provide modern day cocoons for the fashion items.

And although designing retail in Asia is not essentially different it is important to dive into the market and the meaning of certain aesthetics. Surprisingly much more than in Europe, design is a very important tool to convey a message.

Asia is so much more used to read and pick up on visual clues that designing retail in Asia is actually harder than you would imagine, even as a Dutch agency. I applaud our clients Cocoon, Hongkee and Li Ning that they have had the courage and patience to work with us.

RIA: Many European and American brands are setting up shops in Asia, some for the first time, the others aggressively expanding their presence. What are your top tips for these retailers trying to tap this new high-growth market?

LT: There are cultural differences. Design must be locally relevant. When you start thinking about your product lines, the materials and colors you want to use, you need to be relevant. If I look at the cultural heritage of Asia, I think calligraphy, I think porcelain or woodwork. There’s a lot of history in Asia that has not been translated to contemporary level. That’s where I think Storeage as a Western agency can make a difference. Even Asian retailers can also make a difference in this market.

Don’t go into Asia and do exactly what you are doing in the US or Europe, but go in here and try to understand what value you can add to this specific market. I do see luxury brands that are willing to look into how they can be more culturally relevant. But I think these brands are also strong because they know where their heart and soul is, much more than just copying what works in other parts of the world.

RT: From a designer’s perspective, what is the right style or approach in bringing out the flavor and culture of Asia?

LT: Although it is very hard to generalise we have found is that across the board in order to bring out that rich history is in fact by partly concealing it. There are too many myths and mysteries to be told. To tell this properly, designs for Asia should hide and reveal, allow for different layers and a sense of discovery. Most of all though it think it should be true to the local culture and visual references, although a contemporary twist on these will definitely ring a bell with the increasingly influential younger generation.

RIA: How do you assess store designs of major Asian retailers? What do you see as areas of improvement?

LT: Current Asian retailers, Japan aside, are struggling with their heritage. The landscape is changing quickly though. In China I notice an uprise of the Chinese luxury brands catering to a Chinese audience. Yet translating this to compelling stories on the retail floor still seems to be hard. It was part of the reason that attracted us to work in China. There is such a rich history in arts, crafts, tea, spices, but also emperors, conquerors of the world that I am expecting a lot to change in a short period of time. And I believe it will change as the developments within Asia go so fast that telling the history will take different shapes and forms than you might think traditionally. I dare to say it is one of the most exciting design markets to be in right now.

RT: From a designer’s perspective, what is the right style or approach in Asia?

LT: There are too many myths and mysteries to be told. To tell this properly, designs for Asia should hide and reveal, allow for different layers and a sense of discovery. Most of all though I think it should be true to the local culture and visual references, although a contemporary twist on these will definitely ring a bell with the increasingly influential younger generation.

RIA: Can you talk us through Storeage’s business? How did it start? Aside from retail, what other industries do you serve?

LT: Storeage started out 12 years with the mission to redefine retail for their clients and customers. Coming from the belief a store is more than a box you shove an interior in, we started designing retail as a story telling platform where product and consumer meet and interact. And where in that process of interaction sales happen. Coming out of Nike, the founding partners – Jason Steere and myself – , worked on the Niketowns, we started design a bank that was all about service.

Nike came back for Storeage services after two years and soon Storeage developed into an agency that worked with sports and sport fashion brands like Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, Onitsuka Tiger and Levi’s and service retailers like Google, T-Mobile, Nokia and HP computers. In China Storeage added more footwear and fashion brands to their portfolio.

CEO Talking Shop is the Retail in Asia section devoted to interviews with brand CEOs and retail industry leaders.