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DESIGNER ROUNDTABLE: Design between the lines

The roundtable was conducted in Chicago in conjunction with the GlobalShop conference earlier this year. Six questions in all were asked by the editors. By far the one that had the most input from the participants was number six, shown below. For the entire transcript, CLICK HERE.

SCW: Disney and Warner Brothers shops have experienced slow sales in the past year, and several themed restaurants have faced hard times. Is this an indication that themed environments are no longer effective? If so, what will be the next trend to replace themed environments?

McDONALD: The answer to the first question is no. And I think the answer to the second question is that themed environments will still be a viable concept. I'm saying not only from the standpoint of architectural design and construction but from the standpoint of customers.

When a few large stores in some very exclusive locations open, it is special. When you try to repeat that concept in every mall, you start losing that specialized feeling.

I think the themed restaurant or the themed retailer has a place. But this true only if it's limited to a very high demographic market. When you go to a themed cafe, you're disappointed. The theme is great, but there's nothing to back it up.

The theme got the customer into the place. The design did what it was intended to do. But then once they're in, you've got to do something else; and that's the key. That's the strategic component.

I think the problem with public companies is you're not allowed to limit development. You have to keep building stores. If you're going to run a themed concept, design a really extravagant theme for your really high demographics New York, Chicago, L.A., Orlando. Then you have to have a different strategy if you're going to continue to expand.

MORBITZER: I'd have to agree. It all goes back to the product. Merchants have to stay on top of the trends to keep it fresh. The biggest problem I saw with Warner Brothers is that there's always the same product when you go into their stores. There was no real tie in new merchandise to what they were releasing at the movies, which I think Disney has done a little bit better job of. Actually, their new concept has scaled down compared to what they were doing in the past as far as theming. I think it's a little subtler.

It all goes back to the quality of the product and the service and what it is that you have to offer. It's our job (designers) to get them in there the first time; it's your job (restaurateur) to keep them coming back

BINKLEY: What's important is the definition of theming. When you say “theming,” there's something that's popping into each person's mind. For some it's the RainForest Cafe, for others it's the Disney store. Theming is evolving. I think it's evolving further now. So in the big picture, theming is going to be around in some form or another. So it's just a question of what is that definition of theming now. Where is it going?

McDONALD: I'm defining theming as being this extravagant concept that is intended to make a statement in the market, not just the theme of what it is you're selling. My definition is if the site is a flagship, the reason to come here is because we've just done an awesome job.

BINKLEY: Theme to me means enhancing the product. It's creating perceived value. It's doing things that help to sell the product. A theme doesn't necessarily have to be a jungle. It can be a lot subtler and it can be a lot more cost-effective.

FOY: The evolution of the Warner Brothers store on 5th Avenue, 57th was interesting. It was a hit and it grew. It grew again, became multi floors, and then it bombed. People get trapped by their theme because they think the theme is the answer. But people get bored if it doesn't change or keep evolving. Those stores were not adaptable.

We've done maybe eight, ten projects for Disney. On one of the most interesting projects, they gave us about $400,000 worth of demographic research because they wanted to take their amusement park into a new area. By their definition and analysis they were building a destination draw based on fantasy environments and passive entertainment. And their market was 4-to 12-year-old children and their parents or 4- to 12-year-old children and their grandparents. They missed the rest of the world in terms of tracking people.

There is no question that Orlando and Anaheim are successes. But what did they do? They came out with a product called the Disney Institute, intended to be active involvement and reality-based experience. That was like trying to drip a little water in a tub of oil which was all going in the other direction. They're still working on that concept.

They took their new-found knowledge and turned all of Anaheim park into a parking garage. Then they took their land and they doubled the size of Disney Land Anaheim into California Adventure, a reality-based experience based on the history of California. It is interactive and attracts 12-year-olds and older.

The future is based on what the boomers and the Generation X and Y people all have in common they don't want hype. They don't want theme. They want something that's meaningful something they can use.

Here's the next word: “Transformation.” A movie is a good experience, if it's a good movie. You might laugh. You might cry. You might be moved. It's a transformative experience if you are a different person. If your emotions have been touched, if your attitudes have been affected, and if your behaviors are now modified.

Shopping is ultimately a transformative experience. It's a way of connecting with your culture. It's a way of changing your appearance. By changing your appearance, you change your behaviors. It's being current, knowing what's right for your time; and yet it's being an individual and finding that expression that fits you the best.

As designers what we've started to do is figure out how we can go past experiences to designing three-dimensional, walk-in, branded worlds where you discover yourself. That's the ultimate trip. It's the ultimate transformation.

We find what the ethos of our company is. Then we translate that into a three-dimensional extension of the grand promise, and people walk into it. And if it's a good product and if it's a quality product, what people find is themselves in that story. We set the stage for the main character to be the customer, and they find out something about themselves that's meaningful; and they walk away wanting to come back there again and again to refresh themselves.

We need to figure out the theory behind how design can be more meaningful, authentic, real, involve the customer, make them see how it fits into their lives. We're taking the mirror of the retail store, and we're saying the whole store is a mirror and it should reflect who you are. We do that by reflecting the region and culture.

McDONALD: I think the best example of what you've talked about is one of the outfitters, where you have the climbing wall and you can actually put on the climbing shoes. You actually climb the face of this mountain in the store to see how the product responds to it. I think that's a transformation experience that you've been talking about. It's been very successful for them. People can actually take the mountain bike through the little trail or jog the trail, and it's a great marketing tool for selling product.

MORBITZER: I think Bass Pro has the same thing.

McDONALD: And they've been very successful. It's amazing.

FOY: We designed the prototype.

McDONALD: How many people fish for bass? It's amazing.

FOY: It's the Vatican of the hook-and-bullet crowd.

You can shoot a rifle in their store. There's a 200-ft. log that's lit and insulated. A bullet can't go through it if it ricochets off the sidewall. And you can fire a round into this log.

McDONALD: That's amazing. It's meaningful to the customer.

FOY: There's a store concept that is for teenage girls where there are cosmetics and CDs and everything that teenage girls want.

MORBITZER: There are a couple concepts out there going after that market.

FOY: So you go in there, and they have tubs of goos and creams. You can mix them. You can create your own cosmetics. They put it on you; you can feel it.

McDONALD: And they are busy.

FOY: Check it out. They're friendly. You're welcome there. They'll ask you if you want to put some on. It's a great concept. It's a fantastic store, and it's real. It's targeted their market. They're doing a great job. And it's infinitely changeable.

McDONALD: That ties me back into why the, is not a threat to Barnes & Noble once you have that experience. You just can't sell product like you can if they can play with it.

FOY: Even the book store, Barnes & Noble has a great concept.

McDONALD: It's the experience.

FOY: It's a library. They don't care if you come and do your homework there and sit as long as you want, and get your coffee.

McDONALD: Then you've got Star-bucks. What more do you need?

FOY: They're selling knowledge. The greatest minds, the greatest art, the greatest everything is at your fingertips. It's your store. Great concept.

McDONALD: That's a great concept.

FOY: “Themed” is not the right word anymore. It is orchestrating the entire environment to tell a story. But the story can't be wrong. RainForest doesn't even give money to the rain forest. They're not even connected to it. So it's like a fake idea. They're taking a sacred thing and then abusing it.

McDONALD: Trivializing it.

FOY: Here's a contrasting idea Cheesecake Factory. Here's a guy whose product is selection, quantity, quality, and service. And they're the king of fast-food of chain concept restaurants. Wherever they go, they make money, because the value is there, the selection is there. Kids like it; adults like it. People walk out of there with as much leftover food as other restaurants give you for the meal.

McDONALD: You don't just put up a sign for Cheesecake Factory or Bass Pro Shop or REI. You have an idea. Customers walk out with a good product. That's the whole thing.


McDONALD: They're backing up the theme with a good product.

SUTTON: A lot has come to light in all of this, hearing everybody's interpretation of the word “entertainment” or “themed malls.” It means different things to different people. I think the key is that design is constantly evolving. It's always in transition. It's always in motion. And we don't design shopping centers or stores, even chain stores, that have a life of 2, 3, or 4 years. It's not meant to be a one-stop design. It's going to be constantly evolving. Evolution is the key.

FOY: We're working in London, Paris, Dubai, Warsaw, Tokyo; and throughout, human beings are human beings. There's little difference. There are appearance differences, there are cultural difference, but there are basic trigger motivational similarities throughout.

SUTTON: Canada is an extension of the States in a lot of ways.

FOY: Yeah.

SUTTON: There are some inherent differences. In the States, you are an American first no matter what nationality you are. You're American-Greek, American-Italian. In Canada, you're a Greek-Canadian. Retailing in general is a social experience. It's interactive, be it a quiet setting at Barnes & Noble or be it in a very active setting.

There are differences in Canada and the States. I heard at one of the roundtables last year the States are divided into 12 demographic groups, and Canada is divided into 64.

The shopping habits differ in Canada. It's so vast. The population is so small in comparison. It's a lot harder to create a common theme or a common design or a common concept that would apply in Canada. Even landlords approach different regions differently.

There are two regions of Montreal; you have an English section and French section. They'll approach their whole concept their tenant mix, their marketing strategies, very differently. I don't think you get as much of that in the States.

That's one of the differences that you do have with a little more focus regionally. It gives you a lot of flexibility across the board when designing chain stores. That would be one of the major differences. I think overall that what's happening here is happening over there. Less so, technologically.

McDONALD: In Canada the chains, for instance, are quite successful. They hit here in the United States, and now they're evolving in other countries like Canada. It's a success.

SUTTON: It's taken a while for the American retailers to cross the border.

McDONALD: It takes a while.

SUTTON: When it comes to demographics, it's hard to define as things are so widespread. The shopping habits are so different from one place to another. It's not an easy nut to crack.

McDONALD: But eventually things catch on. The US goes through something and then they're going to go through it. They're only a little behind.

SUTTON: I think another inherent difference has to do with the weather. We're indoors for 6 or 8 months of the year. Most Americans don't have to deal with that. Therefore, we're trying to create shopping centers that create an escape from the doldrums of winter. We do have the opportunity to come down to the United States, Chicago, where there's a lot of street retail and street experience. Even in winter, it's not as bad as what we have.

I think our biggest effort, when it comes to the shopping center industry, is to create that kind of street animation that you have here and that we only have for three months of the year.

MOORE: I think theming, when used appropriately, is one of the best new trends in retail design. It is critical that theming hit exactly the right mark, being used appropriately. I like to think of theming in terms of a radio volume dial that can be turned up or down as necessary to achieve just the right result. I also believe that theming should be made more flexible to accommodate future change allowing the theming to adapt and hold people's interest for longer periods of time.


  • Larry Binkley, president
    Total Retail Group
    Palo Alto, Calif.
  • James McDonald, principal
    kennethpark p.c. Architects
    Agoura Hills, Calif.
  • Thom Morbitzer, design director
    Cowan & Associates Inc.
    Worthington, Ohio
  • Richard Foy, co-chair, principal partner
    Communication Arts Inc.
    Boulder, Colo.
  • Steve Sutton, partner
    Gervais Harding Associates
    Montreal, Canada
  • David Moore, national director
    of retail design, Carter & Burgess
    Dallas (participated via e-mail)
TAGS: News
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