Retail Traffic
Getting The Balance Right

Getting The Balance Right

The judging for this year's Superior Achievement in Design and Imaging, (SADI) took place at the American Institute of Architects' (AIA) headquarters in Washington D.C., in late July. For the past two years, members of the AIA Retail and Entertainment Knowledge Community have participated in the judging process. This year, a provocative discussion emerged during the day's conversation. There is a tendency to look at whether an architect has produced a memorable spatial experience and moving architecture. However, sometimes not as much thought has gone into assessing whether or not the project actually works as retail. That raises a key question: What qualities determine excellence in retail architecture? This year's judges put a major emphasis on not only an architect's clever design solutions, but they also discussed whether they believed the store or shopping center in question worked as a functional retail environment. Did the architecture enhance the retail experience and showcase the tenants or does it overpower the retailers and merchandise? Did the design and imaging reinforce what the retailers were selling or the theme the developer was shooting for and convey a design that matches targeted price points and demographics? In the end, the projects that got recognized as winners and honorable mentions (see p. 3), were not necessarily the most splashy or impressive projects submitted, but the ones the judges felt were the most effective at accomplishing the stated goals.

The judging process left plenty of food for additional thought. In the weeks after the judging, Retail Traffic worked with the AIA Retail and Entertainment Knowledge Community to further discuss the ideas raised that day. The following feature summarizes the issues raised, examines the tension between retail and architecture in creating “retail architecture” and points out a few recommendations.

We hope you find the information useful and thought-provoking.

The majority of store and shopping center designs are entirely utilitarian. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. There's a reason that so many centers have cookie-cutter designs consisting of parking lots facing strips of stores: That model has worked for more than half a century.

Basic shopping centers are inexpensive, simple, modular and effective. They allow retailers free rein in setting up spaces the way they want. And there's no real attempt to carry through a consistent aesthetic through the property, so there's very little limitation on signage, colors or anything else. This is the quintessential retail design. It's so standard, an architect need not be involved at all.

At the opposite end of the spectrum you have architecture. Think of buildings that force you to engage in the space and the experience the architect has created. There are Frank Gehry's undulating designs. There's Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York City or I.M. Pei's Pyramid at the Louvre in Paris. There are the great cathedrals scattered throughout Europe and Buddhist and Shinto Shrines in Asia. The list goes on to many, many other buildings — too numerous to list. These structures represent some of the pinnacles of human achievement and the best of what architecture can be about.

However, when it comes to the concept of “retail architecture,” neither of these models — designs dominated by function or buildings that are just about the architecture — can suffice. The fact that the average person can walk into a cookie-cutter strip center and get the same experience whether they are in Portland, Maine, or Port St. Lucie, Fla., can be good, because it is something familiar. But it can also be a massive detriment. If there's nothing special about your center, then there's nothing that's going to keep customers coming if something new opens up further down the road and closer to their home.

On the flip side, powerful architecture can become an attraction in itself. People like to spend time in awe-inspiring settings. When you walk into a cathedral, your eyes drift up to the rafters, to clerestory windows, to stained glass murals. Emulating that kind of aesthetic would make a heck of an interesting shopping center, but it would also be one where people were hardly ever engaging in the stores or the merchandise at eye level. If you're a retailer, do you want customers staring at intricate ceiling trusses or looking through your display windows? Too much architectural detail can ultimately overshadow what's inside the store or center.

In the end, then, when trying to create meaningful retail architecture you can't just take a piece of great architecture and slap a few billboards and signs on it (a-la our artist's playful rendering of Rockefeller Center transformed through populating it with typical power center tenants). There's now way such a design can succeed.

Stepping up to the plate

The challenge, then, for retail architects becomes this: How do you successfully create a moving and memorable individual store or retail complex while at the same time allowing a shopping center or retailer to meet designated business objectives?

For Midge McCauley, director with Washington, D.C.-based Downtown Works, it means the balance should skew in favor of retail. “Stores should be more about retail and merchandise than the designer,” McCauley says. “If the design is good, that comes through clear. Too many architects can try to be prima donnas and make the store more about their design statements than the merchandise.”

One area to keep an eye on is the site plan. In retail settings, the plan is essential — more than for other property types, according to retail architects. In designing retail settings, architects often have to overcome constrained spaces or unusual site dimensions. But even when not faced with a design challenge like that, how the plan works is critical. Retail depends on healthy foot traffic. That means you need a design that promotes flow and pulls people through the space. Once that is established, retail architects can then build off the plan by adding design touches that engage customers, tease them, draw them into every corner of the space and generally keep them moving while engaging them with all the merchandise on offer.

“The key aspect is that equal emphasis must be given to the diagram of a retail place, i.e., the plan configuration?that promotes pedestrian flow that leads to the sales of goods, and to the aesthetic presentation of the space, a choreographing of spatial qualities that allows the space to unfold as the shopper experiences it,” Baltimore-based RTKL's vice president, Jeff Gunning says. “This equal emphasis on commercial viability and experientiality is what constitutes high-quality retail that will stand the test of time.”

The primary goals of a retail architect, then, are to create memorable and enjoyable customer experiences that engage the customer and present products in a flattering, enticing and informative way, says Charlie Kridler, principal at San Francisco-based Gensler. “Most importantly, the store must?support the brand,” he says.

Lack of understanding

Too often, however, these ideas are lost. What's missing in many cases is that poor design in retail settings reflects a lack of understanding on the part of architects as to what makes retail work.

Architects need to be sensitive to what a store is being used for, McCauley says. They have to understand how to present product and what good rules are for retail merchandising. “My guess is that many architects wouldn't have a clue,” she says.

That is to say that retailers and shopping center owners cannot just expect to turn to any architect — even ones that may specialize more broadly in commercial real estate — and expect them to grasp the fundamentals of what makes retail work and what constitutes good retail architecture.

“There is a general lack of understanding among the architectural community of the critical design aspects of retail that lead to commercial success,” Gunning says. “There are examples of retail projects that have won architectural awards that later fail as businesses. Aesthetic design alone does not guarantee sales.”

That, in part, is where AIA's Retail Knowledge Community comes in. (See the sidebar on the group's Excellence Criteria.) “The mission of the retail knowledge community?is to inform or educate AIA members as to what is unique about?the best retail and entertainment?projects, understanding the language and what is important,” Kridler says.?(Kridler, Gunning and McCauley are some of the leading members of AIA's Retail and Entertainment Knowledge Community.)

In fact, even turning to some of the highest profile architecture firms can be a mistake if the architects involved have done little or no retail. In recent years, a handful of developers in the United States have turned to upper echelon “name” architects such as Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava, Daniel Libeskind and Cesar Pelli to design very high-profile projects.

While that may add some cachet, the problem with all of those architects and their studios is that none is a retail specialist. So the question is whether their schemes will ultimately be successful.

“Calatrava is doing the inside of the retail at the World Trade Center and he's got columns everywhere. Does that sound like it will work for retail?” McCauley asks. “I might make the recommendation that it's best to keep iconic architects away from retail architecture. Let them do towers or museums, but not retail.”

However, the problem of iconic architects is the exception, not the rule. In fact, in most cases the issue is that developers don't want architects to push the envelope at all.

Gunning says that retail real estate developers over the past decade have actually become increasingly conservative in terms of the kinds of designs they'll allow at projects. That may seem to fly in the face of the recent trend of lifestyle centers and mixed-use projects — both of which break sharply from the traditional enclosed regional mall mode. In fact, however, Gunning says that developers have merely taken one standard and replaced it with another. Lifestyle center aesthetics were accepted and adopted, but have not been allowed to evolve.

“Many [developers] are reluctant to make any kind of design statement that is unfamiliar to the general public,” he says. “They want to create a stage set that feels nostalgic.” That, however, runs counter to what architecture is about. “We are trained to create, not duplicate,” he says. “So we approach retail design with the same?quest for originality and innovation.”

Doing it right

So what are some good tips? Gunning says that retail architects need to remember that the retailers are the stars of the show. To help showcase them, in RTKL's mall designs the firm often opts for predominantly white or neutral finishes with accents of wood or stone so the color and life of the storefronts stand out within the overall environment, Gunning explains.

Meanwhile, “in open-air and mixed-use street environments, we like to allow for freedom of expression of the retailer's brand, but we frame it within the context of urban building facades that are designed from roof cornice down to the ground,” he says.

That, after all, is what the best urban retail streets do organically. From Bond Street in London to Madison Avenue in New York to Michigan Avenue in Chicago, “ground-floor retailers' expressions work within the design integrity of the buildings they occupy, rather than covering up the entire ground floor,” Gunning adds.

Some retailers are more flexible than others when it comes to working with architects and being willing to deviate from boilerplate prototypes.

“The best brands offer a series of design components that can be assembled and re-assembled in multiple ways to still express a brand,” Gunning says. “If you look at the variety of ways Apple expresses their brand in their stores, you see how it is really done well. They have lots of their “shiny metal box” stores, but also have brick, steel and glass variations.?The consistent element is the silver apple logo.?The more sophisticated the?retailer, the more flexibility they typically allow in how their brand is expressed.”

Other retailers that in the past were predominantly relegated to operating stores in enclosed malls are learning to bend their own rules.

In enclosed malls, it's very easy to have one store design and then apply it with little modification across the country. However, no enclosed malls are being built today. Only a handful have opened at all within the past five years. Instead, retailers are adapting concepts for stand-alone use, for mixed-use projects and for town and lifestyle centers.

On the flip side, local and regional mom-and-pops can be the least sophisticated when it comes to design, McCauley says. “They have a lack of understanding of how a good design can help get people to come into the store,” she says. “That's the biggest battle I fight. Chains will bring in designers and understand what they can do. It's the novices — you have to get them to understand good design. They have to have someone that understands merchandise and design. They can't have someone who did the addition to their house.”

In the past couple of years, many mall owners have been redeveloping food courts. Westfield America has led the way in this regard with the development of its “dining terrace” concepts. They've created airier seating areas. They've put in place more stringent design standards for food court tenants. The company has been able to push across this initiative through many of its centers, but it surely must not have been an easy task. Food retailers perhaps more than any other are extremely brand and sign conscious. Owners and architects may have to tread lightly when trying to enact higher standards with them.

McCauley, who used to work for Rouse Co., remembers that the firm went through many pitched struggles with tenants over food court designs. “We had someone who reviewed all food merchants and battles would ensue about what they should do about signboards, showcases, etc.,” she says. “The retailers would always complain that it was costing them too much money. But you know what? In the end, you would have a better project when this person got involved…. On opening day, you'd have the best-looking food cluster and they always out performed relative to what they were doing in other food courts. The reason they did well was because of the hand-picked tenants and because the tenants really got pushed to design their spaces.”


The AIA Retail Entertainment and Knowledge Community was established in order to raise the profile of retail design among architects and the general public.

One of the major goals of this knowledge community was to highlight retail and entertainment design that exemplifies strong commercial planning principles and innovation in style, form and materiality.

Historically, shopping and entertainment districts were gathering places where life's rich pageant unfolded for the visitor — often grand expressions of architecture and design that combined a place for commercial transaction with a place for communal being.

Retail design has become all too synonymous with mediocrity, when one considers the myriad of undistinguished and unenlightened shopping environments that exist in our suburbs, as well as the uninspired stores that may adequately address function, but fail to delight the consumer.

Entertainment design has matured to a point where the themed environments of the past have been transformed into more sophisticated venues, with experiences that offer believable reality and high quality public spaces.

The following was created to establish a benchmark for Retail and Entertainment Quality that is synonymous with Design Quality — a benchmark for built environments that succeed in both. Retail quality is largely measured in sales per square foot, entertainment quality in ticket sales.

Architectural design quality is typically measured in the creation of dynamic form and material innovation. All too often in the past, these have been mutually exclusive.

We believe that by highlighting those examples that have excelled on all fronts, we can promote a new sensibility among developers, architects and the public that raises expectations for retail and entertainment environments.

In the same way that museums and concert halls can celebrate creativity through design, we think that retail and entertainment environments can similarly challenge and delight the public, restoring a sense of grandeur to the everyday commercial and entertainment outing.

We seek a new expectation for design in retail and entertainment, one that is reflective of the importance of these places in our lives — and that inspires the creators of these places to aim high.

Source: AIA Retail and Entertainment Knowledge Community


Whole Foods Market has gained market share within the supermarket industry over the past few years — although it did stumble a bit during the second quarter of 2008.

Part of the reason behind the chain's success, besides it selection of organic and gourmet food options, has been in its approach to design. Whole Foods tend to have unique designs. Even within the same city they can look vastly different. Often, the stores are located in older structures that, in turn, influence the look of the store. That's the case with Bond Cos.'s design of a Whole Foods at Adams Point in Oakland, Calif. (top), which was submitted in this year's SADI awards.

The 56,500-square-foot project is inside a historic building, formerly the Cox Cadillac Showroom and before that a cable car barn. The new design perserves the building's facade and exposes the roof structure within the store.

Another notable supermarket design in this year's competition was FRCH Design Worldwide's submission of a Roche Bros. Supermarket in Westborough, Mass. Part of the allure of the scheme is the creative design of displays and fixtures, such as the distinctive four-sided cheese island (center) that features a wood framework and chalkboard displays.

Lastly, Hugh A. Boyd Architects' the Landmark supermarket and food court in Manila, Philippines took home an honorable mention in the SADI awards. The architects overcame a series of design challenges including low ceilings and ban on the use of wood to still create a memorable and unique setting. Instead of wood, most of the detailing was done through gypsum, fiberglass and a locally-produced acrylic material similar to corian.


At look at why some projects won … and others didn't.

Philadelphia, Pa.-based Spg3's design for Ilori, an upscale glasses seller, has many strong points. The judges liked its use of color, the way the space is segmented into zones and how some of the merchandise is showcased. But in this case, the design went a little too far.

One wall has a fiery orange pattern, another section includes purple and yellow rectangles and beyond both of those sections stands a large, undulating gold wall. The zones are, in fact, almost too distinct and make it seem like three different designs rather than one design with three parts.

Each piece clearly exhibits the architect's skill, but the lack of coherence is a bit unsettling and, in fact, ultimately detracts from the store itself. As the customer wonders which part of the store they are in, they may not be fully engaging in the merchandise, which, after all, is why you want them in the store in the first place.

The Ilori design provides an interesting contrast to OPTICON (see pages 8-9), another upscale glasses seller that the judges ultimately named the Grand Winner as the top design in the entire competition. In the OPTICON store, there are distinct design elements — undulating wave display walls, an ornate carpet pattern that flows through the store and centerpiece soft seating that organically rises from the store's carpet. Here, however, the elements flow together and play off each other in a way Ilori's elements do not. And, in the end, that cohesion ultimately allows the collection of glasses within the store to take center stage as opposed to the design of the store itself.

Giorgio Burroso Design's Snaidero Showroom in Coral Gables, Fla., provoked heavy discussion. Burroso is no stranger to the SADI awards. Projects from the studio took home awards in 2005, 2006 and 2007. In 2007, in fact, Burroso's Fornarina store in London was the Grand Winner in the SADI competition. Moreover, a design for another Snaidero showroom took home accolades in the 2006 competition.

So what happened this year? Burroso's dominant element in the Snaidero store is a series of tubes that begin with the store's sign and then flow into different sections of the showroom. They are supposed to suggest a direction through the store — steering customers to different sections and displays.

The judges, however, just looking at the tubes, couldn't decipher them. Even after discussing their purpose, few were convinced that the tubes could effectively serve their intended purpose. More troubling, some wondered whether the confusing tubes, in fact, end up distracting from Snaidero's upscale kitchen designs. As a result of judges' unease with the motif, Burroso ended up without a SADI award for the first time in years.

FRCH Design Worldwide set out in designing an Under Armour prototype to create a space that felt like the innards of a sports stadium.

That message comes through loud and clear in the way the store's entrance is laid out and through the choice of materials — dark concrete and exposed steel. In many other respects the design and ambience of the space mirrors the mood set by Under Armour's distinct television advertisements.

It was a project the judges gave lengthy consideration to. In the end, it fell just short of winning an award because some judges pointed out that, when you strip out the merchandise in the pictures, there's not as much to the design.

FRCH's design for American Girl Boutique and Bistro in Atlanta and Bass Pro Shops Inc.'s submissions for stores in Phoenix and Miami had one major point in common. In each case, they are excellent executions of previously designed themes. However, the judges felt the execution of previously developed prototypes is not enough to merit a SADI award. SADI projects should push the boundaries and break new ground.

Bass Pro Shops designs were lauded for the architects' moves to really cater the look and feel of the store to local cultures. The Phoenix store looks like it belongs in Arizona and the Miami one has Florida influences (see p. 27.) Meanwhile, the American Girl design was a good adaptation of the distinctive American Girl aesthetic for a suburban shopping center setting. Many American Girl boutiques are located on urban shopping strips. Translating it to a more traditional retail setting is an important move — but not one that is fully innovative.

However, there is something laudable about doing a store right when pulling from an existing kit of parts. Consideration of these projects led one judge to suggest that, perhaps, in the future it might be worth adding a SADI category specifically meant to assess development or execution of chain-store prototypes and to look at those projects separate from other projects that might be unique or stand-alone.

A pair of projects from Kiku Obata & Co. in St. Louis — Flamingo Bowl and Good Works — also prompted some debate. Both projects deserve credit for taking dead spaces in downtown St. Louis and activating them. Detailing in both stores is also solid. Flamingo Bowl has a retro chic aesthetic.

The Good Works design is more understated, but it does an excellent job creating a showcase. However, like some of the other projects that fell just short of awards, the judges didn't think either design broke new ground in retail architecture.

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