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Consumer desires dictate design

The original store design for Mr. Rags, a 15-year-old chain of clothing and accessory stores, was created for a lot of good reasons -- none of them directly related to the target customer, explains James Adams, director of design for NBBJ Retail Concepts, Seattle. "You can't ignore the operational factors, but you have to take into account the consumer niche you are going after."

Seeking the young, hip teenage market, Mr. Rags -- with its white cashwrap and black logo, white columns and a pivoting grid door enclosure -- needed to focus on "figuring out teenagers and what motivated them and attracted them," Adams says. The retailer desperately needed a makeover.

Adams and lead designer Jennifer Mann spent weeks delving into the hearts, minds and attitudes of today's teenagers in order to develop a complete understanding of the retailer's target customer's psyche. Often still wearing business attire, Adams and Mann jammed to heavy metal CDs and spent hours "catching air" with skateboarding teens in front of the 7-11.

They immersed themselves in the teen lifestyle, essentially "becoming kids again." They read teen magazines like Skateboard, Wired, Raygun and Spin. Adams watched MTV's Spring Break Party and the dating game "Singled Out" and polled an "executive panel" of teens -- including his 15-year-old and 17-year-old nieces -- to discuss everything from fashion to politics, and of course, shopping.

This freewheeling research approach led to a 2,000 sq. ft. prototype design for the Bellevue, Wash.-based chain, imparting a new personality for the retailer.

"One of our concepts centered around the question, 'If the kids were making the store themselves, how would they do it?'" Adams says.

Shopping preferences of teens -- something that often goes unnoticed by other retail designers -- were at the heart of the redesign. Adams asserts that while demographics such as age, income and race are major influences on consumer shopping habits, much depends on the cultural trends and attitudes of the consumer group, in this case, independent, forward-thinking and fad-oriented teens.

"You can't trick kids into something -- they are smart enough to know when it is real and when it isn't," he says. "Today, you have to be more literal." NBBJ used raw building materials like flattened 55-gallon drums, hot rolled steel and exposed wire grids to create a rebellious atmosphere that reflected the independent spirit of the teens. The worn-away looking concrete floor is covered with graffiti -- yet only positive messages such as "Believe" and "Expand" are present.

"The design is different, and it doesn't really fit most mall's criteria. There are lots of different kinds of light bulbs -- what I call a 'found-object approach' -- and unusual, weird things that have been turned into fixturing. It adds to the whole package," Adams says.

The design firm took advantage of a hometown resource, Boeing Co., to provide mechanical fixtures and props such as metal tool chests and spotlights. Bare light bulbs hang from the ceiling and flashing yellow lights sit atop clothing racks. In-store music is the shopper's choice.

The store now looks like something the teenagers would have designed themselves. Since the redesign of the flagship store, Mr. Rags' sales have nearly doubled. The success has prompted the remodel of 23 additional Mr. Rags stores across the western United States.

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