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Design Makeovers: What's New With Familiar Names

As William Wordsworth wrote in 1802, "My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky." In their quest for brand loyalty, repeat business and increased revenue, retailers aspire to elicit the same reaction as consumers behold the latest store designs. And in the late 1990s, an increasing number of retailers are updating their images - even familiar ones - as a means to stay competitive and further excite the shopping experience.

At the core of design makeovers, however, lies an interesting paradox: By updating and realigning their images to customers, retailers are, at least in part, departing from what was once familiar. If retail environments were successful in past incarnations, what circumstances cause retailers to reposition their designs? How and why do retailers use the makeover platform to maintain and build upon their customer base?

Designs for the bottom line "Pure and simple, retail is a business," says Tom Herndon, president of Dallas-based Robert Young Associates. He concedes that designs do have impact on how retailers speak to their customers through imaging and identity, but the retailers' bottom line both dictates and facilitates a design makeover.

"The impact that most store owners want to have is to increase profits," he continues. "Sure, there's a lot of image associated with it, but stores don't get renovated today unless a projected return on investment can justify it. It's that simple."

Herndon had such a mission with the repositioning of Bloomingdale's on 59th Street in Manhattan. According to Herndon, while embarking on a redesign is often justified by cost, designing for a familiar name like Bloomingdale's gives designers a leg up in the imaging process.

"When you have a heritage such as the one that Bloomingdale's has to use as a foundation," he says, "unquestionably [the design process] is easier." He adds thatthe Bloomingdale's project required creating a design that could facilitate frequent changes in merchandising and product displays. "The store probably evolves more within a 12-month period than any other store in the world, so it has to be designed for change."

One of the top priorities was to make the store easier for consumers to shop. The ceiling height was raised, walls were removed, light levels were increased and the general selling area was expanded. The store's load-bearing columns were given an Art Deco flavor, covered in aluminum leaf with amber wash. Also, a previously unused men's store corner was transformed into a small cafe, with glass accents, eclectic lighting, contemporary seating design and bold geometric textural patterns.

The Bloomingdale's project required design departures, with its past dimly lit, dark-wood-fixtured design replaced by a bright, white store envelope. Other projects, however, require a more centrist approach. For Fitzpatrick Design Group's reimaging of Upton's, for example, the approach drew from two categories.

"The rhetoric retailers use is, 'We don't want to scare away our old customers, and we really want to bring in the new ones,'" says Jay Fitzpatrick, president and creative director. "So for Upton's, we kept our design in the middle, made it a lot brighter, and added some of the trappings that reflect both department store and discounter sensibilities."

In its redesign of Upton's, the New York-based design firm added a classic vaulted slatwall ceiling over the fashion accessories department, accented by a checkerboard floor pattern. The store was given an overall neutral-toned color palette, with textured porcelain tile and woods such as beech, cherry and maple. And on the store's facade, stepped arches surround set-back walls clad in slate tiles.

Lofty imaging goals When Bergmeyer designed the latest Dockers prototype, it plugged into the retailer's broad audience for inspiration. According to Joe Nevin, principal-in-charge for the Boston-based design firm, the design process required a reflection of how Dockers has built and maintained broad demographic appeal.

"We were very clear on the direction the brand was going in terms of being younger," he explains. "At the same time, we wanted to be conscious that there is an older Dockers customer that needed to be comfortable as well."

To accomplish this goal, Nevin sought to create a residential-loft design located in an urban warehouse district. Overscaled framed artwork dots the store landscape; multi-finished woods and a variety of metal finishes give a sense of design improvisation, with a fish tank incorporated into the cash wrap desk.

Nevin notes that Dockers' resulting makeover was a product of connecting with the needs of his client and attempting to ensure consistency. "The design process should not just be about design," he says. "It should encourage retailers to look at every single aspect of their image, be consistent, and consider every experience that the store provides."

Although design consistency often solidifies a familiar name in the minds of consumers, unique spatial opportunities can sometimes facilitate a different approach. Such was the case at Santa Anita Fashion Center in Arcadia, Calif., where a transition location allowed Carlton Cards and store designer Jencen to create a playful, eye-catching store front.

"We were very fortunate with this location because we're right at the transition between mall retail and the food courts," says Nicolas Zalany, partner and director of design for the Cleveland-based designer. "At the food court area, the ceiling went way up, so we had the opportunity to do a truly unique store front. Inside, the rhythm of the rest of the store alternates between transparent and solid forms."

Zalany and project manager Juleen Russell (along with Frank Mauric, director of design for Carlton Cards) perched a 12-ft.-tall birthday bear high atop a clear glass rotunda. Through the glass and inside the store, inclined yellow columns fabricated from lacquer-finished particle board support red painted spheres. The store itself is softened with patterned carpeting and bold color schemes. Lastly, the store's frontage is accented on either side with smooth-surface, semi-reflective Corian, fabricated in half-inch diagonal sections.

Above the rotunda but below the bear is a drywall soffit, accented by extruded aluminum rungs that jet out to the glass. The soffit is punctuated with uplit cubbyholes that give the round structure a more textured look.

"What's interesting is that with the heavy design and supported soffit, the soffit and donut seem to be floating on the [red] spheres," says Zalany. "It looks like it is supported on those three points. And that's the visual effect we wanted."

The AMC Studio 30 project in Houston, designed by St. Louis-based Kiku Obata & Co., also aims for visual impressions by reflecting a grand film plaza design of the 1920s and 1930s. According to principal Kiku Obata, the project needed to recapture the event-like atmosphere that moviegoing once inspired.

"We did a lot of research on theaters in the 1920s and 1930s," she notes. "And they used to have barkers on the streets of Los Angeles trying to get people into the theaters. It was really more of an interactive experience back then."

The movie palace, at 110,000 sq. ft., immediately immerses customers in moviegoing, with lighted movie poster marquees, colorful terrazzo tile and signature graphics. The theater was brought up above grade by 3 feet to give a sense of spectacle and importance to the movie palace. Inside, custom-designed lighting, signage and interior finishes unite to create an engaging atmosphere, with brushed aluminum columns and high-tech, fluorescent wayfinding signs helping to round out the cinematic attraction.

Semi-annual store design? Identifying when and how often to put on a fresh face often is one of the more challenging aspects of design makeovers, say many designers. According to Zalany, stores are being repositioned more often in response to consumer demand.

"I think it's happening a lot faster," he says, adding that designs are much more adventuresome today than in the past. "It's almost like an avalanche to see all these new prototypes coming out into the market. So I think retail image changeover is a lot more intensive now than it was 10 years ago."

Fitzpatrick notes that demographic shifts are causing retailers to rethink how market positioning dictates design. "We're merchandising our stores now for the Generation Y population segment, which represents 10 percent growth each year," he says. "To create environments for this group, things are definitely happening fast."

Obata, however, cautions against hasty store remodels that lack meaning for customers. "Images are updated quickly today, but I don't think you have to redesign every two years," she says. "A good store design accommodates change such as signage, products and fixture elements that signal where new or featured merchandise is. We ought to design the store envelope to be neutral, so that retailers and designers can bring in and change out the more striking, memorable elements without costing a lot."

Wordsworth's poem, although an introspective ode to a natural event, draws a retail parallel as stores strive for heart-fluttering connections to new designs. Perhaps a departure from the safety of a familiar image is precisely what customers need to be reintroduced to a familiar name.

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