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While pure-play cyber-retailers struggle to create productive sales atmospheres in thin air, traditional merchants have a plethora of fixturing options. The notion that consumers still desire a tactile experience has not been lost on brick-and-mortar retailers.

With custom fixturing, many of these retailers are creating evocative, fun shopping experiences that beat staring at a computer screen any day.

There's no place like Rome Take Benelava for example. The 560 sq. ft. specialty store, located in an urban, pedestrian-friendly shopping district in Columbus, Ohio, enhances its unique brand image with specially designed fixtures.

Since Benelava is Latin for "good bathing" and the store's inventory focuses on predominantly European spa products, Columbus-based design firm Chute Gerdeman chose a decor package for the store that is dictated by ancient Roman baths.

Designed to evoke Old World luxury, relaxation and rejuvenation in a non-gender-specific environment, Benelava is complete with a smattering of Pompeii-esque architectural ruins and shelving and tabletops made with a material that resembles clay.

The lavish bathhouses of ancient Rome, renowned as both cultural and social meeting spots, are referenced in Benelava's fixtures, interior and graphics. This helps differentiate Benelava from the myriad other players in this ioncreasingly competitive merchandise category, including the heartland-inspired interiors of Bath & Body Works and the environmentalism message of The Body Shop.

Benelava required custom fixturing to support its antiquities-referenced story, says Bob Welty, vice president of retail environments at Chute Gerdeman. The design firm's collaboration with Ko-Balt Studios in Columbus resulted in hand-crafted prototypical elements for Benelava's launch. Straight-forward perimeter shelving and freestanding tables were crafted of a gray, clay-like material for flat surfaces while supports and legs are fashioned from simple metal pipe with rusticated finishes.

Vibrant blue ceiling panels contrast with textured, ochre-colored walls. Alabaster lights hang from the ceiling, and handblown glass pendant lights are used behind the cashwrap. A faux mosaic area rug helps punctuate the existing slate floor in the historic building. In-store graphics (printed on canvas featuring photography of the human form) and water elements are textural references to the personal products offered.

Massaging the message Benelava's co-owners Richard Distel and Kevin Comer of New York City's DC Holdings plan to tinker with product mix and design while test-marketing their concept in Columbus. As they ready themselves for a programmed rollout of Benelava, traditional manufacturers likely will handle the fixture package, since more economical manufacturing methods and materials will be needed, notes Welty.

Fast-forwarding to more rapid-paced product offerings in a larger context, Welty cites the firm's design and fixturing work for Macy's Herald Square flagship in New York, where it fashioned a contemporary setting for the retailer's new activewear and sporting goods department called "MacySport." The 15,000 sq. ft. basement department - sporting its own entrance on 34th Street marked by a three-story billboard and LED readout - targets a Generation-X customer.

Charged with creating a fast-track fixturing solution, the Chute Gerdeman designers selected display systems as performance-driven as the merchandise itself. Mainly, an existing stock system was the answer, says Welty, thanks to the abbreviated construction schedule and the possibility of rolling out the concept to additional Macy's units.

The designers chose to customize a tubular metal system from Wheeling, Ill.-based OPTO International Inc., consisting of modular perimeter and loose units with panels and headers. Units include T-stands, tables and H racks. Offered in an environment that could be described as cutting-edge industrial, the high-tech nature of fabrics found in the apparel itself provided design cues to the resulting solution. Silver metallic finishes lend the fixtures a futuristic, clean look to effectively present merchandise.

Macy's wanted to differentiate itself from other big-box sporting goods players by taking a fashion-forward approach to presentation, Welty notes. Flexibility was key. For example, fixture mobility was achieved by mounting wheels on all loose fixtures and leaving only cashwraps stationery. Sport-specific and vendor shops such as Nike and Adidas radiate from the center of the space, with curved graphic headers identifying brands.

Fixture this Chute Gerdeman's design solution for Macy's reflects the current thinking held by chain stores. Due in part to unfavorable customer reaction and economics, retailers and designers are returning to fixturing simplicity.

Abandoning gimmicky, over-wrought solutions that actually detracted from merchandise or were developed with limited purpose, multi-tasking fixturing is an old concept made new again. Too, manufacturers increasingly are being asked to incorporate electronic, lighting and graphic elements.

"Interactive fixtures are here to stay," says Joel Sperber, vice president of sales at Cudahy, Calif.-based RAP Store Fixtures. Manufacturing fixtures for such retailers as Pacific Sunwear, RAP is currently developing units for the apparel retailer's 125-unit rollout program.

"Flexibility and change in fixtures, as in life, are a requirement," he says, adding that convenience and access are a must. Of course, capacity issues remain, regardless. "Retailers are looking for innovation from their vendors."

In terms of design, Sperber notes, "fixtures must be capable of having components added to or subtracted from them in order to serve changing merchandise needs." Consequently, the more flexible the fixture, the greater its usable life. "We build fixtures to last five to 10 years. We try to attend to details that can greatly enhance the performance and life-span of a given fixture."

These are among the reasons Sperber is bullish on wood and metal as dominant fabrication materials, despite the advances in the world of plastic. However, he says, "I do think we will see an increase in plastics, though it may be more dominant in the decorative or visual end of the environment or as a component of a metal or wood fixture."

Echoing Sperber's sentiments is Kevin McPhee, a principal of San Carlos, Calif.-based B&N Industries. "Metal and wood will always be around," he notes.

But color and finishes are changing dramatically, he says, with color especially an important element of the fixturing story. "Beware, "the days of maple and brushed steel are over," he cautions, noting the advent of darker woods, exotic woods, linoleums, brighter chrome finishes and plastics. "Plastics are very durable and, in contrast to wood and metal, can be extremely cost-efficient."

Given the array of fixturing options available, designers, retailers and the manufacturers that supply them can create more sense-provoking environments than ever before. Such sensuality of place is mandatory in today's arena, as the physical environment faces a tough competitor in online shopping - which grows easier and more convenient day by day.

"People will definitely use the web to buy many things, but the experiential aspect of shopping in-the-flesh will become even more palatable and desired," McPhee says. "People will feel the need to get off their chairs and interact."

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