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SPECIFIERS GUIDE (FIXTURING): The evolving softscape

Why should developers, who typically think in terms of bricks and mortar, take an interest in store fixturing? Fixturing typically is seen as that temporary, disposable, functional understory that displays product. The landlord's criteria seldom address fixturing, preferably focusing on the glass, marble and steel that are seen as built-in or part of the infrastructure. This is minimally seen as an oversight, a missed opportunity. Ignoring this aspect can be an environmental blind spot as retailers are increasingly shifting their focus to build the white box with fixturing and graphics as the primary conduit of image and experience.

With the exception of thematic and entertainment retail or those one-of-a-kind boutiques on Madison Avenue, retail design has become increasingly simplified. Straight walls, simple ceilings and the ubiquitous maple floor are commonplace. More and more tenants are relying on the unique integration of “softscape” elements to bring their spaces to life. “Hardscape” is often relegated to the background, a gallery setting in which the art of fixturing and graphics exists.

Today's retail storefront is most likely made of glass. This “non-front” offers the consumer a clear view of the interior with minimal window displays, many featuring a simple graphic or single product on a face-out. Retailers are increasingly relying on what they characterize as the “third window.” This merchandising opportunity, visible from the storefront and often easily accessible from the entry, is seen as the magnet or beacon that pulls the customer across the lease line, and should be given particular attention on the part of the retailer. The type of fixture can range from a purely functional piece that holds a large quantity of products that respond to a price or promotion, to an artful and exciting showpiece that becomes an attraction in its own right.

Retailers are increasingly building a varied vocabulary of fixtures. This vocabulary has gone far beyond the standard four-way or rounder and includes many combinations of wood, metal, glass, stone and fabrics. This refocus by retailers on the software component makes a great deal of sense from the ever-changing perspective of marketing requirements and the need for ongoing image and merchandising flexibility.

Today's retail concepts have a shorter life span. Consumer interest passes quickly. Retailers need to be responsive, particularly those in trend businesses that must reinvent themselves much more frequently. Smart retailers build a certain degree of planned obsolescence into their concepts, recognizing that certain brick and mortar components, such as mechanical, electrical and basic box, need to have a longer life cycle than the fixturing and visual components within their space.

The potential conflict between the landlord's interest in the standards, and the need for positioning of the tenants can conflict with the tenant's need for evolution and flexibility. This reality suggests a new approach on the landlord's part. This may include the development of revised tenant criteria that would impact the renovation update clauses typically in the tenant's lease. It would encourage tenants to incrementally update their stores more frequently, rather than wait until near or the end of their lease, and therefore possibly impact customers' perception of newness and excitement in the mall on a more consistent basis.

Particularly in the development of new centers, this approach could help mitigate the obsolescence that is so obvious as its original tenant ages and the overall perception of the center becomes dated. This approach could also help second- and third-tier centers that have little leverage to force tenants to make more substantial improvements, but that, in partnership with tenants, may be able to encourage tenants to incrementally update and upgrade their stores either through lease or financial incentives.

Kenneth Nisch is an architect and chairman of JGA Inc., a retail design and strategy firm in Southfield, Mich. In working with clients, Nisch applies his knowledge and entrepreneurial insight into consumer markets to create concept and prototype development, brand image positioning and architectural direction. JGA's clients include Avon, Rainforest Café, GNC Live Well, Brookstone, Ripley's Aquariums, Party City, AOL/Time Warner, Dickson CyberExpress, QVC, La-Z-Boy, Crane & Company and the American Museum of Natural History.

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