Space, Place and Stores

The retail space is an extension of the brand, not simply a place to display merchandise. As brands becomes more focused on shopper marketing, the retail space becomes increasingly relevant in how we think about marketing and design. This means that in addition to the consideration put into the initial design of the space, retailers have to think about the space as a destination, a place of pilgrimage. The goal should be to produce a sense of devotion with shopper by turning the retail environment from a space into a place.

At the macro-level, these sensibilities shape cultural expectations about how every environment we interact with should be properly organized. Settings can and do take on a “personality” depending on how they relate to cultural archetypes we posses about a given spatial frame. The visible layout of the space needs to reflect cognitive and cultural frames that allow people to construct and revisit stories in the minds, the goal being to produce strong emotional responses. Products need to be displayed in such a way as to make them visually reverential (e.g. on a pedestal and under directed lighting). Basic touch needs to be elevated to tactile play and experimentation. Events must be incorporated into the retail space, allowing people to ritualize their visits and feel as if they are part of an ongoing, transformational experience. It isn’t enough to make the store look inviting and to reflect the brand standards of the company. The retail space needs to become a destination and take on a sense of “place.” When used in a retail environment, how space is used impacts how customers interpret what that space is “supposed to” be.

Creating a façade is easy.  It is the basis of most stage productions. But shopping, unlike watching a play, is not a passive at. It involves direct interaction.  So it isn’t enough to dress the store in a way that is visually appealing.  The store needs to encourage interaction and become a destination to which people assign personal meaning.  One they do this, it becomes a place and becomes part of the shopper’s personal and shared storyline.

What all of this means is how we interpret space and our physical environment, both public and personal, literal and symbolic, can have a enormous impact on how a brand is perceived.  Clearly, investing in the right location with the right amount of space and the right demographic mix for your target audience is important.  Equally, so is the sound, temperature, amount of “clutter,” color palette and lighting.  But first and foremost, understanding how space becomes a place and thus, a major aspect of brand, begins by defining an environment by its cultural standards.  It includes determining rules of interpersonal interaction with the staff.  It even involves determining how space will translate in ad collateral.

The sense of place may be strongly enhanced by the setting, or the setting it attempts to project, being written about, being party of stories handed down over time, being portrayed in art or being part of the collective myth.  It can be established through modes of codification aimed at preserving or enhancing places and traditions felt to be of value.

Ownership is a key element to converting space to place. Feeling directly invested in the space, the story and the people in an environment allows people to engage directly in the myth rather than simply observe it. For example, the appropriation of public places by skaters for their stunts and parties allows them to endow an area with meaning. The same can be said for extraordinary retail spaces, such as the Apple Store of IKEA.

Sense of place is a social phenomenon that exists independently of any one individual’s perceptions or experiences. Such a feeling may be derived from the natural environment, but is more often made up of a mix of natural and cultural features in the setting, and generally includes the people who occupy the place. In other words, it’s about establishing context.


Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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