Creating Place in the Retail Setting

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. Designing around the concept of retail archetypes ultimately streamlines the process. Just as we have archetypes about characters, roles and personalities, we also have archetypes that relate to physical space. An archetype is an ideal example, or a prototype upon which others are copied, patterned, or emulated.  An archetype is a symbol.

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.

Why It Matters

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. That leads to loyalty and advocacy.  Archetypes help facilitate this by providing a motif  around which to create an already understood story, a shared story.

Atmospherics has dominated much of the conversation around retail store design for the last decade. Approach and avoidance theory has focused on psycho-evolutionary principles. Specifically, Mehrabian and Russell propose that individuals’ reactions to environments are categorized as either approach or avoidance behaviors, which include four basic dimensions:

1.   A desire to remain physically (approach) or to leave  (avoid) the environment

2.   A desire to explore (approach) the environment as opposed to a tendency to remain inanimate in (avoid) the environment

3.   A desire to communicate with (approach) others in the environment versus a tendency to avoid interacting with others

4.   Enhancement (approach) of performance and satisfaction of task performances or hindrance (avoidance) of task performances

Environmental psychologists assume that individuals’ feelings and emotions ultimately determine their behavior. The problem is that people rarely shop as individuals, even if they are alone.  On the surface that may sound confusing, but the point is simple. Human beings are cultural creatures, shaped by shared experience and the unavoidable truth that we are part of a complex system of beliefs and interactions. Atmospherics addresses only the cognitive side of the shopper journey, letting the more powerful cultural drivers fall out of the equation.  The Retail Archetype model adds them back in.

From Space to Place

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.

Place comes into existence when humans give meaning to a part of the larger, undifferentiated space. Any time a location is identified, given a name, or designed to represent a know storyline it is separated from the undefined space that surrounds it. Some places, however, have been given stronger meanings, names or definitions by society than others.  These are the socio-spatial archetypes. Dean & Deluca exemplifies this by speaking designing every element of the store (an the visual storyline) to recreate the old world market – the archetype to which it speaks is The Garden.

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 feel directly invested in 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 archetypal retail spaces, such as the Apple Store of IKEA.

Collaboration is another key element in establishing a sense of place. Shoppers who are encouraged to interact with others in a non-transactional way or to engage directly with the environment, creating new configurations collectively and dynamically, are more inclined to interpret themselves as part of the storyline. The contextualization of these actions by location provides a deep and varied “interaction space.”

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.  And establishing context in a retail setting is much easier if shoppers have an archetypal model from which to work. Considering the number of decisions that are being made at the point of purchase and the sheer number of choices shoppers have, both online and off, creating an environment that brings them back is smart business.

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