“’Don’t do this, do something else’ – that was our pitch”, says Canadian-born, British-based designer Ian Johnston when we caught up recently.
He’s telling me about a recent scenario where his retail business Quinine was invited to do a pitch by a company wanting ideas for a new store. They’d refused to go in with any creative ideas, because Johnston firmly believes that if you take a brief at face value, you are limiting yourself and the impact of what can be achieved. But he did go in with a suggestion. He recalls telling the client straight-up that with the budget they had in hand, “don’t do the store”.
“We suggested instead that they should choose one category inside the business and develop a new experience around that one category. Roll it out across the whole estate, so the business is affected by that in every store; drive a perception change amongst customers, impact the bottom line. That was our pitch.”, he recalls.
We’re discussing the pressures on the retail landscape and how changing demographics, technological transformation and demanding customers have driven many retailers to explore new retail formats. But ultimately, how sometimes it is more appropriate to work with existing formats, rather than following a more disruptive route, starting from scratch.
“I love doing new projects, because it’s new and it’s fresh and inspiring and I learn new things. With my designer hat on I’d do them every day of the week.” But, Johnston adds, “brand new stores are not always the best approach for business. Especially when you are working with clients who have five, six, eight hundred stores. You are always going to have legacy stores, but often it’s more effective for these businesses to look at consolidating things and to deliver consistency, because that can have a much wider, bigger impact on the business and its bottom line, and faster”.
Johnston believes that the real value comes from flagship stores when you start to extract some of the components and integrate them back into the wider estate. “In a lot of cases, such as our award-winning work with EE and Rogers, we will design a flagship or a premier store and then look at what we can pull back through the estate to create more efficiencies, more consistency throughout the whole business from manufacturing to marketing.”
It’s no secret that the high street is facing huge challenges. With so many other channels now available to customers beyond physical retail that are both convenient and successful, Johnston sees a changing shift in the definition of success for high street stores, with focus moving from footfall to halo effect.
“It’s a really interesting metric, because retailers are recognising that flatlining figures can actually mean success – if footfall has evened off but other channels are increasing, then the business is maintaining its current status overall.” Johnston flags the growing number of companies putting forward figures and stories that link the presence of a new store and increasing online sales in that region; in other words even if the store figures are not setting the world on fire, you can see a direct link or correlation between the physical store and the online uplift in the locality. “A lot of companies are starting to integrate the halo effect metric inside their store metrics,” says Johnston whilst the objectives for sales and footfall are increasingly “just ‘not to drop’ and that is deemed a success; anything on top is the icing on the cake”.
There are other ways to measure the success of design intervention in retail. When it comes to the customer, NPS scores are very valuable in understanding and measuring the impact on their experience. But the area that often gets overlooked by businesses, is one that is hugely important, especially in retail – staff engagement and motivation.
“If you look at the stores through the eyes of staff, what opportunities do you see? What can we learn from someone’s behaviour around the physical environment? How can that influence results? Clients eyes light up and they really get behind this” says Johnston, because when you put great people in a great designed store, “that’s a hugely motivating factor for people and that’s when the magic happens.”
Working with clients to identify where it’s appropriate to do the smaller things and where it is appropriate to do the bigger things; when to take the traditional route, when to disrupt, hangs on instilling confidence in clients especially, as is often the case in retail, when you have a huge number of stakeholder teams to convince.
It’s all about “demystifying design” says Johnston, arguing that the crux of this is removing the fear; the unknown around how you get to the creative idea. “This is why in design we’re in the position where we are still too often asked to pitch for free – because clients don’t understand how we get to the creative idea, they want to see the thing before they buy it.”
Johnston is clear that there’s a very linear line between objectives, research, strategy and design; design is not just some mystical thing that appears. “It is a really considered thoughtful process that delivers results” says Johnston. “And if clients understand your process and the scale of success it’s delivered before for other clients, you’re convincing them of the value and impact of the solutions you’ll propose. That’s really powerful. And ultimately, whether you plump for a more traditional or more disruptive approach, that’s how you’ll get buy-in.”
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Quinine is a world-leading retail experience consultancy known for its research driven user-centric design approach that involves designing retail strategies, physical environments and face-to-face experiences that work effectively for the business, the brand, the customer and the staff.
Established in 2007, they work with international product and service brands focusing on designing complex service driven, consultative environments and experiences. Working with clients including Comcast, EE, Fido, Imperial College London, Innovation RCA, LG, Orange, Rogers, Sony Ericsson, Tesco and Xfinity, Quinine delivers multi-million pound projects that involve evaluating and transforming existing formats and creating new retail formats, pop-ups, mobile stores and one off brand experiences.
Ivan Bandura | Unsplash