Retail Design: How to Approach a Shifting Consumer Mindset

MG2’s Melissa Gonzalez and MJ Munsell dwell on how design might come to retail’s rescue during these challenging times and specify the post-pandemic consumer types to consider.
Melissa Gonzalez, Principal, MG2. Image courtesy of MG2

Before the coronavirus outbreak, the retail sector was concerned with offering immersive, unique experiences to customers. However, as we continue to face the effects of the global health crisis, retail operators need to learn how experiential retail and social distancing can work together.

In an interview with Commercial Property Executive, MJ Munsell, chief creative officer at MG2, and Melissa Gonzalez, principal at MG2 & CEO of The Lionesque Group, talk about why retail design matters during these challenging times and how customer needs will change in the post-pandemic world.

The retail sector has been particularly vulnerable to the shutdowns caused by the coronavirus outbreak. What changes should we expect for this sector?

Gonzalez: Being strategic about the future of retail is critical, as stores will need to evolve to better suit a more digitally connected customer post-COVID-19. The customer journey will be modified, and the store will need to accommodate new scenarios—those that want a more “remote-controlled” self-guided shopping experience or those that want to wander, discover and have a higher-touch experience.

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What can retailers do to revitalize their stores?

Gonzalez: Retailers can do several things to revitalize their stores. They should prioritize storefront windows as a multifunctioning touchpoint for customers—a space that can flex from the point of storytelling to the point of purchase and pickup. They should also focus on modular design as a standard, enabling for a fluid metamorphosis of the front-of-house/back-of-house split as needed to accommodate varying in-store experience scenarios. They should investigate and invest in sensory elements that are less reliant on touch and rethink the footprint of the cash wrap.

How can design help retail operators to address health and safety concerns?

Gonzalez: Communication is everything, and finding ways to ease concerns of customers proactively will set the tone. Entry, wayfinding and directional signage will be a high priority, and operators will need to find a balanced approach to conveying safety without sacrificing brand voice, tone and personality. Modifying space to accommodate and guide flow will also assist with alleviating concern, so taking a more data-driven approach to design by rethinking the customer journey, points of interaction, dwell times and merchandising will be critical.

How can innovative technologies help accelerate the recovery of brick-and-mortar assets?

Gonzalez: Necessity drives innovation, and we see that customers will modify behaviors and adapt to survive. Mobile devices have become and will remain a vital tool that retailers and brands need to consider. Contactless payment, queue management for curbside pickup, ways to remotely acquire updates about the current capacity of a store and QR codes to unlock information about a product or service are four ways innovative technologies help accelerate the recovery of brick-and-mortar assets.

What are the main principles you focus on when designing a retail space?

MJ Munsell, Chief Creative Officer, MG2. Image courtesy of MG2

Munsell: Traditionally, we begin with a brand by studying their DNA, their values, customers and business goals. Our goal is to create a customer-centric journey that connects the customer with a brand. What is that journey? Is it partially or fully efficient, exploratory and educational? How will the customer interact with sales associates, technology and merchandise? How do we tell the story of the brand and product? How will the business and the customer evolve, and how does the space adapt to those inevitable changes?

We challenge the brand to think beyond the current model, to see their brand through the lens of the consumer and to bring memorable moments that connect. Tools such as intuitive navigation, flexible spaces to test new concepts, sensory design and integrated digital platforms are all essential elements in any retail environment.

Currently, we are considering how spaces transition to a shifting consumer mindset. Are they clean? Are they touchless? How do you create a personal experience with social distancing?

With the likelihood of customers and sales associates wearing masks and perhaps gloves in the near term, we are looking at the duality of tech-assisted shopping in sensory, immersive environments.

Tell us about a retail project you are currently working on. What are some of the new concepts you’re implementing in response to the crisis?

Munsell: We are currently working on a variety of food and beverage concepts—everything from large food halls to quick-service restaurant brands. How do we adapt existing environments to a touchless, socially distanced experience? How is tech evolving as a tool for the customer? How do we provide choices of order, delivery and consumption for the customer? Through concepts that integrate app-based ordering with self-serve pick-up and walk-up windows that insert into storefronts. In addition, mobile fixtures can be dropped into an existing environment to convert a traditional order experience to an app-based ordering and pickup experience.

Also, expediting delivery services and converting spaces to differentiate customer zones from delivery services zones; curbside pickup; and evolved drive-through experiences—creating a highlighted experience, versus a transactional convenience.

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How do you expect customers’ needs to change in a post-pandemic world?

Munsell: There will be a range of reactions, fears and needs that consumers will have post-pandemic.

Community cravers: Some consumers will crave community, gatherings and high-touch environments.

Social introverts/local comfort: Some consumers will have adapted to a more isolated lifestyle and evolve their lifestyle to be more localized and smaller, with fewer trips outside.

Tech savvy: Many consumers have permanently adapted tech as a communication and consumption tool. Retailers without a previously seamless digital and physical experience will need to create one or risk being left behind.

Relationship-driven: Many consumers have been communicating with brands at home via social media visits, virtual personalized shopping, curbside or at-home delivery. These have built more personal relationships with brands.

Sanitary converts: Many that never considered sanitary conditions of shopping and eating environments will never go back. They will want to see simple, cleanable spaces that are perceived as safe.

Financially stressed: Many consumers will have less disposable income and will be consuming less, focusing on essential items.

Our job is to work with brands in understanding what is always a shifting consumer mindset, and create an environment that demonstrates to each consumer that we understand them and that we have created an experience worth their investment of time, safety and spend.