Retail N Illinois

Will experiential components be the kitsch of death for some retailers?

The Spice House in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood. © Tom Harris | Design by Gensler The Spice House in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood. © Tom Harris | Design by Gensler
Syd Jerome, located in Chicago's Loop. © Garrett Rowland | Design by Gensler Syd Jerome, located in Chicago's Loop. © Garrett Rowland | Design by Gensler
Detroit is the New Black, in downtown Detroit. Detroit is the New Black, in downtown Detroit.

In the internet age, brick and mortar retailers are repeatedly told, providing an experience is the key to bringing in more foot traffic. While that may be easy for bars and restaurants, what about merchants with physical goods for sale? There has to be a way that they can design around the Amazon effect.

For these retailers, experience is harder to define and just as difficult to implement. Installing a rock-climbing wall, for example, is an expensive upgrade, but will it move more units? Some stores have been savvier than others about designing a space that welcomes passersby, closes the sale and encourages repeat business.

The Chicago office of Gensler has helped a number of these retailers—from national brands down to boutique storefronts—refine and refresh their look and their layout. The results speak for themselves.

“For many of the stores we’ve done recently, they have a longevity, a generational story,” said Lori Mukoyama, design director, Gensler Chicago. “They started before there was an internet, so they’ve had to reverse engineer and figure out how to have a better physical presence.”

Syd Jerome, a luxury menswear store, recently relocated to a two-level location at the base of 20 N. Clark Street, an office tower in Chicago’s Central Loop. The 7,300-square-foot space doubled the footprint of the 60-year-old retailer’s previous location.

The first-floor level features a clean and open storefront, with a masculine, gray-black-blue palette and well-appointed touches like bronze finishes and the occasional piece of pop art. The lower level houses a tailor shop, event space and seasonal storage.

Here, “tailoring” an experience for the consumer is quite literal. The main store is broken up into individualized vignettes with their own fitting rooms; on-site tailors provide expertise, fittings and a one-on-one experience.

In a way, the store takes inspiration from the internet itself, and the way that vendors have branded themselves there. Visit any upscale retailer’s website and you’re met not with a hundred items up for sale, but a landing page that promises something more than a simple purchase, it’s shopping as a feeling, as an event. The Syd Jerome storefront tries to emulate that vibe.

“It starts on the exterior by trying to create that splashy home page feel,” said Mukoyama, “but then the experience changes as you actually walk into and go deeper into the store.”

Note that Syd Jerome’s lower level contains an event space. In other words, pure experience. This is a way to open up a store to more people, offering itself as a venue where the payoff of selling merchandise is not necessarily top of mind but always a possibility. But for brick and mortar retailers with thin margins, how can they justify a larger lease?

“We’ve seen it done in even the smallest of spaces. For instance, with something like Détroit is the New Black,” said Kristen Conry, principal and co-managing director, Gensler Chicago.

Gensler designed the space for Détroit is the New Black, a small storefront in a retail corridor in downtown Detroit. The boutique already operates differently, selling their own brand of clothing and apparel, but also providing an opportunity for global labels to test out the Detroit market. Additionally, they offer space to the community for art exhibits and classes, trunk shows, poetry slams, fundraisers, cocktail parties and other events.

“The way we designed that space, merchandising is very flexible so that you can reconfigure the interior over the course of the day,” Conry said. “Building in flexibility so that you can maximize the return on every square foot is so important.”

Something that Détroit is the New Black and Syd Jerome share is a specialized, pared-back retail experience. No one is feeling the pain of e-commerce more than big box retailers, whereas these scaled-down stores cater to the shopping experience that consumers still crave—and that they can’t always get online.

“You have to know your consumer now. That is the difference,” said Mukoyama. “Before you could have a Bed Bath and Beyond or a Sears where everyone was their consumer. Now, I feel like the really successful stores are these boutique brands that really have homed in on the person that they’re going for in that neighborhood.”

When Old Town staple The Spice House suffered a fire at their Wells Street store last year, they turned to Gensler to design a refreshed space that pulls in elements of the turn-of-the-century building where they are located.

The space is filled with industrial touches—exposed brick, blackened steel and the original rafters. It’s also filled with sights, sounds and scents. For this retailer, the store itself is an experience, a sensory overload that pulls pedestrians in off the street and deeper into the store.

Employees grinding, scooping and blending spices by hand near the front windows creates a theater to grab attention. Once a shopper is actually in the store, the space plays on visual, audio and aromatic cues to deliver a heightened customer experience. Windows in the back look into a prep area where the activity there further engages the consumer.

The rise of e-commerce hasn’t been a death knell for physical stores so much as an agent of transformation. Some retailers have fallen into bankruptcy, but others have found ways to transform themselves. In the end, the biggest outcome from the rise of online shopping is that it has taken out the those who aren’t as relevant in today’s world.

“Think of how department stores have changed versus how much your phone has changed over the last 30 years. Department stores haven’t changed at all,” said Mukoyama. “Now retail is starting to catch up to that, find differentiators, homing in on who their consumers are and right sizing. I feel it’s actually been a positive thing for retail because it’s now creating something much more relevant for consumers.”

“I think we’ve moved beyond the age of experience into the age of belonging. Retailers are focused on galvanizing community loyalty and offering a lifestyle identity,” Conry said. “There’s more transparency about what they do and how they do it and why someone would want to be counted among their loyal following. I think that, more than ever, is what’s driving a lot of the decision for retailers.”