Making Retail Relevant

September 6, 2018

To answer the question of how decorative lighting has become more prevalent in the retail arena, we also need to look at what would cause this evolution to occur.

At the time of writing and researching this article the threats of the collapse of House of Fraser is fresh in our minds, and retailer New Look has announced dozens of store closures. This has sparked debate about the business model retailers are using and how department stores, concessions and high-street retailers can stay relevant in these ever-changing times.

Analysis of successful department stores and retail brands such as Selfridges, John Lewis and Bloomingdale’s all provide a common set of principles, which may contribute to them remaining strong in the current climate.

It’s clear that in today’s market a strong online offering is key. However, this alone won’t keep stores open. To pull customers into the bricks-and-mortar, stores requires continuous, staged (rather than reactive) investment back into the fitout of spaces and making the shopping experience exactly that: an experience.

Experiential retailing puts the relationship between the brand and its consumers (now often referred to as guests) first and the actual act of selling second. For designers it’s about understanding the emotional connection between the brand and its consumers, and then reinforcing it.

Such experiential store design seems to fall roughly into two camps:

1. Hospitality experience: where the store engenders the feeling of a bar, restaurant or hotel, and a consumer feels relaxed and connected to a lifestyle. The store inturn becomes a place to ‘hang-out’.

2. Cultural experience: where the store elevates its goods to those of museum artefacts with the aim of them being viewed as pieces of art. And again, the store becomes a cool place to hang-out and learn.

The former example has started to place emphasis on FFE and in particular decorative lighting, which assists in creating the feeling of a residential or hospitality style. Decorative fixtures make a space more ‘human’ – they create intimacy, giving a human scale to a space.

A clever trick that lean and competitive retailers are aware of is adapting their stores to the way that their customers want to use them. For customers to connect with the brand, retailers require a clear brand message that is effectively but subtly applied through interior design and lifestyle image.

As a practice, we are privileged to have worked on a number of retail fitouts from luxury boutiques, to the high-street giants and all with vastly varied styles and brand messages, ranging from sophisticated and classic to minimalist and kitsch. The practical and operational needs of these stores vary immensely but something they all have in common is that their brand has a strong narrative, which makes our job as designers significantly easier.

I spoke to Sonia Tomic from Universal Design Studios, with whom we have recently completed a phase of the Selfridges Birmingham fourth floor renovation. Sonia comments: “Stores seem to be more ‘lifestyle’ and experience-focussed now. Retail clients see the benefit in their interiors feeling more gracious and home-like in some instances. Spaces where customers come to interact and inhabit the brand, rather then just shop for a product.”

So where does a lighting consultant fit into this equation? If the client has engaged an interior architect and lighting consultant it means they are aware of the value that lighting can add. Decorative and architectural lighting installations can be a relatively cost-effective way to fitout large premises with an impactful brand standard. If we are involved at the right stage of the project, the decorative luminaires can be made to ‘work’ a little harder, which can reduce the quantity of focussed spotlights required and create layers of light that make the environment richer. Examples of this principle being applied can be seen in the following projects:

Opening spread image: Alaïa, London – This distinctive yet neutral decorative pendant luminaire not only provides a canvas for the changing fashion ranges but also provides a consistent colour of light and quality of lit environment across all Alaïa fashion houses. The luminaire contributes to a large portion of the functional lighting within the space and the most recent version (specified in the new Alaïa flagship store in New Bond Street) uses LED light sources with excellent colour rendering.

1. Selfridges Body Studio, London – This Neri&Hu Japanese-influenced fitout provides a soothing environment using natural materials. Large, decorative back-illuminated Shoji screens with textured paper have been recessed within the walls and suspended as feature pendants over the central void to provide a diffuse calming quality of light, to help increase body confidence and dwell time. The large pendants over the escalators were installed with colour tuneable white LED lighting to enable their warmth to be adjusted on site to best suit the transition between floors within the store.

2. Youngor, China – This flagship store engulfed five Youngor brands under one roof and required a feature decorative pendant within the large atrium. Clustered suspended lines of light fill the store’s triple-height atrium – the installation provides a confident yet neutral theme of quality for the space and provides the right level of functional light, meaning no further lighting intervention was needed.