As consumers return to in-person shopping while still relying on e-commerce shopping, architects working in retail design focus on flexibility.

shop, store, open

By now, each of us recognize that the global pandemic continues to require us to cope with change. During the most isolated days of the pandemic some retailers thrived, but many in the retail trade sector were battered by sharp declines in sales as consumers moved to non-contact shopping and purchases.

And it wasn’t just the pandemic…

In addition to the shifts from in-person shopping to non-contact shopping, over the past three years, retailers have had to cope with inflation, supply chain delays, and challenges with employment. The shifting retail landscape has made adapting to change expensive; what looked like good retail design choices one month became ineffective choices a month or two later.

Where does that leave retail design in 2023?

There’s no returning to the good old days of simple brick-and-mortar retail

The retail landscape since 2000 has left both retailers and customers a bit anxious. Most of us, retailers included, hoped to return to the world as we knew it, pre-pandemic. But it’s become clear consumers will not be returning to their pre-pandemic shopping habits. Not only do retailers have to adjust to the change in shopping habits, but shifts in the economy and employment continue; effective approaches today require skillful pivoting tomorrow to meet changing needs. In this environment, non-store retailers offering electronic shopping and mail order will definitely continue to grow their share of consumer dollars spent.

Consumers still yearn for the in-store experience

At the same time, many consumers have missed shopping in a brick-and-mortar store—and after doing without it, they place more value than ever on the sense of community, connection, and enjoyment the in-person shopping experience provides. As design organization AIGA puts it, while online shopping gives us the convenience, the store gives us the experience.

How can retailers use architectural retail design to help their clients adapt to two very different retail approaches while giving customers a satisfying retail experience?

woman, shopping, boutique

2023 Retail design trends: flexible approach and quality experience

The past three years have shown that retailers must find a balance between traditional approaches to retail and approaches that take current needs and challenges into consideration. To support retailers in taking advantage of current shopping trends and preparing for possible change in the months and years to come, architects tracking the trends in retail design are designing for flexibility.

Their approach not only reflects current design trends, but also gives retailers options that ensure their businesses can adapt to future challenges and continue to thrive. Here are some ways a retail architect can help clients weather the challenges posed by the fast-changing retail landscape.

  1. Designing for flexibility

“Retail” used to bring to mind brick-and-mortar stores with shoppers browsing and interacting with salespeople. But since the onset of the pandemic, we’ve seen many brick-and-mortar retailers go out of business because they couldn’t adjust quickly enough.

As retail businesses went under and online and mail order businesses thrived, it appeared customers had changed their shopping preferences permanently. But in the early summer of 2020, COVID-19 numbers seemed to peak and begin to fall. Retailers gave a sigh of relief as pandemic restrictions eased, and shoppers began to return to in-store shopping.

The break was short lived, as the number of cases began to rise again in a few weeks and non-contact shopping again became the norm.

Designing to meet the need to adapt

But this brief period of change showed retailers two things: first, they saw that shoppers continued to value and long for an in-person shopping experience. Second, retailers realized that the altered landscape of retail was not temporary, but a permanent shift to constant change.

Whatever accommodations retailers had made for the pandemic, it became clear the new reality was that they would need to continue to adapt to ongoing challenges—and rapidly.

“bricks and clicks”

In response, retail architects are providing clients with that flexibility by designing retail spaces that offer both in-store sales and online or curbside sales, and that can move easily from one to the other—the “bricks and clicks” approach. Experts in retail trends predict that engaging customers will increasingly involve blending a physical presence with the ability to provide virtual retail spaces.

That means the bricks and mortar retail shop should be designed to move seamlessly from an in-store customer experience to an online shopping experience, and back again, as needed.

An open concept

Because retail needs are shifting more rapidly, retail architects are increasingly designing open spaces that can easily adapt to changing needs. Such a wide open space offers the greatest potential for diversity and change—say, switching the use of space to emphasize curbside delivery instead of in-store shopping, and switching back again as the retail climate changes.

Instead of inflexible furnishings and complicated layouts, current architectural design is likely to emphasize a minimalist, open concept to support a bricks and clicks approach.

hangers, clothing, shopping
  1. Valuing outdoor spaces for safety, thrift, and flexibility

In the past, a retail establishment seldom placed value on open outdoor spaces. With the pandemic, open outdoor retail spaces offering curb-side delivery and outdoor shopping became an asset.

The pop-up

Pop-ups are retail stores or other businesses that open quickly in a temporary location for a limited time. Outdoor pop-ups have proven perfect for shoppers who want an in-person shopping experience with minimal personal exposure and risk; and perfect, as well, for retailers that need to pivot quickly without a significant financial investment.

The popularity of the pop-up has led retail architects to emphasize exterior store layout. Without the finishing touches provided by retail design, your pop-up could look like nothing more than a sidewalk sale. By reserving open outdoor space and including pop-ups in the design, retail architects emphasize your brand, complement your store front, and give customers a quality shopping experience.

It’s the primary reason architects are designing brick-and-mortar shops with more outdoor space around them.

Room for Curb-side

Remember when grocery stores started offering curb-side services? For many, “curb-side” was really just a roped-off area of the parking lot where it was hard to see and maneuver.

The pandemic has made curb-side services a highly profitable feature, and retail architects are designing with them in mind. Like pop-ups, curb-side services have increased the value of open, outdoor space around the retail establishment. Retail architects designing a brick-and-mortar store with curbside delivery bring their creativity and expertise to parking, signage, traffic flow, and branding to get the most bang for a retailer’s buck.

  1. Designing for a quality experience

We’ve missed the in-store shopping experience—oh, how we’ve missed it! Now when we walk into a retail store again to do our shopping there’s a bit of a thrill, a sense of renewed freedom. It’s something we used to take for granted, but like so much else—that’s changed.

For many consumers, the online or curb-side experience may be convenient, but it lacks the transactional qualities we value as human beings. In our return to in-store shopping we have a greater appreciation for what that experience provides. As a result, consumers are electing to spend their time shopping in establishments that offer an enjoyable experience that is personally relatable.

Store design for social media presence

One way retailers secure customer loyalty is by creating opportunities for the customer to self-identify with the brand, and nothing says “self-identification” like social media. Retailers today know that store design and the look of their merchandising contribute to their store being “Instagrammable.”

For that reason, design architects are designing spaces that sell ideas as much as products and look great in photos as well as in person. For example, Victoria’s Secret includes mirrors throughout their stores, in part to enhance customers’ selfies. Architects design both exteriors and interiors that encourage customers to identify with the brand, and to advertise that identification through their social media.

retail design trends
  1. Maximizing the satisfaction of in-person connection

It’s clear consumers do, in some ways, long to return to the in-store buying experience. Forbes reports that in 2021 brick-and-mortar sales grew faster than e-commerce for the first time in a decade. More than ever, in-store consumers are looking for an emotional experience.

Retail architects enhance the emotional connection shoppers feel by providing what marketing consultant Scott Neitlich refers to as “an emotional, physical, tactile, visual, and auditory experience.” The publication Architecture + Design goes so far as to say “Architects are increasingly becoming poets, creating memorable spaces that calm, energize, uplift, and create happiness.”

Approaches include a greater synergy between exterior and interior spaces, making greater use of natural lighting, minimalist approaches that encourage a sense of calm and peace, and use of natural textures, such as grasses and unfinished wood, to blend indoor and outdoor spaces.

Retail design trends that last

Retailers can no longer afford to design for current trends that come and go. In actuality, the post-pandemic culture is less taken with the trend of the moment and more appreciative of designs and trends that last (these days, we’re all a little burned out by constant change). Partnering with a retail architect who can design a space that is flexible and pleasing to consumers can bring your brand to life while enabling you to adapt to change.