Towards a Holistic View of ‘Design for Experience’ in Retail

The focus of marketing has been shifting from features and attributes of the physical product to their consequences or benefits for the consumers, and to the ongoing experience of consumers with products while using and interacting with them. Likewise retailing is not concerned merely with the variety and assortment of merchandise in a store but with the experience of shoppers while being present in-store, including the display of merchandise, the store design and atmospherics. The concept of “design-for-experience” essentially means that the consumer is kept on the top-of-mind of a designer: how to create products/retail spaces that generate better experiences for consumers on multiple facets. For example, to design a product or space that best serves the user/shopper (functional), is visually pleasant to look at and handle (sensorial), and is enjoyable to engage (emotional). Hence, physical properties and technological aspects of designed products or retail spaces matter, but more vital is the quality of the living experience during the actual episode that consumers engage them.

The range of processes and responses consumers go through during their experience may extend over several domains: sensory, affective, cognitive, and behavioural, to which we may add the social domain. Different multi-dimensional conceptualizations of customer experience have been proposed. Verhoef and his colleagues, addressing especially the fields of retailing and services, submitted that the construct of customer experience, holistic in nature, involves the customer’s cognitive, affective, emotional, social, and physical responses to the retailer. They discussed at length four types of determinants of customer experience with a retailer: (a) interaction between a retail brand and the shopping experience; (b) service interface (particularly the effects of self-service technology); (c) the social environment; and (d) the impact of customer experience management strategies (1). In his book on Experiential Marketing, Schmitt approaches customer experience as a composite of five modules: Sense, Think, Feel, Act, and Relate (i.e., with the brand or company). Usually more than one module is involved in shaping the experience for customers (2).

The sensory domain often gains special interest and import, if only for the obvious reason that experiences generally start at this level: perceiving stimuli or cues embedded in the designed product or retail space. Vision plays a leading role in grasping and forming our experience and impression of a retail scene, but in fact our five senses — including also audio, tactile, olfactory and taste — may contribute to the sensory experience. A key question in this regard demands how to make multiple senses play together in creating a comprehensive and consistent experience. It is a main consideration of Schmitt when configuring the process by which different senses make their impact on customers: how best to combine multiple modalities to convey information (2). Schmitt has suggested that primary elements (e.g., colour and shape for sight, loudness and pitch for sound) should be organised in a consistent pattern of ‘style’ and then built into a meaningful ‘theme’, creating an overall desired impression conceived by customers.

Stimuli that correspond to different sensory modalities should interact and complement each other. One of the primary goals of product design, that elevates its aesthetic value, is to achieve optimal match between experienced stimulations of the different senses, making them more congruent or consistent with each other (3). The quality of consumer experience of a product’s design (e.g., its richness, meaningfulness and enjoyment) may be moderated by three individual-level characteristics: (a) design acumen — a talent people are born with for appraising sensory stimulations from a design, establishing quicker sensory connections and establishing more sophisticated preferences; (b) experience accumulated in exposure to beautiful product designs as well as education and motivation for developing the relevant skills; and (c) personality traits that make consumers more sensitive to aesthetic aspects of design and that may influence their taste and preferences for ‘good design’ (e.g., romanticism/classicism, sensory vs. cognitive innovativeness, need for uniqueness)(4). While these conceptions have been proposed in the context of product design, they seem most reasonably applicable also to the domain of store design.

The architect Richard Neutra contended sixty years ago (5) that designers should take into account the five senses people may apply when experiencing a designed space. Sight is the predominant way we experience a designed and furnished space, but the sound echoed in the space (e.g., a living room or a hall), the touch (texture, temperature), and even in some circumstances the smell and taste of materials used in construction and the furnishing of a space, can be informative and salient to our experience.

  • Neutra advocated greater agreement of architectural designs with nature and human physiology; he should be respected for the relevance and importance he attributed early on to the study and understanding of brain structure and functions, and the whole nervous system (i.e., neuroscience) for the field of design. Neutra stated that: “We find sensory stimuli are the prime movers, and the switches that they operate and activate are senses, the same instrumentalities by which also design first becomes noticeable and effective” (5, p. 198); he thereof suggested that space design, architecture, and environmental planning are ‘omnisensorial.’

In a commendable effort to address the myriad of possible aspects that may affect or characterise customer experiences in retail sites, researchers Petermans, Janssens and Van Cleempoel developed a comprehensive multi-facet model to be used as a guiding holistic framework to “design for experience”. The model is holistic in the sense that it calls for the consideration of multiple aspects in the design process rather than just one or two aspects (e.g., color, sound, positive emotion) that get studied. The model titled The Experience Web, for its diagrammatic form, was recently published in the International Journal of Design (6).

The model relies on a thorough review of various aspects considered, theorised and researched in literature in connection with shopping experiences; decisions about properties of the design of the retail space may affect or moderate many of these aspects to different degrees (i.e., the extent to which a designer can control the experience varies and is not unlimited). A major goal in developing such a model has been to apply “vocabulary and research methodologies that are closer to the realm of interior architects and retail designers” (p. 3).

The authors do not delve into details of physical and technical features of the design space but they refer to important consequences for the customers-shoppers that are expected to arise from design decisions. In particular, they relate to critical principles that are worth of emphasis: that control over the customer experience is divided or shared between the designer, the retailer, and the customer (i.e., subjectivity), and that the effects of design depend on time and context for the customer.

  • A table included in the article that lists the various aspects identified and their origins in literature is a helpful and valued learning resource of its own merit.

To organise the aspects in a more instructive way, Petermans and her colleagues divide them into two main classes: ‘general’ and ‘particular’ aspects.

General aspects are those that are entangled with the customer experience and cannot always be controlled or influenced by the designer and retailer. These include, for example, effects specific in time and context, dynamism (e.g., an enjoyable and productive experience on one occasion makes the shopper more positive on the next visit), subjectivity, and interaction.

Particular aspects offer a concrete perspective for the designer and retailer when they want to design for experience. That is, those are the practical aspects that provide relatively more control to designers and retailers in shaping and impacting the nature and quality of the customer-shopper experience. The particular aspects may further be distinguished as ‘goals’ (e.g., memorability, engagement, immersion) and ‘means’ (e.g., senses, emotion, value, consistency). Albeit, the reasoning for this latter distinction is somewhat vague where it is not fully clear why an aspect is considered a ‘means’ rather than a ‘goal’, as they all seem similarly and insufficiently concrete.

The second part of the article, not less important, reports on interviews conducted with architects or retail designers, retailers, and customers in the realms of ethnographic research methodology. The study aimed to provide evidence that interviewees use respective terms and concepts in support of those included in the theoretical model as based on literature. The study entailed six retail cases as starting points for in-depth discussions, each case associated with an internal architect or retail designer. Only three of the retailers running those stores agreed to participate in the study. Two customers were interviewed on each of five out of the six initial stores (one of them closed down). The five operating retail cases were a fashion boutique store, a fashion chain store, a specialist (confectionary) food store, a shoe store, and a lifestyle store (photo images available in the article).

The researchers show interesting examples of how explanations, claims and arguments made by interviewees in their different roles mention terms and refer to concepts parallel to the model. Some differences in emphasis are demonstrated between architects/designers, retailers and customers with regard to the aspects they choose to address. For instance:

  • Customers addressed memorability and subjectivity somewhat more than designers and retailers;
  • Designers and retailers related to hedonic and utilitarian aspects more than customers, and they also assigned greater import to the hedonic aspects, mentioning in this context that evoking emotions is essential;
  • Designers and customers referred to senses (all interviewees) more than retailers (just one) — this could be a caveat of retailers worth further investigation — the designers pay a lot of attention to appealing to customers’ senses (and values) with a goal primarily to construct consistent environment, something that the retailers do not appear to appreciate.

One aspect as noted by the authors stood out from all other aspects that received support to some extent:

  • The aspect of multiple communication channels (e.g., in-store vs. online) was narrowly mentioned by retailers and was not mentioned at all by customers and designers, suggesting that this aspect is not perceived as part of in-store or design experience.

Findings from the ethnographic study illuminate the relevance of aspects or concepts from the Experience Web to the mindset of designers, retailers and customers, especially through the exemplar quotations cited in the article. Caution is required, however, because the ability to make generalisations from this type of study is limited due to the small number of participants and their selection, particularly with regard to differences in frequency of reference to aspects between designers, retailers and customers. Another weakness concerns the occasional ambiguity and overlap between aspects where the same argument is used repeatedly to support several different aspects.

The model of Web Experience of Petermans, Janssens and Van Cleempoel offers a useful and coherent road-map for design professionals and retailers of the range of aspects they should account and plan for when designing a retail space, given the types of customer experiences they intend to create. There is still need to clarify some of the aspects, the boundaries and inter-relations between them, and to develop operational measures that can be applied particularly in more structured forms of research. Yet foremost, this model and study help further to stress the essential role of customer-shopper research in guiding the process and outcomes of “design for experience” of retail scenes.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)


(1) Customer Experience Creation: Determinants, Dynamics, and Management Strategies; Peter C. Verhoef, Katherine N. Lemon,  A. Parasuraman, Anne Roggeveen, Michael Tsiors, & Leoneard A. Schlesinger, 2009; Journal of Retailing, 85 (1), pp. 31-41.

(2) Experiential Marketing; Bernd H. Schmitt, 1999; The Free Press (see Chapter 4: Sense).

(3) Design Aesthetics: Principles of Pleasure in Design; Paul Hekkert, 2006; Psychology Science, 48 (2), pp. 157-172.

(4) Seeking the Ideal Form: Product Design and Consumer Response; Peter H. Bloch, 1995; Journal of Marketing, 59 (3), pp. 16-29.

(5) Survival Through Design; Richard Neutra, 1954; New-York: Oxford University Press.

(6) A Holistic Framework for Conceptualizing Customer Experiences in Retail Environments; Ann Petermans, Wim Janssens, & Koenraad Van Cleempoel, 2013; International Journal of Design, 7 (2), pp. 1-18.

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