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Posts Tagged ‘Merchandising’

Everything happens faster in the fashion world. Fashion houses and retailers have to deal with an increasingly turbulent market wherein trends and tastes fluctuate all the time and design styles replace each other in ever shorter cycles. This instability means greater uncertainty for firms, which makes it harder for them to plan and operate through the year. Attempting to curb the motion and introduce more stability can be a serious challenge for the fashion designers, marketers and retailers; the stream is strong, and more often it seems that everyone has to continue flowing to the next fashion style. Retailers with physical stores face an additional challenge from strengthening e-commerce — consumers prefer to buy more clothing items online, especially from whatever source and channel they can find them at lower prices.

Castro is a leading fashion house and retailer in Israel with over 130 stores carrying its name (i.e., Castro, Castro Men, and Castro Kids) across the country. The Castro company  was established by Aharon Castro in 1950. Its retail start was modest, and the business continued to be primarily a fashion house, designing and making garments (for women only), until the late 1980s. In 1985 the founder opened a flagship store on the modern Dizengof shopping street of Tel-Aviv; that may be considered a first brave move to lift-up the image of the Castro fashion brand and earn it more publicity.

In the early 1990s Aharon Castro passed the realm of the company to his son-in-law Gabriel (Gaby) Rotter, joined later by his daughter Esther (Etty) Rotter, and they have been serving as co-CEOs since then. The second period of Castro is marked by the great expansion of the retail arm of the business. More and more stores were opened in the 1990s and 2000s (Castro also made a venture abroad, mainly in Germany, but it was unsuccessful and largely cut-off). In this period the prevailing brand image of Castro was also invented, which gave it fame and appreciation. The last decade has seen more acquisitions of fashion enterprises (clothing and accessories) made by the company, but these do not carry the Castro name and therefore have less bearing on the Castro brand. In summer 2018 Castro merged with the fashion group Hoodies, and the repercussion of this move is yet to be seen, whether the brands mix or remain separated.

Listed below are selected actions that contributed more significantly to establish the prime attributes associated with Castro, exciting and daring, since the 1990s:

Castro aired a famed TV commercial in 1993 that was daring, playful and igniting the imagination — it is best simply to watch it.  Two more facts make this commercial special: (a) It was aired in the beginning of commercial TV in Israel, when the audience was highly curious and interested in advertising in this medium, which helped the commercial to become a “hit”; (b) The song featuring in the commercial was Creep by Radiohead, during the early stage of its musical career, so the commercial gave a unique exposure to Radiohead in Israel. Definitely in those days this Castro commercial was unusual and exciting (until today it is the most loved commercial in the country); it drove great attention and interest in the coats and other clothing products of Castro, and put it on a trail of growth.

In the early 1990s Castro moved into the pivotal shopping centre of Tel-Aviv (Dizengof Centre). Moreover, Castro situated its store near the entrance to the major department store of that time (HaMashbir), a sound call of challenge. A decade later, in 2003, Castro relocated within the shopping centre and opened its flagship store Castro Tel-Aviv, occupying three floors, with an external façade that turns to a strategic corner of streets with high exposure — a strong declaration of their presence. At least for several years it was an important anchor in the shopping centre.

Castro gradually started to enter clothes for men into its stores. Over time the fashion house expanded the scope of its target segments to become a marketer and retailer of clothing for men and women, youth and kids. On the retail side, Castro made two key moves: in 2000 it launched its sub-chain of Castro Men stores, and in 2013 the Castro Kids sub-chain of stores came to life. Perhaps already less exciting to consumers, but they are still daring moves (a demonstration of force).

However, the expansion of Castro’s activities, particularly adding stores to its retail chain, seems to have taken a toll from the company. It is hard to put a finger on a single factor as the cause of recent troubles at Castro. It appears, yet, that the toll has hit primarily Castro as a fashion house. From some point in the passing decade, consumers have been losing interest in the garments of Castro. In earlier decades, Castro led by its founder gained a reputation for creativity, for bringing new designs and quality fabrics (important especially in the 1960s and 1970s, credit going also to Aharon’s mother Nina). Consumers may have stopped believing that Castro’s clothing expresses creativity, novelty and ingenuity. Nonetheless, the needs and tastes of Israeli consumers apparently have changed, and they are looking for something different in fashion and clothing, which also happens to be less original and less expensive clothing.

Firstly, consumers buy more frequently from a variety of online retailers (‘e-tailers’), on top of them is Amazon.com, while getting easy access to broad selections of clothing from abroad at affordable prices. Consumers also are willing to pay less for garments, shoes and accessories of lower quality even if they would have to replace them more frequently. They further tend to inspect garments in physical stores and then buy the same or similar items from online stores. Yet another threatening competition to Castro comes from quick-movers, discount retailers like Zara and H&M that produce and sell garments of similar designs as those of known fashion houses (though they may have some original clothes). A more discomforting revelation of recent years is that a low cost retailer (Fox) is gaining in popularity while Castro is sliding down. The stores of Castro see less traffic of visitors (footfall), thus stores are too quiet for extended periods, and the sellers have too much ‘free time’ to arrange merchandise; a special report on public TV (Kan News, 4 May 2019, Hebrew) indicates that a growing pressure is put on sellers and other staff (e.g., visual merchandisers) to contribute to better results . Could it be that Israeli consumers find the design of stores less attractive; is the visual merchandising in-store less appealing to them; or is it the merchandise itself losing its appeal? We should not overlook the influence of background factors such as changes in the code of dressing (more casual, ‘dressing-down’, sportive) and economic constraints on consumers’ shopping behaviour in clothing and fashion.

  • In 2018 Castro saw overall a loss of 59 million shekels (~$16m), after a net gain of 48m shekels in 2017 and in 2016, and operating profit on clothing has dropped 66%. Additionally, sales of clothing in same stores of Castro+Hoodies fell 7.7% in 2018, above average rate in this sector (Globes, 5 May 2019, Hebrew — this article follows the report on Kan News).

A few ideas may be learned from the American department store chain Kohl’s that is taking dramatic measures in its effort for resurgence, led by CEO Michelle Gass [A]. Some of these measures may be relevant also to Castro, and could suggest directions for the transformation it may also be required of:

Kohl’s is reducing the amount of merchandise displayed in its stores, and is also decreasing the selling space of stores. On the other hand, the retailer installed an advanced inventory technology that allows it to track its merchandise on display at any time (by using RFID tags on product items), and follow purchase data (including online) and analyse it. Hence staff at Kohl’s can predict what products are in greater demand and what merchandise is in need of replenishing in real time, enabling to display less merchandise with no disadvantage.

Furthermore, Kohl’s  developed a capability to trace changes in market trends faster and cut the time needed to deliver new designs to stores (i.e., shorter time-to-market).

Kohl’s introduces new technologies in its stores to improve the service to shoppers and their in-store experience overall, including handheld checkout devices to cut waiting lines at cashiers, and digital price screens that can be updated with less hassle for staff; in addition, the RFID tags aforementioned enable staff to help customers quickly find products they seek (mirrors with holograms or augmented reality may come later).

  • Kohl’s has taken another intriguing step: orders from Amazon can be returned at desks in a hundred of its stores (out of 1,100+ stores). Critics and skeptics regarded this co-operation akin to “sleeping with the enemy” or “bringing a fox into the henhouse”. However, Gass sees in providing this service at Kohl’s stores an opportunity whereby Amazon’s customers already in a store may choose to buy some products they see around, similar to the case when Kohl’s customers who use its “click & collect” scheme at Kohls.com online store later come to pick-up the order at a physical store.

Castro announced recently that it plans to enlarge and redesign some of its stores. Castro Store TelAviv in GanHaIrPerhaps its management should re-consider enlarging stores. Does Castro really need to have stores as large as those of Zara and H&M (1000sqm+)? This may not be effective in terms of (lower) revenue per squared metre [B]. The stores can also be arranged to be more spacious between display exhibits and hold less merchandise, provided that information technology can be used to monitor it cleverly. Redesigning stores may indeed be welcome — current stores could feel too dark-toned with selective spot lights, which may be perceived more elegant but less convenient. Existing large stores may be reduced somewhat, or perhaps may better allocate space to other purposes like special projects (e.g., gallery of new art designs in fashion), a coffee bar or hosting events that may be more interesting than a space loaded with more products [cf. A].  Greater attention should be drawn to the experience that can be generated for visitors in-store.

Another issue concerns the image and experience delivered by the website and online store of Castro. Is the online store not advanced and rich enough? Will more exclusive online offers make the difference? [cf. B] What kind of experience should the website and online store present to visitors? Entering the e-commerce website overly feels like entering a catalogue. The e-store has some nice features like a model’s image changing position when hovering above with the mouse to show the garment from another angle, or being able to see the same garment in different colours. Yet the website appears nothing more than an e-commerce website; it misses something more important — it obscures Castro as a fashion house. The story of Castro and its creations is practically hidden, hard to find. When entering the website, it should communicate the image of the brand Castro — show original designs of the fashion house before start selling. The website should clearly show the “door” to the online store but right next to it should appear the “door” to Castro the fashion house and its story.

Eventually, the garments designed and created by Castro are the main issue to address. This should be an important point of differentiation for Castro from other retailers on which it should make its voice loud and clear. For example, prior to her role as CEO of Kohl’s, Gass identified the rise of the trend of activewear (sportive-energy) style in clothing; she gave it more emphasis in stores with the help of national brands like Nike and Adidas. Castro has a category (online) of Activewear. On the one hand, it can make its voice by introducing its own designs in this category. On the other hand, it should not go only after what seems popular at a time but suggest other modes or styles to the market.

Castro seems to lack sub-brands or endorsed brands up front that consumers can easily identify and associate certain styles or attributes with them (e.g., more daring or novel vs. more conservative, more artful vs. more functional). Castro is said to hire top-of-class young designers. Yet it does not elevate anyone as house designers by name, perhaps to encourage more collegiality and teamwork. An alternative approach would be to build a brand around a team of designers (like a “centre of excellence”) who share a certain vision and approach in fashion styles. Actually Castro already has three sub-brands: “Red” for casual dressing; “Blue” for more elegant, quasi-formal dressing; and “Black” for jeans wear. Castro can develop and enrich any of these sub-brands; create another brand with a specific style or tone of design as a secondary “specialisation” under any of those above; or build a new brand endorsed directly by the Castro name that will express new forms of art, novelty or elegance, etc. Whatever course taken, the leading idea is to give consumers a ‘name & face’ they can cling to, to follow how it evolves, and to identify with.

There are multiple avenues for Castro to reinvent and revive its brand and business as a whole. The expansion of its retailing activities may have led to the weakening of its fashion house and dilution of its brand. Some of the enterprises Castro acquired or merged with could hurt the brand to the extent that they are stopping Castro from developing answers in-house to gaps in the market. Therefore, it is perhaps the time now to return to increase the focus on Castro the fashion house as in earlier times, and let the retail arm serve it, not the other way round. Castro should be ready to enter its third period; the challenge will likely be assigned to the new Deputy CEO lately nominated, Ron Rotter (son of Etty and Gaby Rotter and former CFO), to reinvent Castro and put the brand on a new course.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Additional Sources:

[A] “Michelle Gass Is Cracking the Code at Kohl’s”, Phil Wahba, Fortune (Europe Edition), December 2018, pp. 104-112.

[B] “Castro Once Was the Most Sexy Brand in Israel, But These Days Are Gone” (origin in Hebrew), TheMarker, 12 April 2019 (MarkerWeek edition), pp. 14-16

 

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Online shopping in digital stores and shopping in brick-and-mortar stores offer different forms of experiences. It starts from the environment or setting in which the shopper is situated — being present in a 3D physical retail space or viewing a 2D screen of a computer or mobile device. It is the difference between how much and what specifically a shopper can see and absorb when looking around in a physical store compared with looking at a screen. The difference in setting may have a further impact on behaviour, like how shoppers find products and how they inspect them.

Imagine a shopper, Dan, entering a large fashion store. Dan’s head immediately turns around as much as 180 degrees scanning the scene. Just a few steps in front of Dan there is a low desk with shirts, and another desk with sweaters to the left; to the right Dan observes shirts hanging on a rectangle-shaped stand, and he notices how their designs differ from those on the desk; along the walls are more shirts and trousers, etc. Dan decides to approach first the shirts to the left because they have multiple colours, lifting one or two to look more closely at them; later he also turns to the wall to see trousers and tries to match them with shirts. As Dan’s shopping trip advances he may enter deeper into the store to check on some accessories or another variety of shirts. Very early in the visit the shopper can figure out what may be found in main sections of the scene. Then starts a sort of discovery tour that may be guided by a master goal but progresses as the shopper identifies relevant and visually attractive items (stimuli). The scene is ‘updated’ as the shopper goes deeper into the store, or into adjacent halls, and details that were more distant and vague before become sharper and clearer.

A different kind of shopping process usually occurs in online website stores: first of all because much fewer products (stimuli) can be observed in a relatively short glimpse of the screen-scene. The way merchandise in the online store is located and explored is much more gradual.  An online store actually encourages a more goal-driven search process (e.g., choosing names of categories from a menu, selecting attribute options to narrow down the search to a relevant selection of products). Then starts a back-and-forth process of exploration of different items (e.g., by clicking on item titles or images and entering product pages), and visiting additional major categories of products. However, the experience of search and exploration is so different: whereas in the physical store the shopper can ‘wash the eyes’ with shapes, designs and colours of products, and follow the eyes through the shopping trip, it is much harder to do so in an online store where one has to go step-by-step or in a piecemeal manner. Nevertheless, online shoppers have more flexibility and a wider span of possibilities for viewing product options simultaneously on the screen of a desktop or laptop computer than on the screen of a smartphone.

Certainly there are more clever and creative e-commerce or store websites that are able to generate an improved experience of exploration and inspection of products. For example, there are online stores that show grids composed of tiles of images representing major categories and sub-categories of products. The images are more lively, and some of them exhibit motion as well. With some images, hovering with a mouse on the product photo (before clicking) changes the angle in which a garment or handbag, for instance, is shown. On product pages, some options may be selected that immediately affect the product image (e.g., colours, dimensions, designs); products may be rotated dynamically or by selecting from a line of static thumbnail images under the main frame.

A large majority of shoppers enquire about products online before visiting a physical store. According to a Google/Ipsos survey (‘Omnichannel Holiday Study’, Nov. 2017-Jan. 2018), 78% of US holiday shoppers searched products before going into a store; the online search helps shoppers in planning their shopping trip to the store, narrow down the options they should be seeking at the store, but it also ‘inspires the purchase’ (thinkwithgoogle.com, October 2018). In another research by Publicis (‘Shopper First Retailing’, 2018), an even higher proportion of shoppers, 87%, report that they begin searches in digital channels (online, mobile), up from 71% in 2017 (RetailDive.com, 15 August 2018). Searching the Internet is regarded as a productive method to look for directions and learning about product options, as preparation for making purchase decisions. Shoppers do not feel obliged also to make the purchase online, even if they browse the e-commerce website of an online-only retailer (‘e-tailers’) or of a mixed retailer that operates both a website store and physical stores. Consumers like especially to consult reviews of peer users who have already had experience with products they consider.

This learning process seems functional and goal-driven where shoppers need some guidance to put order into their shopping journey. Online sources, including e-commerce websites, seem to provide an efficient solution for this purpose. The process may indeed inspire shoppers with ideas, perhaps to the extent of helping the shopper to focus on viable and worthwhile purchase options and avoid wandering too long clueless in a store. In such a case in particular, visiting the online store of a mixed retailer can prove most useful before arriving to one of its physical store locations — and this makes the website an even more effective tool for the retailer.

However, retailers that operate physical stores would not want shoppers to come too prepared with their minds pre-determined what to buy. While shoppers usually have a general plan of what they are looking for, final purchase decisions are still made mostly in-store. Hence it is so important for physical stores to be designed and arranged in an appealing and stimulating manner — to allow consumers to complete successfully their shopping trip in-store, and furthermore encourage and induce them to purchase a few more ‘treasures’ they discover in the store.

It may be relevant to consider here two scenarios:

For retailers that operate physical stores in multiple, even numerous locations, there should be a stronger incentive to leave their customers with enough reasons to conclude their shopping in-store rather than on the website store. Thus, the online store has to be visually attractive, user-friendly and informative, but it does not have to be fully equipped with features that convince customers to complete their shopping and purchasing online. The website should not go all the way in effort to draw shoppers from physical stores. Whereas the online store may provide more functional, productive experiences (e.g., efficient, time-saving), the physical store would be more capable in creating pleasant emotional experiences (e.g., excitement, thrill, joy). The positive emotions invoked should not be taken lightly because they drive purchases.

For e-tailers with no physical stores there should be greater need to invest in the quality and feel of experiences they can provide in their e-commerce websites. The introduction of shoppers to the online store should be more delightful as well as informative and user-friendly. Visual elements and interactive features have to be inviting and helpful in guiding the visitor into different sections of the store — on the ‘main stage’ of the screen estate and not just through the menu and search engine.

The latter applies, nonetheless, also to mixed retailers that have stores in just a few locations (e.g., major cities) and wish to reach much greater numbers of customers that do not have a store near them. It may also be relevant when targeting customer segments who for any reason have little time free to travel to a store, and in regions where shoppers are reluctant to go out during harsh weather conditions (e.g., steaming hot and dusty or freezing cold and snowy). [Note: Location data might be used to channel a reduced or enhanced version of a store website according to whether the user is in vicinity of a physical store by the retailer, a form of ‘geo-fencing’].

Delicatessen in Gstaad

The brick-and-mortar stores remain very much in demand. According to a Google/Ipsos online survey (‘Shopping Tracker’, US, April-June 2018), 61% of American shoppers prefer shopping with brands that also have physical stores than ones that are online only. Key benefits suggested for shopping in physical stores are the immediacy in which shoppers are likely to obtain the products they require; getting hands-on — seeing and interacting with products before buying; and being more fun than shopping online (35% feel so) (thinkwithgoogle.com, John McAteer, November 2018). The Publicis study indicates more generally that 46% of shoppers prefer to buy in physical stores (vis-à-vis 35% who prefer shopping using their laptops and 18% on mobile phones) (RetailDive). Apparently, shoppers are not blind to benefits and advantages of shopping in physical stores over online stores, and many are not ready to leave them to fade out.

It is not suggested that online stores necessarily have to be made to appear like physical stores on the screen — mimicking the scene of a brick-and-mortar store may be perceived as just artificial, awkward and inconvenient (though retailers who also have physical locations can integrate actual store images into relevant sections of the online store). On the one hand, the retailer (or e-tailer) should take advantage of the strengths of the digital medium in organising, displaying and tracing information in the online store. On the other hand, online stores may have to breakaway in some degree from rigid structures of tables, lists and matrices. Grids of image tiles make a good start. Yet, more versatile visualisation possibilities have to be considered to provide visitors of store websites (or mobile apps) a more stimulating presentation of the variety of products the store has to offer. The interactive presentation should expose visitors to an array of products available (e.g., by type, use purpose, or brand), and lead their way from there into sub-categories and specific product models or brands.

  • Virtual Reality (VR) technology may be used to emulate a view of a store in 3D space, but the equipment needed to create a truly compelling experience is not in reach of most consumers, at least not yet. The more crucial question is: why should consumers prefer an imitation or illusion when almost everyone can visit real physical stores and shops. At least one aspect VR is unlikely to provide adequately is the social experience.

Instead of treating online shopping and shopping in physical stores as substitutes competing with each other, the more sensible approach for mixed retailers is to create ways in which they can combine and complement each other. The connection can be a two-way street, especially given that shoppers use mobile devices more frequently during store visits (71% of shoppers according to Publicis study cited by RetailDive). From online to store, for example, a mobile app of the retailer used in-store can help the shopper navigate and find the way to the places of products that he or she detected and learned about in a preliminary search and study online (e.g., Home Depot). From in-store to online, the shopper may use the app of the retailer in-store to find more information about products found in the store by scanning a barcode for the product of interest (e.g., Sephora [cosmetics] allows access to product reviews, order history of the shopper, and more) [examples adopted from McAteer in thinkwithgoogle]. More technologies that help in bridging between the virtual and physical domains of shopping include beacons and augmented reality (AR).

  • There are other areas not covered above in which online shopping is distinguished from in-store shopping and require more attention, such as customer service, specifically providing advice and assistance to shoppers, and the fulfillment of orders (a ‘click-and-collect’ programme is another way of linking the physical and online stores).

The physical and digital (virtual) domains have each their strengths in creating different forms of shopping experiences. Physical stores and shops have built-in advantages in evoking emotional experiences while shopping — they are tangible and more direct, can provide good personal care, and may attract and excite shoppers by means of interior design and visual merchandising in their physical spaces. Furthermore, beyond vision, physical stores allow shoppers to enact other senses (e.g., touch, smell) that cannot be experienced in the digital domain. It is unsure how much a store website (or app) can give rise to a similar emotional experience and attachment in shoppers, yet there are aspects that can be borrowed into the digital domain that would make it seem not just functional but also more appealing and immersive. Nonetheless, mixed retailers may have the best opportunity to combine the strengths from the physical and digital domains and link them to produce shopping experiences that are more productive and enjoyable altogether.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

 

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Consumer purchases from Internet retailing websites continue to expand, and their share out of total retail sales increases. Yet there is no real reason to declare the demise of physical, bricks-and-mortar stores and shops any time soon. Online purchases from e-stores (including through apps) indeed pose a stressing challenge to many physical stores, but the latter still hold a solid and dominant majority share of retail sales. Nonetheless, owners of physical stores will have to make changes to their mission and approach to retailing in order to answer effectively and successfully to the challenges from electronic retailing (‘e-tailing’).

The share of sales revenues from online retailing varies across categories (e.g., from groceries to electronics) yet the share overall out of total retailing revenues still floats around 12%-15% on average; there is also important variation between countries. Tensions are high particularly because of the threat from overarching e-tailers such as Amazon and Alibaba who grew their businesses in the virtual online environment. However, retailers do not have to choose to be either in the physical domain or the virtual domain: Many large and even medium bricks-and-mortar retailers are already double-operating through their physical stores and the Internet and mobile channels. Moreover, the master of Western e-tailing Amazon is lurking into the physical world with the establishment of its Amazon Go food stores, its venture into physical bookstores in selected US locations, and notably the acquisition of the food retail chain Whole Foods — what better testimony of the recognition that physical stores are still in need. All these observations should tell us that: (1) The lines between physical and virtual (electronic) retailing are blurred and the domains are not exclusive of each other; (2) It is a matter of linking between the domains where one can operate as an extension of the other (and it does not depend on which is the domain of origin); and (3) The domains are linked primarily by importing technology powered with data into the physical store’s space.

Technology alone, however, is not enough to resolve the challenges facing physical stores. Focusing on technology is like harnessing the carriage before the horses. The true and crucial question is: What will consumers of the coming future be looking for in stores? This is important, because consumers, especially the younger generations born after 1980, still have interest in shopping in bricks-and-mortar stores but they could be looking for something different from past decades, moreover given the digital options available to them now. The answers will have to come through rethinking and modifying the mission and strategy set for physical stores. The direction that seems most compelling for the mission is to shift emphasis from the merchandise offered in a store to the kind of experience offered in the store. The strategy may involve reconsideration and new planning of: (a) the product variety and volume of merchandise made available in the store; (b) interior design and visual merchandising; (c) scope and quality of service; and (d) the technologies applied in the store, all tailored to the convenience and pleasure of the shoppers.

This article will focus primarily on aspects of design of stores, including  interior design and decoration, layout, and visual merchandising (i.e., visual display of products); together with additional sensory elements (e.g., lighting, music, texture, scent) they shape the atmosphere in the store or shop. Yet it should be noted that the four strategy components suggested above are tied and influence each other in creating the kind of experience a retailer desires the customers-shoppers to have while in-store.

Shopping experiences in a store rely essentially on the emotions the store invokes in the consumers-shoppers. Notwithstanding the sensorial and cognitive reactions of shoppers to the interior scene of the store, the positive and pleasant emotions the shoppers feel will most likely be those that motivate them to stay longer and choose more products to purchase (further desired behaviours may include recommendation to friends and posting photos from the store on social media). Prior and close enough to consumption itself, the personal shopping and purchasing experience may invoke a range of positive emotions such as joy, optimism, love (non-romantic), peacefulness, and surprise; of course there also are potential negative emotions that retailers would wish to reduce (e.g., anger, worry, sadness)[*].

The need for shift in emphasis in physical stores is well stated by Lara Marrero, a strategy director with Gensler, a British design firm: “It used to be a place where people bought stuff. Now it is a state where a person experiences a brand and its offerings”. Marrero, who is leading the area of global retail practice at the firm, predicts a future change in mentality of shoppers from ‘grab and go’ to ‘play and stay’ (“Retail 2018: Trends and Predictions”, Retail Focus, 15 December 2017). This predicted shift is still inconsistent with a current retail interpretation of linking the digital and physical domains through schemes of ‘click-and-collect’ online orders at a physical store. Additionally, consumers nowadays conduct more research online on products they are interested in before coming to a store: The question is if a retailer should satisfy with letting the consumer just ask for his or her preferred product at the store or encourage the consumer-shopper to engage and interact more in-store, whether with assistance from human staff or digital utilities, before making a purchase — the push may have to come first from the consumers. Marrero further notes the social function of stores: retail environments become a physical meeting point for consumers to share brand experiences. Retailers will have to allow sufficient space for this in the store.

In order to generate new forms of shopper experiences the setting of a store’s scene also has to change and adapt to the kind of experience one seeks to create. New styles and patterns of in-store design are revealed through photo images of retail design projects, and the stories the images accompany, on websites of design magazines (e.g., VMSD of the US, Retail Focus of the UK). They demonstrate changes in the designing approach to the interior environment of stores and shops.

A striking aspect in numerous design exemplars is the tendency to create more spacious store scenes. It does not necessarily mean that the area of stores is larger but that the store’s layout and furnishing are organised to make it feel more spacious,  for example by making it look lighter and allowing shoppers to move more easily around. Additionally, it implies ‘loading’ the store’s areas which are accessible to customers with less merchandise. First, merchandise would be displayed mostly on fixtures attached to walls around the perimeters of the store, but even then it should not look too crowded (i.e., in appreciation that oftentimes ‘less is more’ for consumers). Second, fewer desks and other display fixtures are positioned across the floor to leave enough room for shoppers to walk around conveniently (and possibly feel more ‘free’). In fashion stores, for instance, this would also apply to  ‘isles’ of demonstrated dressing displays. Third, desks should not be packed with merchandise, and furthermore, at least one desk should be left free from merchandise — leave enough surface for shoppers and sellers to present and look at merchandise and to converse about the options. In some cases, it may allow for the shoppers to socialise and consult among themselves around a desk at the store (e.g., inspired by Apple stores). Opportunities to socialise can be enhanced in larger stores  by allocating space for a coffee & wine bar, for instance, which may serve also sandwiches, patisseries and additional drinks. Stores would be designed to look and feel more pleasant and enjoyable for consumers-shoppers to hang around, contemplate their options and make purchase decisions.

  • Large stores that spread over multiple floors with facades turning outwards to the street may fix the facades with glass sheets, and in order not to block natural daylight from entering into the store they would place desks and mobile hangers or other low shelf fixtures along the windows.

Modissa Fashion Store set for Christmas

In the new-era store not all merchandise the store may offer to sell needs to be displayed in the ‘selling areas’ accessible to shoppers. Retailers may have to retreat from the decades long paradigm that everything on display is the inventory, and vice versa. It is worth considering: First, some merchandise can be displayed as video on screens, and thus also add to the ‘show’ in the store; Second, shoppers can use digital catalogues in the store to find items currently not on display — such items may still be available in stock on premises or they may be ordered within 24 hours. But furthermore, customers may be able to coordinate online or through an app with a store near them to see certain products at a set time; up-to-date analyses of page visits and sales on a retailer’s online store can tell what products are most popular, subsequently guaranteeing that the physical stores keep extra items of them in stock on premises.

Here are references to a few exemplars for illustration of actual store design projects published in design magazines’ websites:

Burberry, London — The flagship store of luxury fashion brand Burberry on Regent Street is highlighted for both the use of space in its design and the employment of digital technology in the store. A large open space atrium (of an older time theatre) occupies the centre of the store (four floors, 3000 sqm), impressive in how Burberry allowed to keep it. The digitally integrated store is commended for its fusion of a ‘digital world’ into its bricks-and-mortar environment: a large high-resolution screen plays video in the atrium, synchronised with a hundred digital screens around the store, some 160 iPads (e.g., for finding items on the catalogue that may not be on display), and RFID tags attached to garments (VMSD, 18 December 2012).

Hogan, Milano — The footwear ’boutique’ store (277 sqm in via Montenapoleone) is designed to reflect the brand, “luxury but accessible”. The store’s mission has been described as follows: “Hogan is a lifestyle brand, championing contemporary culture. The store therefore needed to be dynamic, working hard to adapt from retail space to live event or gallery space”. Characteristic of the store: tilted surfaces for display, lying on top of each other like fallen-down domino bricks; and an animated display of patterns by LED lighting behind frosted glass walls — they both reflect movement, the former just symbolically while the latter more dynamically, to “express the dynamism of the city”. The store of Hogan also fosters social activity around its host bar and customization bar (Retail Focus, 15 February 2018).

Black by Dixon’s, Birmingham (UK) — The technology retail concept aspires to make “the geeky more stylish and exciting”. Digital technology is “dressed” in fashionable design, aiming at the more sophisticated Apple-generation (distinctive in the images are the mannequins “sitting” on desks as props, and colour contrasts on a dark background). (VMSD, 24 May 2011.)

Stella McCartney, Old Bond Street, London — The re-established flagship store resides in an 18th century historic-listed building (four floors, 700 sqm). Products such as dresses and handbags are displayed (sampled) across the store in different halls. The design and lighting give a very loose feeling. Refreshingly, the ground floor features an exhibit of black limestones and “carefully selected rocks” from the family’s estate, a piece of nature in-store (Retail Focus, 14 June 2018).

Admittedly, some of the more distinctive and impressive design exemplars belong to up-scale and luxury stores, but they do give direction and ideas for creating different experiences in retail spaces, even if less lavishly. Furthermore, technology can enrich the store and add a dimension of activity in it. Yet it is part of the whole design plan, not necessarily its central pillar, if at all.

Installing digital technology in a store does not mean importing the Internet and e-store into the physical store. Features of digital technology can be employed in-store in a number of ways, and the use of an online catalogue is just one of them. There is no wisdom for the physical store in trying to mimic Internet websites or compete with them. It should find ways, instead, to implement digital technologies that best suit the store’s space and transform the experience of its visiting shoppers.

Moreover, the store owner should identify those aspects that are lacking in the virtual online store and leverage them in the bricks-and-mortar store (e.g., immediacy, non inter-mediated interaction with products, sensorial stimulations other than visual and audio, feeling fun or relaxed). Thereof, the store should borrow certain technological amenities that can help to link between the domains and make the experience in-store more familiar, convenient, interesting, entertaining or exciting. According to an opinion article in Retail Focus on “The Future of High Street” (Lyndsey Dennis, 25 April 2018): “To draw customers back to brick-and-mortar, [retailers] need to rethink how they use their physical space and store formats. The key is to give customers something they can’t get online, whether that’s information, entertainment, or service“. Advanced technologies such as Virtual reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are part of the repertoire that are increasingly introduced in high street stores [e.g., AR applied in the fitting rooms of Burberry’s store, triggered by the RFID tags].

Matt Alderton, writing in ArchDaily magazine of architecture and design (25 November 2015), details key technologies and how they are implemented in stores to create new possibilities and leverage shopper experiences. One group of technologies can provide vital data to retailers which in turn can be applied to interact with shoppers and return useful information to them (e.g., beacons, RFID tags, visual lighting communications). The second group includes display technologies that may be enriching with information and entertaining to shoppers: for example, VR and AR, touch screens, and media projected on a surface such as table-top which thus becomes a touch screen. Alderton clearly sees consumer need for physical stores, the question is how consumers would want them: “What the data says is that shoppers want to move forward by going back: Like their forebears who visited Harrods, they crave emporiums that are experiential, not transactional, in nature“. (See also images in this article as they portray new-fashioned designs in space and layout; notably these stores feel less crowded by merchandise, and some show in-store digital displays.)

These are challenging times for bricks-and-mortar stores. New possibilities are emerging for physical stores to grow and thrive, yet they will have to adapt to changed shopping and purchasing patterns of consumers and develop new kinds of experiences that appeal to them. It should be a combined effort, with contribution from interior design of stores and visual merchandising, utilities and amenities based on digital technologies implemented in the store, and the support and assistance by human personnel. The in-store design is especially important in setting the scene — in appearance, comfort and appeal — that will shape shoppers’ experiences. Retailing could evolve as far as into new forms of ‘experiential shopping’.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Reference: [*] Measuring Emotions in the Consumption Experience; Marsha L. Richins, 1997; Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 24 (September), pp. 127-149.

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The major British grocery retailer Tesco is in a crossroad. Strategies that have brought the retail chain success, good reputation, and a leading position do not work as well as in past years. Tesco has been frequently commended for its Clubcard loyalty programme, established in 1996, that implemented an exemplary customer data-driven approach in the realm of relationship marketing; it has put the chain way in advance of all its UK competitors. During the previous decade Tesco also initiated its advanced concept of segmented network of different types of stores for different types of shopping that is continuously growing. Notably, the UK-based company has expanded into more countries and to more types of business, becoming a giant global retail group. But now Tesco finds itself in difficulty. The mission is to find where matters have gone wrong and how to put Tesco back in order.

The recent accounting blunder in which the group over-stated its profits, troubling enough, is truly only a symptom of deeper problems in the management of Tesco, going at least three years back. The profit error in excess of £263m corresponds mainly (£118m) to the first half of the current financial year (2014/15), but it extends to the previous two years, too (following an investigation by Deloitte concluded in October).

  • This error was caused, in the words of departing chairman Broadbent, by “accelerated recognition of commercial income and delayed accrual of costs in the UK food business“(1), referring to incorrect timing of reporting payments made to suppliers (done late) and concessions Tesco received from them due, for example, to promotions given in its stores (done too early). The accounting misstatement may have occurred innocently because of lack of professionalism and a guiding hand in running the company’s finances (Tesco, reportedly, did not have a CFO for a while). In the worse case, it was done to conceal the decline in its business and poor financial performance. Either way, it is evident of underlying faults in the way the company was run in recent years.

The years 1997-2010 have been a significant period of intensive activity and growth at Tesco, led by two successive CEOs, Leahy followed by Clarke. It was a period full of ambition to extend internationally and engage in additional product and service categories, beyond Tesco’s core competence in food and general household retailing. But then Tesco was caught unprepared to cope with the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the recession that followed, especially since 2010. Tesco under Clarke was late to respond, and continued its expansion “business as usual” despite the evident decline in consumer spending. Time has now come to re-align and to take a more focused approach on those business areas and retailing activities in which the company is more capable to satisfy both its customers and shareholders. The new CEO Dave Lewis, as of August 2014, re-stated that Tesco sees itself as a customer-centric company that intends to continue providing best value to consumers through its pricing, services, and stores. It remains to be seen how the new management keeps true to this commitment.

Tesco’s Stores in the UK

The British retailer distinguishes between different patterns of consumer shopping under different circumstances or for varied purposes; about ten years ago it split its mother-chain into four main types of chain stores. At the core are traditional supermarkets, known as Superstores at Tesco (482 stores as of Oct. ’14). It has added Extra mega-size stores with a much larger range of products and at lower prices for shoppers who want to stock-up their households for longer periods on fewer concentrated shopping trips (248 stores). On the other hand, Tesco developed a Metro type of store (reduced supermarket) to be located in centres of large cities and accommodate the unique needs and time constraints of working shoppers (194 stores). In addition they established a sub-chain of Express stores in a format like convenience stores for really rush trips and smaller baskets for products in immediate shortage — this is in fact the largest sub-chain currently (1,709 stores).

Mainly the three new groups of stores have grown since 2005; all four types account for more than 2,600 stores in the UK (there are some additional 800 stores of other retail-formats). The Express chain stores faced particular resentment from independent merchants because these stores have been established at their expense, by buying them out or by drawing local customers from them in their neighbourhoods (some have resolved the issue by becoming franchisees). However, it apparently was a more correct move to make than creating the Extra stores. To the surmise of Tesco, consumers are less attracted to the mega-store format because they are now less interested in making large purchases on any single shopping trip. Instead, consumers are more inclined to fill-in their stocks for the coming days (e.g., as budget or available cash allows). The advantage of buying at lower prices at Extra stores, as in the chain as a whole, also diminished in face of a challenge from more efficient discount chains like Aldi and Lidl from Germany.

Tesco has several concerns to confront and resolve. Its position is furthermore unfortunate because it is sandwiched between discounters as mentioned above and high-quality, high-status chains such as Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, and Marks & Spencer. Tesco invested in its own-brands and in prepared as well as fresh meals, and yet it is still not considered in the same class with the high-quality chains. Those chains have a much clearer proposition with regard to product and service quality than Tesco. In addition, analysts argue that Tesco’s stores have become complicated to shop — they are too large, hard to navigate, difficult to find products needed from a selection too broad, and particularly too difficult to find value. (2)

From 1994 until the end of 2005 the market share (MS) of Tesco climbed consistently from 17% to 30%, surpassing in 1995 Sainsbury’s, the leader until that time, and leaving all food and grocery chains far behind. Since 2006 and until the beginning of 2014 Tesco’s MS was essentially stable (30%-32%), then it started to slip below 30%, according to data of Kantar Worldpanel reported by the BBC. Sainsbury’s has kept floating between 15% and 20%. Three challengers are notable — although they are still well below Tesco, they can and do cause trouble for the leader: (a) Morrisons (11% after a steep leap forward from 6% to 10% in 2005); (b) Asda (Wal-Mart’s branch into the UK , 17%, climbed mainly until 2005); Aldi & Lidl (MS grew more slowly from 2% to 4% until end of 2010 and then accelerated in almost four years to 8%). Kamal Ahmed, Business Editor of the BBC, suggests that the position of Tesco has been eroded due to structural changes in retail attributed primarily to online shopping, overall weakening position of the four big chains, and customers who want “smaller daily top-up shopping”. (3)

It seems early to predict if the recent slip in MS is a sign for an ongoing decline, and it depends very much on how Tesco will react. As already indicated by CEO Lewis, Tesco is going to reduce its range of products. It may have to consider the scale of its Express sub-chain, that might got too large. It will have to carefully assess if it can and should compete again hard over price with upcoming discounters or develop and enhance other competitive advantages like shopping-related services and in-store design. Tesco is already in the midst of a project to re-model and improve the layout and design of its stores (“Transforming Our UK Stores”). While part of this work is dedicated to improving their Extra stores, Tesco’s management may want to consider alternative approaches to these stores. For instance, re-arranging the store as a cluster of several autonomous shops under the same roof (e.g., food & grocery; personal care; home improvement & gardening; repairs) which shoppers can visit independently and pay at separate cashiers.

Extended Lines of Business

Tesco has added a variety of services “in a supporting role”, that is, they do not intuitively belong in a food and household merchandise retail business but they may be regarded as facilitating acquisition and fulfilling complementary needs of customers who come to shop at the chain-stores. But even under this flexible definition, Tesco may have reached too far. Consider just the next few examples:

  • Tesco Bank provides, in addition to current accounts, also savings, loans, and credit card services (even car insurance and travel services are available);
  • Tesco Mobile offers mobile telecom service packages and smartphones, and has even introduced its own-brand tablet device “hudl” (generation 2 just launched), acting as a technology company;
  • Tesco operates a network of gas stations for shoppers to fuel their cars;
  • Extending from beauty and cosmetic products for personal care, Tesco is also in the healthcare and pharmacy business, supplying medications, medical devices and NHS-approved services;
  • Internet services (broadband, e-mail & storage) are also available from Tesco.

The top management of Tesco may have to show greater scrutiny not only with regard to the range of product types it displays in its stores (and online) but also those supplementary services and products, finding a correct balance between benefit and value they provide and the burden and complication they cause.

Tesco owns the analytic company Dunnhumby as a subsidiary to perform in-house the important work of analysing purchase and personal data of Clubcard customers, and exploiting new possibilities of Big Data, to produce intelligible insights. Yet, the retailer needs to make sure that Dunnhumby keeps to its original charter. Expanding services to external clients, for instance, could complicate its activities too much, distract the company from fulfilling its vital duties for Tesco, and expose it to unnecessary business risks.

Customer Service —  Tesco is repeatedly criticised that its in-store staff is not available and helpful enough. It has been further argued that over-reliance of the retail chain on automatic self-service scan & pay posts in its stores (instead of human cashiers) signals to customers that the staff tries to avoid contact with them. These customer concerns are worrying especially given the difficulties in shopping at large and product-crowded stores. Problems with customer service may better be resolved in parallel to issues of merchandising as well as store layout and interior design to obtain greater improvement in customer-shopper experience.

Tesco has made great effort to execute an inclusive Brick & Click approach in its retailing business, not to foresake any of the physical and online channels. The retailer furthermore works to keep the channels inter-linked. It established, for example, a Click & Collect service —  to their convenience, customers can make the order online in the morning before work and pick-up the shopping package from a store of their choice (out of 260) on their way home. It is a demonstration of effort in the right direction.

Reaching Internationally — Tesco is operating store chains in twelve countries beyond the UK, either under direct ownership or through franchising and co-operation with local retail chains. Besides nearby Ireland, the group’s overseas reach is mainly into Central and Eastern Europe (e.g., Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, as well as Turkey), and Asia (e.g., India, Thailand, South Korea). A discussion of global operations should take into account economic, cultural and legal considerations with respect to each country. For example, operations in China had to be ceased; they are expected to restart in a new formulation with a local chain. Nonetheless, the venture of Tesco in the US, that lasted between 2007 and 2013, is knowingly the most damaging and embarrassing for the company. Its Fresh & Easy chain of neighbourhood supermarkets on the West Coast was hit by a strong opposition from US-based strong retailers, mainly Wal-Mart and Trader Joe, and in addition its approach was not well accepted by the American consumers. Tesco eventually had to fold out and leave the country.

Vis-à-vis the slip in market share of Tesco in the UK, sales of the retailer at home dropped by 2.6% in first half of FY 2014/15 (Feb.-Aug. ’14) compared with the same period last year. Like-for-Like sales (same-stores, excluding petrol) fell by as much as 4.6%. However, the more alarming outcome for stakeholders and analysts about Tesco has been a decline in profit of 55% in the UK (trading profit for H1 stands at £499m post-correction out of  £23,566m in sales, a margin of 2.3%). (4)

Overall, the sales of Tesco group (£34bn) fell 4.4% and trading profit (£937m) declined 41%.  Both Asia and Europe have seen a fall in sales, though profits in Asia dropped (-17%) and in Europe they increased (+38%). Markedly, Tesco Bank  has enjoyed a rise in both sales (4.6%) and trading profit (16%), to the envy of the retailing business. Analysts doubt that Tesco can overcome and offset these declines by end of the financial year in February 2015. The upcoming Christmas and New Year season is clearly crucial for Tesco. It is also needed as an injection of optimism for its share price that fell from nearly four pounds to £2.50 in the past two years, and then dropped furthermore to just £1.50 in September, recuperating somewhat lately to a little below two pounds.

Undoubtedly Tesco has made positive moves into the 21st century to enhance the consumer shopping experience in its brick-and-mortar stores, establish its presence online, and strengthen endurable relationships with its customers. Yet, improvements it achieved have been swollen in the wave of expansion in different directions, wherever it seemed possible and connected somehow with its main field of business. It is, therefore, ever so important and desirable for Tesco to identify and focus on those areas wherein it is more competent, especially with respect to improving the quality of shopping experiences of individual customers.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

(1) Tesco Group Interim Results: Financial Performance, H1 2014-15 (26 weeks ended 23/8/14), Press Release 23 Oct., 2014 http://www.tescoplc.com/index.asp?pageid=188&newsid=1074.

(2) Tesco Admits Accounting Missteps; Stock Slides, Stanley Reed, International New-York Times, 23 Sept. 2014

(3) Tesco Share Slumps After Raised Profit Error, BBC News: Business (Online), 23 Oct. 2014 http://www.bbc.com/news/business-29735685

(4) Ibid. 1

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As a shopper approaches the entrance to a store or shop, and walks through the doorstep, he or she quickly figures out how inviting the venue is. Does the store look interesting and compelling, showing a potential for exhibiting merchandise articles of value? Or does the scene look so crowded and messy it is hard to believe one can find there anything he or she may need or desire? More basically, do the store’s interior design and display appear pleasant to the eye or annoying? While consumers generally like to keep things simple and in good order, some degree of visual complexity can help to capture shoppers’ attention and make the store more attractive and inviting for prospect customers.

A simple design, stripped of any form of art and modestly furnished for displaying merchandise, stands the risk of being perceived too boring to justify spending time in the store or shop. An element of surprise, a break from the ordinary or standard, may be necessary to intrigue the shopper and entice him to enter and study the store more closely. But deciding on the right measure of complexity can be difficult. A store owner may not want to complicate its design and display to a level that is overwhelming for the shopper, making it hard for the eye to absorb (e.g., an unruly mixture of deep and flashy colours, every furniture or fixture in a different form and style). Challenging the shoppers is welcome, but the challenge should be carefully planned and designed so as not to scare them off. Importantly, planning for visual complexity is not just a matter of amount but even more so a matter of its form and composition.

Introducing variability (e.g., in shapes or colours) and irregularities (e.g., construct displays in non-parallel lines), for example, increase the complexity of a design. Complexity does not have to be extensive — a few elements can be sufficient to spice-up the design of a store; and even a disruption of “normal” order can have rules. When increasing visual complexity in the store one should take care to maintain the aesthetic appearance of its scene. In reference to the design of products, Hekkert (1) proposed four goals towards an aesthetic and pleasant visual design: maximum effectiveness from minimum means (e.g., use a few and simple features, apply correlated features that co-align into a meaningful construct); unity in variety (i.e., follow specific principles like those of Gestalt to maintain order and control in variety); striking a balance between novelty and typicality that excites but does not shock the consumers; and, co-ordinate between stimuli that relate to the different human senses.  Hekkert argued that the aesthetic experience should be considered in tandem with the experience of meaning and emotional experience. We may refer to these goals as a benchmark for constructing discernible but sensible complexity — for instance, breaking away from a Gestalt principle (e.g., symmetry) increases complexity, but it should be done without dissolving the whole organization of the store’s scene. Such guidelines could be of particular relevance for the design of product display, that is, visual merchandising.

Visual complexity may arise from different factors such as the number and range of elements or objects in a scene, the variety and density of visual-graphic features present (e.g., colours, shapes, texture), and deviation from principles of organization and regularity (e.g., symmetry, similarity, repetition). Clutter is associated with complexity but is not synonym with it. Clutter frequently represents the objective information-side of complexity, that is, the (excessive) detail and (weak-structured) layout of information in the scene. It is viewed as a driver of complexity though it is not the only facet to consider. Visual complexity, on the other hand, often reflects the personal subjective perspective, such as the evaluation by individuals (e.g., with respect to attractiveness) and their response to complexity. However, references in research to ‘complexity’ can be as complex and diverse as the term itself suggests. The effect of visual complexity on consumer processing, evaluation and behavioural response is important with respect to appearance of products and their packages, ads, webpages, and scenes of retail and service physical environments.

Store owners have the choice whether to display more or less merchandise in the main space of the premises, and where and how to display it (e.g., on tables, counters or shelves at the centre, along the wall, or as a fixture attached to the wall). Additional elements of interior design would accompany the display to create the overall impression for the shopper-viewer. Orth and Wirtz (2) tested direct and mediated effects of visual interior complexity on store attractiveness in two types of environments, deli stores (merchandise-oriented) and coffee shops (service-oriented). They showed that greater complexity (e.g., many products crowded on a long counter) hurts the perceived attractiveness of the store. Attractiveness is furthermore mediated by the pleasure experienced by shoppers-viewers from the display and overall scene. That is, lower attractiveness is driven, or can be explained, by shoppers being unhappy with or annoyed by the visual scene. It is also attributed to a decrease in processing fluency of the more complex visual scene (fluency is mediating between complexity and pleasure). The consequences, as this research shows, can be a behavioural tendency of avoidance from a more complex store and weaker intention to revisit it.

  • The researchers measured “attractiveness” with respect to aspects of overall attractiveness, product quality and price level. However, information on products and prices was only implicitly shown but not manipulated, or alternatively not shown at all.  Hence, our ability to learn how complexity, as an attribute of visual design, fares in its effect on store attractive relative to the other two aspects is very limited. The effect of complexity that seems truly to matter relates to pleasure experienced from viewing the store’s scene, pertaining particularly to its visual appeal (not mentioned in the scale of attractiveness) — complexity is less appealing to the eye. This experience is sensibly influenced by the lower fluency when perceiving the visual scene.

A rich view into the store-perhaps too rich

But the case for visual complexity in the store is not yet lost. The answer for employing complexity to the advantage of the store or shop may be in selectively implementing particular layers or facets of visual complexity in the interior design and visual merchandising of the retail outlet. We may learn a lesson from research by Pieters, Wedel and Batra (3) who analysed visual complexity and its effects in the context of advertising from the consumer perspective. They made an important distinction between “feature complexity” and “design complexity” and showed that these layers of complexity have opposite effects on attention and attitude (through techniques of eye-tracking and direct questions).

Feature complexity refers to the variation, density and layout of visual features (colour, luminance and edges) across a whole scene. For example, an ad image that contains more colours all over is more feature-complex. In other words, feature complexity is enhanced as the eye has to shift more frequently between areas of different colour, luminance or texture and cross more edges of objects and frames. Clutter is associated in this account with feature complexity. Design complexity pertains to the appearance of identifiable objects contained in the scene (e.g., a picture of a product or a fashion model figure, a brand logo). The six criteria defined by the authors may be divided into two groups: (a) criteria concerned with the appearance of specific objects (irregularity of object shape, dissimilarity of objects [differ in shape, colour, texture or orientation], and having more edge and colour detail); (b) criteria concerned with the layout or arrangement of objects ([greater] quantity, asymmetry of object arrangement and irregularity of object arrangement). It is noted that configuring and designing the appearance and arrangement of particular objects is to a great extent in the control of ad designers, and hence their better ability to determine the level of design complexity of the ad. Pieters and his colleagues substantiate the following differing effects of feature and design complexities:

  • Feature complexity reduces attention to the advertising brand (e.g., its name heading or logo). Furthermore, greater feature complexity (visual clutter) hurts consumer attitude towards the ad.
  • Design complexity increases attention to the pictorial elements in the ad as well as to the ad in whole. Moreover, higher levels of design complexity improve attitude towards the ad.
  •  (It is also shown that greater design complexity together with better brand identifiability in the ad enhance ad comprehensibility, probably by improving consumer ability to attach associations inferred from the ad with the focal brand.)

Extending insights from ads to brick-and-mortar retail stores is not quick and easy. First, an ad is a two-dimensional image whereas the store’s space is a three-dimensional scene — our perception of visual effects differs between 2D and 3D views (e.g.,  a photograph compared with the actual location). In addition, ads often incorporate an heterogeneous mix of different types of pictorial and text elements and other graphic features, conjoint in a discontinuous layout not possible in a physical 3D space. Nevertheless, some insights on visual complexity seem applicable also to the interior design of a store and to visual merchandising.

Consider these two examples for increasing design complexity in a store:

  1. Imagine a shelf display on a wall where merchandise articles (e.g., sweaters) on each row are in a different colour; suppose we now arrange items so that in the center we get, for instance, a circle filled with items in a colour different from the remaining display, thus adding a colour while “breaking” the horizontal rows of the shelves.
  2. Suppose we created a display composed of small square tables on the floor with merchandise articles (e.g., books) on top; we may add complexity by placing one table in a different shape (e.g., triangle), or moreover add a stand in an irregular shape.

Another issue may be raised with regard to design complexity, whether instead of manipulating visual aspects of specific fixtures or props it is better to manipulate their arrangement and for example set asymmetric or irregular layouts. These design variations may serve to make a statement or highlight cues about the store’s image. The challenge is not to lose sight of the whole scene to avoid rendering it too confused, disturbing or difficult to follow (i.e., cluttered). We may further realise that even in a store the visibility of a brand logo, large photographic images posted on walls and other signage count, no less than in ads — they support brand identifiability and visual merchandising.

A classic stationary shop re-modelled to fit 21st century

A classic stationary shop re-modelled to fit 21st century

If a retailer is cautious and prefers to start in a middle ground, here are a few possible avenues for action. Front windows make a good place to start. Particularly the cabin-type window displays that are closed on the back and block the view into the shop’s space sustain a scene that is closer to 2D. The front window displays are of special importance because they provide shoppers the first introduction as they approach the shop. And of course one may also on advertising for the store, such as for an ad that includes a photographic image of the store. Specifically for ad posters that are intended to be shown in the store (e.g., new fashion outfits, deals), Pieters, Wedel and Batra recommend that they should reduce feature-based clutter as much as possible because of the short duration shoppers are expected to be exposed to those ads. Photo images of a store may also constitute a practical and suitable medium for studying consumers’ evaluation (e.g., visual appeal) and attitude given an exhibited level of complexity in the store.

Introducing visual complexity in a store is a matter of form, composition and style. Not just the extent of complexity created but also in what ways it is done will determine its acceptance and favourability by shoppers. Ultimately visual complexity needs to stimulate shoppers to purchase. Applying aspects of design complexity is the course for store owners or managers, and visual merchandisers and interior designers working with them, to exercise their creativity. But it is essential at all times to keep an eye on the overall scene outcome so as not to fall into a trap of creating too much visual clutter and confusion.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

References:

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

(2) Consumer Processing of Interior Service Environments: The Inerplay Among Visual Complexity, Processing Fluency, and Attractiveness; Ulrich R. Orth & Jochen Wirtz, 2014; Journal of Service Research, 17 (3), pp. 296-309

(3) The Stopping Power of Advertising: Measures and Effects of Visual Complexity; Rik Pieters, Michel Wedel, & Rajeev Batra, 2010; Journal of Marketing, 74 (Sept.), pp. 48-60.

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