Retail Iteration

How concept stores communicate ideas to customers while gathering market research.

Other than the need to purchase a specific product, what draws you into a shop?

Starbucks concept store

Starbucks concept store

Is it an eye catching sign with a low price, a peculiar ambiance, an interesting design or is it something more? Brands are constantly using market research to learn about their customers’ habits and desires. Sure, this information could be gleaned from online surveys, but there is nothing like testing ideas out in the real world and receiving real-time feedback. This is just one of many reasons why brands seek the help of architects and interior designers to create concept stores. These concept stores can become permanent locations, temporary pop-ups or they could fail.

Sloane Stanley pop-up space

Sloane Stanley pop-up space

Sloane Stanley pop-up space

Sloane Stanley pop-up space

Entering into a new market, or bringing new products and services to market, is as much a risk for brands as it is an opportunity. Only last week, Sloane Stanley opened a permanent pop-up space for brands to showcase their products on London’s King’s Road. It will be a space in constant iteration. For entrepreneurs and new designers, being able to sell on a high street, even if temporary, is a big opportunity. In the article linked above, Hannah Grievson, a commercial property manager for the landowning estate, explains that “many of these businesses trade successfully online and never see their customers. It’s fantastic for them to get some market research.”

Sloane Stanley pop-up space

In Rotterdam, a new concept store for clothing brand Dante°6, is more than a marketing tool, but a way of communicating ideas. “The idea behind the Dante°6 store is to create a 360° communication tool which as a designer is very interesting,” explained interior architect, Lex de Gooijer. “[The idea] was to create a fresh international elegant yet comfortable and approachable store which embodies the ambition of the Dante°6  collection. The use of marble and brass in combination with concrete soft toned colors and wood resulted in a feminine and contemporary interior.”

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Dante°6 Concept Store by Lex de Gooijer

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Dante°6 Concept Store by Lex de Gooijer

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Dante°6 Concept Store by Lex de Gooijer

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Showing customers a glimpse of a possible future, is a common theme with concept stores. For Spacio, a Hong Kong-based brand that sells high-end products and designs for contemporary homes, their concept store shows customers how to optimise living space in a densely populated area. The store, designed by Pure AW’s, was inspired from a quote on the Spacio website: “In Hong Kong it’s so important to make the most of your space. That’s what Spacio is all about. We’re here to improve lives by offering innovative materials, fittings and furniture for interiors with a designer aesthetic. We call it exceptional living.” Rather than filling a space with products, Spacio filled it with an experience. A similar minimalist and experiential idea is at play at the Menu concept store in Copenhagen, designed by Norm Architects.

Spacio Concept Store

Spacio Concept Store

Spacio Concept Store

Spacio Concept Store

Spacio Concept Store

Spacio Concept Store

Spacio Concept Store

For large brands like O2, concept stores can be a way to establish profound shifts in their industry. With their new concept store in Manchester, they hope to revolutionise the traditional mobile phone shop by focusing on interaction and education. The shop, designed by Dalziel & Pow, will inspire customers to ponder the future of technology, with a focus on virtual reality and the latest innovations in mobile devices. O2 wants to draw people in, not only when they need a new phone or an upgrade, but to discover new possibilities in the telecommunications sector and to experience what O2 could invent next.

O2-Manchester

Manchester O2

Now not all concept stores are successful and there have been some flops. For example, the Barbie concept store in Shanghai, which was a six-storey property, closed in 2011 after only two years. Mattel Inc., the largest toymaker in the world, struggled to sell their popular plastic doll because, as a local market research analyst explained, their products were perceived as being too sexy rather than being cute. Failures like Barbie help to explain why concept stores have become very popular in China. Brands would rather try ideas out first in a select location before investing too much in physical stores.

Far Coast Toronto

In between the successes, which lead to larger rollouts, and the failures, which force brands to re-evaluate their strategies, are concept stores which exist purely for market research. In 2006, Coca-Cola Company launched Far Coast, a premium coffee brand. Only Singapore, Oslo, Atlanta and Toronto were selected as locations for concept stores. Each location allowed Coca-Cola to quickly gather costumer feedback. Those locations were far from pop-ups tucked away in an alley, but were structures which appeared to have a permanence, such was the thought that went into designing and branding them.

Far Coast Toronto

Far Coast Toronto

Far Coast Toronto

Far Coast Toronto

And yet, all four Far Coast locations closed a year after launching, but the brand continued to be sold elsewhere. The Toronto location was a three-level space, designed by local firm K Paul Architect and the global firm, Otto Design Group. “When we were first involved in the project we were not made aware that the space was going to be a pop-up,” Jenn Peck, senior design manager at K Paul Architect, told me in an email.  “Our involvement was required to assist the global designer with creating a space that would ground the brand hub in the local context.” I had the opportunity to have lunch at the Toronto Far Coast location a couple of times, and I really enjoyed its relaxed atmosphere and homely feel. It was one of the best kept secrets in town at the time.

Far Coast Toronto

Far Coast Toronto

“The principle behind the design of this space was to create a space which was globally eclectic, locally inflected and intrinsically green,” described Peck. The furniture and materials were sourced from local vendors and artists. Even though such a beautiful space no longer exists, the architects still feel that the project communicated the right message.

Far Coast Toronto

Far Coast Toronto

“Pop-up architecture is not our main focus but we have a definite appreciation for it,” Peck explained. “Even though they are temporary structures we typically see them as marketing components which start a conversation.”

Obviously, concept stores are experimental places to edify and engage customers. What the brands and the designers behind these spaces have in common is the importance they place on developing a concept through iteration. Whether it is a fashion designer meeting her online customers in person, a mobile company testing out innovations or an architect playing with forms that draw attention, the process of iteration is invaluable. There is no better way to see if an idea works or not, than to execute it in the real world, get real-time feedback, and make the next iterations even better.

Words: Phil Roberts


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