Mask up, queue, sanitize, grab a basket, follow the wayfinding, repeat. The COVID-19 crisis has turned consumer journeys through physical spaces quite cut-and-dry, eliminating the spontaneity and experiential elements that make in-person retail visits attractive in the first place. But it doesn’t have to be this way: in fact, the present and future introduces myriad opportunities for brands to strengthen their relationship with consumers, bring their channels into greater harmony and emerge stronger than before.

In our latest #FrameLive talk, Frame founder Robert Thiemann discussed the post-pandemic realities of retail design with industry insiders Vincent Sturkenboom, creative director at department store retailer De Bijenkorf, Andreas Bozarth Fornell, founder of architecture and design practice Specific Generic and Thomas Braun, managing director of brand-experience company Liganova Netherlands. Their conversation illuminates ways for retailers and designers to be proactive about responding to consumers’ changing needs through spatial design, in the short- and long-terms.

For Sturkenboom and his team, service and relationships are ‘at the heart of the organization’, without exception. De Bijenkorf’s locations were shuttered for six weeks during the quarantine period in the Netherlands – while the retailer’s e-commerce channels remained active, service is ‘exactly what COVID-19 took away,’ he explains. ‘It was a hard time if you’re a retailer, if you love retail – no customers in the store, no customers on the street.’ However, during the six-week period, De Bijenkorf experienced a spike in e-commerce sales. A survey the retailer conducted with consumers found that the preference for in-store versus online shopping was ‘about 82 per cent before corona’, dropping to 60 per cent during. Additional numbers illustrate that, post-pandemic, the preferences are coming ‘more into balance’: ‘Before it was preferred to go to store, now it’s half and half [with online],’ explained Sturkenboom. ‘If you ask a customer why they would like to go to the store, they say it’s for experiences, new brands and new products. That is what they want to discover in-store, and that is why the store is still very important for everybody.’

A 3,500-sq-m menswear department designed by interior architecture studio i29 is the latest completion in a major ongoing renovation of DE Bijenkorf's landmark flagship in Amsterdam, led by firm HMKM and KAAN Architects. Read more here. Photos: Ewout Huibers

Braun thinks it valuable to compare the contrasts between experiential-driven retail and retail that serves as ‘a distribution channel and nothing else’. ‘The effect of the lockdown was very different on these business models,’ he said. Aligning with the findings of De Bijenkorf’s consumer survey, he continued: ‘The biggest trend, I believe, in the past weeks and months was the adoption of e-commerce by a wider group of consumers. There were brands that immediately shifted their focus to digital – the experience was continued in digital channels and the client relationship was continued.' He pointed to the companies who did a ‘really good job’ staying in contact with consumers during the pandemic. Echoing Sturkenboom’s emphasis on brand-client relationships, Braun stated, ‘Brands who were able to keep up these relationships during the lockdown will be the brands that come out stronger. People did realize during lockdown how convenient it is to shop online. The question is: will these consumers come back to the physical stores after lockdown? Will clients or consumers come back to smaller shops and businesses at all?’

The picture Braun paints does appear dire in the US, where Thiemann noted that over 25,000 stores are set to permanently close, after Bozarth Fornell highlighted the positives that have come out of the crisis. Namely, how the widespread reduction in travel and consumption has tangibly lessened the impact of our environmental footprint. ‘It’s been mind-blowing to see how fast we could change things, just by changing the way we are living and using resources,’ he said. Bozarth Fornell hopes that this ‘time of learning’ will spur lasting priority-shifts, despite the sizable deterrence on retail and business in general. Thiemann questioned this, pointing to the fact that it will directly affect Bozarth Fornell’s business. The designer responded: ‘It is, definitely. But we need to come up with new ways of doing things. I don’t think it’s possible to go on at the same quick pace we were going at before,’ citing, for example, the fashion industry’s collection cycles. ‘It’s two-sided.’

If you manage the fundamentals on safety and health regulations and incorporate that into your store design – if you manage your omnichannel strategy – then you shouldn’t fear another lockdown

While the adaptations we’re seeing in retail design right now are still rudimentary, Sturkenboom, Braun and Bozarth Fornell’s insights reveals that stores will be responsive to the pandemic for good. Queueing is one such part of the experience that all mention will be fundamental to post-pandemic retail. ‘That, for me, is the new normal,’ Sturkenboom said. It hasn’t been all bad at De Bijenkorf, even while wait times to get into some locations have exceeded an hour: ‘People are quite flexible, they adapt very fast. Customers know, and understand, that they have to deal with these restrictions.’ Thiemann asked how the upscale retailer is able to make these changes in a ‘premium’ way. The creative director’s reply was simple: service. Now, the De Bijenkorf team is working to reimagine how to deliver personalized experiences within more hands-on realms of the stores, like the beauty departments and restaurants.

‘Most good design comes from a need,’ Bozarth Fornell reminded the audience. ‘New solutions need to be designed to accommodate the new restrictions.’ This includes all elements of physical stores, from signage to layouts. And he is confident that these solutions will come – ‘It’s not super nice with all of the sanitizers and tape on the ground. There will become a lot of interesting examples of how to incorporate these rules into the retail environment.’

Without an experience – without a community approach – there is no reason for physical traffic. That became clearer during the pandemic

‘We need new experiences, new retail formats, new services and more digital solutions for physical spaces,’ believes Braun, referencing Gucci’s livestreaming selling technique. What does increasingly digitized retail look like, in his mind? E-commerce purchasing will be incorporated with the ‘added value of a personalized experience with staff’, for example, while possibilities for mobile integration and technological queue solutions will further be explored in the physical space. In the long-term, Braun thinks ‘a pure point-of-sale will disappear. There are too many physical retail spaces at the moment. Without an experience – without a community approach – there is no reason for physical traffic. That became clearer during the pandemic.’

I still believe in the physical space. The human spirit needs it

Nonetheless he concurs with Sturkenboom in that ‘the desire for experience, for emotional engagement, for interaction is still there’. And, he said, ‘I really believe that this desire will stay. We will probably see phases of another lockdown. But if you manage the fundamentals on safety and health regulations and incorporate that into your store design – if you manage your omnichannel strategy – then you shouldn’t fear another lockdown. The focus should be on keeping a relationship with the consumer, which will be far more intimate and digitally enhanced.’ Bozarth Fornell was in agreement with this view, nodding to the adoption of AR and 5D rendering: ‘Technology will change the future of retail. We as designers need to adapt to that.’ He thinks that these tools will enable retail designers to develop boundary-less channel integration. Though even with this trajectory, he explained, ‘I still believe in the physical space. The human spirit needs it. It’s really part of everyday life, for everyone – it’s hard to take that out and just have a digital world.’

There has to be reason [for consumers] to come, or else they will choose to go online

Thiemann reflected that future adaptations made to the retail landscape will unquestionably have a transformative effect on our cities. Especially, he thinks, when you factor in the work-from-home revolution and the resulting urban exodus. Sturkenboom and his team have already noticed that consumers are shopping increasingly locally. This sparked curiosity in Thiemann: what will it mean for the future if the store if this pattern continues, outside of cities? ‘It will mean that you have to be in the right place, where the people are, of course,’ replied Sturkenboom. ‘There has to be reason [for consumers] to come, or else they will choose to go online. [An] online [store] is not an experience – it’s a way of buying.’

‘It’s not yet an experience,’ Thiemann added.

Read about more past and upcoming #FrameLive events here.