Xin Lin, spatial design director at innovative smart device company OPPO, explains why it’s important for retailers to blur the boundaries between public space and commerce, how to combine a global outlook with local sensitivity, and what advocating people-centric principles entails inside stores.

Technology as an art form: it’s what Chinese electronics manufacturer OPPO stands for. Aiming to ‘elevate life through technological artistry’, the brand serves a now estimated 400 million people in 40+ markets worldwide with smart devices. In 2020, the year that saw many businesses struggle, OPPO grew, just like it has done since its foundation in 2004. As CEO Tony Chen announced in his 2021 New Year message, the company saw its sales continue to rise in India while remaining the market leader in Southeast Asia and tripling its shipments in Western Europe and Japan. This growth spurt, as well as OPPO’s attention to aesthetics, are clearly reflected in the company’s retail strategy, which sees design-led stores pop up at a rapid pace. And despite the pandemic’s profound impact on retail there is no sign of a slowdown. ‘Our strategic goal is still to build long-term relationships with our customers and use our physical retail stores as a vehicle to do so. That means in the future, we will utilize stores to connect with – and create unique experiences for – our customers,’ says spatial design director Xin Lin, who’s responsible for the planning, design and delivery of OPPO’s global super flagship stores.

Xin Lin.

Holistic retail design

XIN LIN: When I first joined OPPO my main attraction to the brand was its boldness. On top of that, one of the driving forces of the company is the pursuit for beauty, meaning there were a lot of opportunities for me, as the spatial design director, to update and innovate the brand image through its physical retail spaces. My main responsibility is the planning, design and delivery of our global super flagship stores. Building a store like that is very complicated. We have to think about including everything from visual merchandising displays to lighting systems and other systematic planning elements. That means our spatial design team needs to have both a very strong instinct and expertise in retailing. From the beginning of a spatial design process we work closely with our product, store development and operational teams, making sure we can translate their needs into design solutions. Different product lines have diverse requirements and in every market the customer needs can vary, too. That’s why my team members have to have a very concrete and comprehensive understanding of the company – not solely of its retail strategy, but also of its product strategy. When allocating our spatial resources, we need to make sure our decisions regarding the functions of the various in-store areas are in line with the needs of all the different teams in the company. It’s up to us to find the ideal spatial organization.

Cover image: Those passing by OPPO’s Domani designed super flagship store in Beijing are drawn in by the 8-m-high LED screens visible through the building’s glass curtain walls. Photos: Vincent Zhang

Putting people before technology

In 2020, our founder and CEO Tony Chen introduced the brand value ‘technology for mankind, kindness for the world’. It highlights that for us the essence of good design lies not in our love of technical specifications, but in our respect for people and our devotion to what they wish to achieve in their lives through our products. Design is a means to bring the purpose of our technologies to our customers, so we focus on the interaction between people and technology and advocate human-centric principles. Design is the means, while people are the end. We aim to design spaces that represent that people-centric design philosophy.

Intriguing rather than overwhelming

Our design language is based on minimalism. It’s concise, but not cold. We try to create a light and vivid feeling for our customers. We believe that simple lines matter, and we cautiously polish those. We don’t pursue a sense of ‘magnificence’ and ‘grandness’ so to say, but rather want the people entering our spaces to be inspired by the details. Even the placement of the tiniest button matters to us. We think technology shouldn’t be invasive, so we don’t show off our R&D capabilities by explicitly displaying our frontier technologies in our retail spaces. In our Beijing super flagship store, for example, phones are hidden in capsules with headphones. There is no obvious trace of goods within the sight of the passers-by. Only when visitors take off a headphone will the product appear. We want to create a futuristic yet friendly space that fosters conversation between people and inspires interactions. We enjoy offering more opportunities for customers to experience and rest, rather than pushing them towards seeing and purchasing our products. We want technology to be subtly supportive as opposed to commercially aggressive. That’s why, for example, it’s only when people sit down to charge their devices in our flagship stores that an image of the charging rate is projected in real time on a reflective table. To us, retail shops are not just about selling goods, they are also about providing comprehensive services and experiences.

Aiming to create a store that blurs the boundaries between public space and commerce, UNStudio designed OPPO’s flagship in Guangzhou as ‘a “borderless” interactive environment, where meandering routes surround a central resting point’. Photos: CreatAR Images

Speaking to all senses

We need our stores to be a continuation of our product lines and product thinking. In a way the retail outlets are OPPO’s largest physical ‘product’. So we develop our retail spaces like we develop our products – thinking about more than just their aesthetics. Yes, the visual aspect is one, but then there are the audial, tactile and even the olfactory aspects. To create a complete and identifiable space we customize all these aspects, down to the in-store fragrances. The consistency across stores helps customers recall the sensory in-store experience when they enter our store again or elsewhere.

‘We need our stores to be a continuationof our product lines,’ says Xin Lin. Nendoconceptualized two such products for OPPOto explore future design possibilities, includinga sliding-phone concept that can be foldeddown three times to the size of a credit cardand a mobile accessory collection that’scentred around a pair of earphones. Photos: Akihiro Yoshida

Omnichannel over online-only

OPPO was founded in 2004 and around that time the retail industry was still fairly offline. I think OPPO seized on the opportunity back then to penetrate the offline market. We won a lot of customers at that time. Later we embraced the era of personal computing, followed by the era of mobile internet and social platforms – of content consumption.

Since 2017, after witnessing a shift in consumer demands from convenience to experience, we started to pay extra attention to our offline channels, highlighting the communication and exchange with our customers, which I see as one of OPPO’s strengths. We are trying to build our stores like those corner shops you can find in European neighbourhoods. They are integrated in the community and communicate with their customers like friends. At the same time going online is an inevitable trend, of course. We don’t think of online and offline as two separate, conflicting worlds, but rather as complementary to each other. In our Beijing store, for example, there’s a display area with touchscreen tabletops that allow customers to find and scan QR codes, obtain more information about a product, or make a direct purchase online. In the future, we plan on exploring a next-gen retail model that narrows down the distance between consumers and us even further by merging online and offline shopping into a more borderless experience.

This is a condensed version of the original interview, which featured in Frame 139. To read more, get your copy here.