Perspectives 07.01.2021

Rethinking Retail: Designing for a More Experiential Future

Rendering of the new plans for a vibrant retail experience along Somerville's Davis Square neighborhood.

The heart of a city emanates from its main streets. The bustling sidewalks of Broadway, Michigan Avenue, or Rodeo Drive are filled with places to go, shop, and eat. But more than that, they represent a grand entrance and warm welcome to their cities. As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic emptied these business districts nearly overnight, as both tourists and long-time retailers locked down. People adapted quickly to a risk-abating “new normal,” ordering even groceries online from the safety a laptop. This rapid pivot revealed more clearly than ever our growing dependence on parcel delivery service. But it has also revealed that it’s not always our preference: Now that cities around the world are relaxing their COVID-19 restrictions, people are blissfully returning to the streets en masse for in-person experiences.

Ibrahim Ibrahim, who was recently appointed to the U.K.’s High Streets Task Force—a national initiative to research how high streets (the British equivalent of main streets) function within communities—recently sat down for a conversation with Perkins&Will’s David Sheldon and Lindsey Peckinpaugh to discuss how design, economics, and politics can come together to revitalize neighborhoods. Their ideas point toward a future in which post-COVID main streets prioritize experience over products.

“Retail today is no longer sustainable when revolving just around location or square footage. Retail is pivoting, and it’s all about content—content that delivers a unique experience."

-Ibrahim Ibrahim, Managing Director of Perkins&Will’s partner company Portland Design.

One-on-One

Historically, big-box department stores have been the pillar of consumer culture, entrenched in spectacular traditions like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and holiday window extravaganzas. But today, consumers are coveting something more than mere fanfare from brick-and-mortar retailers. They expect intimacy and customization, a more personalized experience. They’re seeking conversations and inspiration from the makeup artist at the beauty counter or the personal shopper at a pop-up shop, interactions that were impossible amidst the anonymous digital shopping experience during the global lockdown. Now, we’re seeing the hunger for authentic interactions, and the success of retail where people come together over a shared experience: the thing that Ibrahim calls retail’s “content.”

“After more than a year of shopping on-screen, consumers are hungry for new experiences. And that promise of experience is what’s driving foot traffic,” says Ibrahim. “Sales will therefore be made through real-time interaction with a product or service: It becomes a social event.”

Ibrahim and his team see retail recovering when stores differentiate themselves by offering the connectivity and service that online purchases ignore, leading to main streets that curate experience per square foot rather than just goods.

Our proposed vision for the future of Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts seamlessly blends retail with experiential placemaking. Connectivity, interactivity, and community are at its core.
Street level retail draws pedestrians into the Davis Square development.

Focused Flexibility

David Sheldon, a practice leader in Perkins&Will’s Los Angeles studio, has also been working on a variety of projects at the intersection of public space and the consumer experience. These two perspectives are integral to lively main streets and the activation of the public realm. “Regardless of markets, economies, and trends—the street remains a constant,” Sheldon says. “The origins of flexibility in retail environments comes from the historic streets, where concepts ebb and flow, brands come and go, and spaces need to be nimble and flexible.”

While we all still have our “social training wheels on,” as Sheldon puts it, the content of a retail transaction must be a driving force catering to our hunger for social experiences. Multi-modal potential can be realized if retail spaces are built to accommodate a diversity of programs within. This design approach is different than a traditional method of separating shops into distinct plots, or districts, that rely on targeted foot traffic. And it’s where Sheldon and his team focus their energy: From casual run-ins in the cafés to spaces for temporary art exhibitions, multipurpose spaces create the community feel people seek.

The exterior of Oak Park Community Recreation Center is bright, and warmly lit from within, intentionally activating the community’s high street, Madison Street.
The Community Center is designed with social interaction and inclusivity in mind as shown in the facility’s inclusive locker rooms and informal gathering nodes.

Equity, not Scalability

To curate a customized experience, however, main street architecture must cater to smaller, more adaptable spaces, as well as a variety of emerging retail forms. “Real estate on a thriving high street is no longer about getting the highest rent for the largest square footage,” says Ibrahim, “but about increasing diversity and prioritizing experience.” What may have been one large store yesterday may be a cooperative of a café, bookstore, and a designer pop-up shop today. Leveraging flexible spaces means the three distinct outlets collaboratively share the space itself, rent, and most importantly, visitors.

Equity and diversity also extend beyond a shop’s program to the demographics of users and cultural representation, too. Lindsey Peckinpaugh, a Managing Principal in Perkins&Will’s Chicago studio, has worked closely on the design of the new Oak Park Community Recreation Center in Oak Park, Illinois. The Chicago suburb is a progressive community that celebrates it’s diversity through inclusive social programs and strongly supported local businesses.

The Oak Park project is a multi-purpose and flexible building, designed to support community health, wellness, and recreation programs. It includes community meeting rooms, childwatch services, traditional gymnasium and fitness space, and mental heath services through an intergovernmental partnership. “The multi-use space expresses a welcoming and inclusive spirit, breaking down barriers to access,” says Peckinpaugh. “This facility is intended to be a social hub, a place where the community gathers and builds cohesion, and drives traffic to this area in support of complimentary retail.” The new community center provides a refreshed vibrancy to Oak Park’s high street and will be catalytic to the successful development of Oak Park’s business district.

From Back-of-House to Front-of-House

The pandemic was a harsh wakeup call that access to health, wellness, and medical care is as essential as it is precarious. One of the easiest ways to increase accessibility to these services it to bring them directly to consumers. But throughout the past year, cities even saw testing and vaccination centers occupy temporarily abandoned structures in the rush to deliver care. These back-of-house services suddenly came to the forefront, and the trend doesn’t seem to be going away.

“Front-of-house health and wellness is upending the way we approach access to care,” says Ibrahim. “It allows residents to have more control over their schedule and their providers, and lead healthier lives.” The streets belong to everyone, so when access is the priority, they must also be the delivery points.

Kingland is an experimental retail space in the U.K. working to bring retailers of varying size and scale together under one roof for a more intimate shopping experience.
Going forward, we must all see retail as a vehicle for reimagining sociability, equity, and accessibility in the city.

As people continue to navigate access to vaccines and emergence from lockdowns, they are prioritizing human connection and local community more than ever. A neighbor might buy their bread at bakery on their street, rather than delivering, if the barista who knows their name. A new resident may feel more comfortable walking into a street side urgent care rather than a distant hospital for a routine medical test or question. This moment is now to listen, observe, and expand the idea of what a main street looks and feels like. If design choices revolve around connection and content, not merely products, main streets can reemerge from the pandemic alongside the people that need them.