Retail is Dead

June 21, 2017:

Nab Homemain
Nab Homemain

The interface between a brand and its customers is rapidly changing. Organisations are rethinking the balance between their virtual and physical presence and how to design interactions across all these channels to ensure they are consistent, relevant and effective. The customer is king in this new knowledge-saturated world.


Warren and Mahoney has been leading customer experience and user-centred design projects for forward-thinking institutional and government organisations throughout Australasia.

Drawing on the expertise of our staff across all our six Australasian offices, we share our insights on how to create successful architectural, social and business outcomes within this changing retail environment.

How can design transform retail? Nicole Stock, editor, in conversation with Gareth Huston.

NS Why do physical retail stores still matter?

GH Retail isn’t really about the transaction. It’s more about an interaction. The analogy is you get a coffee machine at home so you can make yourself a really nice cup of coffee and sit down at your own table to drink it. Why would you ever go to a cafe? People want to go to a cafe because they want an experience, an interaction. That experience is going to cost us more money and be more time consuming, but we are willing to do this because it delivers a simple human need – physical interactions that enhance our lives.

NS How do you create that experience?

GH The approach has to be about the end user. For example, with a new building, we look at how a person might use the building and then work backwards. We look to understand what the needs are, what the pains are. Good design is driven around people. As a customer it’s your interaction with the people who work there that will give you a really good experience. The physical design really just facilitates that.

Retail isn't really about the transaction. It's more about the interaction.

NS How does design help support great service?

GH It’s the customer experience that you’re designing. You’re actually, designing the staff ’s or technology's ability to deliver that customer experience in the physical environment.

NS Are there different drivers that influence those interactions?

GH What we’re seeing now is retailers reacting to technology that’s getting better and more mobile; their online channels are playing a greater role in a customers' shopping experience. Take banking – historically their branch networks have had a large footprint and workforce servicing that network. As people are transferring online, banks are really looking at how they interact with their customers. There’s now a multitude of different footprints and formats they’re looking at. For NAB their uptake online has seen dramatic growth whilst last year, they had a 10% drop in foot-fall into their physcial retail network.

Retailers are looking at their network footprint, and reconfiguring their physical environments to match what’s happening online.

Retailers are looking at their network footprint and re-configuring their physical environments to match what's happening online.
NAB on George
NAB on George
NAB on George
NAB on George

NS How do service retail spaces – like banks and government agencies – differ from the mall consumer shop?

GH One is about buying a physical product, while the other is a service – it’s a non tangible sell. It’s interesting because historically, service retailers have designed the customer experience around business needs. That’s been evolving and now they’re in shopping malls and located wherever a retail precinct is. They are competing for customers’ time, as much as a fashion store next door.

In banking it’s been a very closed environment. Breaking down barriers was key to the success of enabling staff to actually have more conversations with their customers. Everyone thinks retail is all about sales, it is, but it’s also about relationships. If the business can form a relationship with a customer and the customer relies on them for their expertise, then you form a longer term relationship and a better understanding of your customers' needs.

NS How do you measure success?

GH To make success real, there needs to be a pre-occupancy evaluation. You have to really understand how people are working, what it is going to change and how that change gets managed when they go into their new environment. Understanding the business analytics pre and post the design enables us to measure the success.

The post-occupancy review has to evaluate the design and the change that has come from it. There are a series of interviews and discussions around making the design better for them. It is a changing world in the way staff and customers interact so those environments need to change too.

The measures need to be tangible for the business so that as well as the gains they understand the pains. They can then ensure their change management people are involved to facilitate that new environment and the evolution of the experience principles.

Everyone thinks retail is about sales - it is, but it's also about relationships.

NS So changing the retail environment is bigger than just physical change?

GH  We’ve now worked on a number of customer experience projects in Australia. We completed the Service New South Wales project recently which was rejuvenating an old way of working to suit new ways of thinking – amalgamating five or six agencies under one roof. Things like registrations and fishing licenses, births, deaths, and marriages. The brief was to do a one stop shop. Rather than the customers having to go to different agencies along the High Street, they’d go to one place.

Obviously, there is a substantial change in the staffing model. Staff now have to deliver multi-modal expertise across all the agencies in an open plan environment. The service centres are very much retail environments because it’s keenly transactional. It’s about people’s time and ensuring customers understand the expertise of staff.

There’s a lot of positives to these sorts of changes. Rather than doing one project and saying, 'off you go, we’ll see you in six years time when we do the next concept' – we want to ensure the projects' evolutionary cycle has the original customer experience principles intact and to future proof the omni channel interactions.

Nicole Stock is the former editor of Urbis magazine and has a Bachelor of Architecture with first class honours from Auckland University.

Nicole previously worked on Architecture NZ and Houses magazines as an associate editor. She now works for the Auckland multi-disciplinary strategic design firm, Alt Group.