Top brands buy into a shopping experience

With the online boom, stores are raising their game by offering punters designer attractions and an adventure into the mindset of their products

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 February, 2014, 5:24am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 February, 2014, 5:39am

A light-filled tunnel with slick, epoxy floors and a 5-metre-high aquarium-style window stacked with mermaid torsos and beds of nails instead of racks and shelves.

Welcome to a new way of selling - and shop design - which no longer focuses solely on the products. Instead, designers are being given mandates to create a shopping "experience" that will help build a mental image of the brand and make it memorable.

And examples of this philosophy are appearing in major US cities and in Tokyo and Shanghai.

We wanted to tap into that idea of a temple-like experience
Marc Thorpe, Designer

Among the newest additions to the experiential-retail landscape is sports apparel brand Under Armour in Shanghai, for which New York-based designer Marc Thorpe was brought in to create an innovative space.

Working with new media agency Hush Studios, the result is a 2,500 sq ft space in Shanghai's Jing An Kerry Centre.

Thorpe worked on juxtaposing contrasting textures - smooth and slick to robust and raw - to create an interior that is modern and industrial, yet sophisticated.

The store's proximity to a temple dating back to 400AD served as a jumping off point for Thorpe. "We wanted to tap into that idea of a temple-like experience that takes you through thresholds deeper into the spaces," he said.

The store's exterior may be in high-gloss epoxy red, but it is austere in the way it hides activity inside. "There is no obvious connection for the consumer to the product," said Thorpe. "Right off the bat, there is a certain longing to understand what is going on inside."

Only 10 people are allowed in at a time. They proceed down a 10-metre tunnel illuminated by blinding light to view a film featuring brand ambassador Michael Phelps. The Olympic swimmer leads customers into a space Thorpe describes as the "experience room". He said: "The brand wants you to understand what it is like to train with professionals and begins an educational process of suggesting you can become something better."

Thorpe describes the actual retail space as a "shrine", showing just a small sampling of Under Armour's apparel and footwear. While it is not designed for retail transactions for now, Thorpe said that would change in spring, when the space becomes a more conventional store.

"Because things are moving so much more online, it leaves the retail stores at a bit of a disadvantage. They have to think about what they can do to drive traffic to their spaces, how they can give customers a new experience - a new outlook on a brand - without having to focus so much on sales," he said.

It's an idea that is catching on. At the Louis Vuitton store at Las Vegas' Crystals mall, artist James Turrell was commissioned to create an installation, access to which is by appointment and limited to four visitors at a time.

The reason? The permanent installation, which opened last June, has two chambers. Punters step in to be bathed in light that morphs from pinks and blues to orange over the course of 24 minutes. Then they can feel free to shop afterwards.

Crystals seems to be leading the way in creating innovative retail spaces. At the Mikimoto store there, the window resembles an aquarium, with the jewels displayed on mermaid torsos.

A horse belonging to the late Linda McCartney was the inspiration for daughter Stella's boutique there. She brought in a chandelier from an English castle designed as a tribute. Made up of 7,000 Swarovski crystals in the shape of a horse, it draws onlookers daily, as does the full-sized replica of Rome's Trevi Fountain that stands at the back of the Fendi store in Crystals. Shoppers have to move deep into the store to get a glimpse of it, which is perhaps the point.

In Tokyo, the Alexandre Herchcovitch store was designed to resemble a box with slashes through it. Even with the door and windows open, no merchandise is visible from the outside.

"In Brazil the stores have to have a powerful front display window to show the merchandise," said Arthur Casas, founder of Studio Arthur Casas in Sao Paulo and New York. "That is not important in Japan."

Designer Rem Koolhaus created a space for Prada in New York's Soho that has become a tourist attraction - a sweeping timber wave dips down to the lower level, resembling a skateboard park.

Also in Soho is Longchamp's global flagship, La Maison Unique. London-based Heatherwick Studio replaced a traditional staircase with a "topography of walkways, landings and steps." Displays are attached to the stairs with magnets, and aircraft windscreen glass used for balustrades. What was that about shopping?