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Ducks and Sheds

Ten years ago when I was in New York I made a special pilgrimage to one of my favourite stores in the world, the Big Duck in Flanders, Long Island.

The Big Duck in Flanders, NY

The Big Banana is renowned for fronting a banana farm, and among other things you can actually buy bananas there. The Big Pineapple sells pineapples, and the Big Macadamia sells, surprise, surprise, macadamias (not Big Macs.)

But the Big Duck, although once a symbol and retail outlet for a thriving duck farm, now sells only souvenirs of itself, and in that respect is a kind of perfect retail concept.

As students of architecture many years ago we were introduced to Robert Venturi’s concept of buildings being either “ducks” or “decorated sheds.” Ducks combine symbolic and functional aspects of building and the overall symbolic form dominates the architecture. A Decorated Shed is a much more pragmatic structure in which the function is expressed via conventional signage- a more versatile alternative but arguably less fun.

There are ducks and sheds in retail. While pure ducks like the aforementioned “big” stores are few and far between, stores that have duck-like qualities are the ones that take on some type of symbolism in their fitout. This can be through expressing unique qualities of their product, their company culture, or their customer base.

Sheds abound in Australia and New Zealand. Bunnings is probably the best example- literally a huge, well engineered and well laid out shed which delivers what it promises on the sign.

Sheds in this context work well as they deliver an economical form of housing the merchandise and through sheer scale provide an experience for the customer, and an impression of value pricing. Hence the popularity of bulky goods centres. But the shed in its pure form has limited potential for smaller scale retailing.

Bunnings Warehouse is likened to a large shed

If Bunnings is the ultimate shed, the ultimate duck must surely be Apple. Brand DNA runs so strongly through Apple that hardware, software, stores and staff are all perfectly aligned with the idea of technology existing to make life easier for people. Hence the ultimate simplicity of the store fitouts which are conceived and detailed with the same care and attention to detail as a MacBook Pro. Take the merchandise out, remove the sign and you’d still have a pretty good idea that it’s an Apple store.

Peter Alexander is another example. A store that sells sleepwear in an environment that looks like a bedroom- even to the extent that one store has a dreamy upside down bedroom on the ceiling. What you buy is a souvenir of the experience.

Problems arise when you try to apply shed principles to stores that should really be ducks. I once visited a Sydney shopping centre where there was a row of value women’s fashion stores, each one consisting of white walls, white ceiling, bright lights and a selection of very pragmatic finishes.

To the casual eye, the merchandise was broadly similar. Clearly they had all been value engineered down to the wire. The result was that when I cropped the photos so you couldn't see the signs, you literally couldn’t tell them apart. Not only was there no personality, there was no differentiation either. One reason why they were all on sale yet no one was in there- they were just a bunch of sheds (not ducks) in a row.

It shouldn’t be too hard to build a duck. Fashion, for example, is all about brands and they all have their stories. Dig deep enough into the story and you’ll find a symbolic element that can blossom out and become the store concept.

Abercrombie and Fitch built a successful business by looking at their customer’s age, demographic and habits and creating a frat house party to surround them and the merchandise. OK, its not for everyone but it was never meant to be. My point is that when you do it, the more unusual the idea and the more you commit to it, the better. It gets you noticed and customers want to be part of the creative experience.

You can either build a very good store or a very bad store for the same budget. A good one will be in total alignment with the merchandise and your brand story, and will attract and engage customers. Unless you’re selling hardware, booze or car accessories a shed is not usually the way to go. Think duck. You need to reflect on what it is you’re really selling and who you’re selling it to , and from that gain the insights necessary to have a really good and differentiated idea.

It’s not a question of picking the latest cool finishes, in fact that’s the last thing that should be on the agenda. It should be about you and what represents your brand- and if that means building the entire store out of green milk crates (and I’ve seen it done) so much the better.

All I’m really saying is that a store should look like what it sells- or the spirit of what it sells. It’s pretty simple really. Over to you.

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