top of page

The Rules Of Retail Design

The days of retailers being in control are over.

The rules of retail design, McCartney Design

Thanks to innovations in technology- in particular social media- it’s now the customers who have taken control. They are rewriting the conventional rules of retail design. They expect service, competitive pricing and above all an experience. We need to change our conventional rules to accommodate theirs. Added to this, technology is allowing us to do things that were previously too hard, too expensive or just impossible.

Here are 10 ways in which we can challenge the norms of traditional retail design.


OK there is an argument for storefronts on high streets. In a shopping mall, you really don’t need one, not in the conventional sense of having glass shop windows with displays in them. It’s not like you need to keep the weather out.

Storefronts in malls have no other purpose but to attract and engage customers. KitKat Chocolatory’s shopfront is an arms-wide embrace enabling a steady flow of customers through the store while at the same time enabling a KitKat sushi train and coffee sales off the lease line.

KitKat Chocolatory's storefront design
KitKat Chocolatory


We don’t need counters any more, that’s not the way stores should work. All counters do is to take up space and give staff something to hide behind. Technology now permits us to make transactions on a hand held device.

Forget Apple, the car rental companies have been doing it for years. Even a small specialty store wastes upwards of five square metres of space housing CPU’s, printers, cash drawers, sound systems and anything else the IT guys care to cram in. Not to mention the disruption to customer flow. We have the technology, let’s make it work for us.

From a customer point of view, a transaction conducted face to face or side by side without a counter or screen in the way is a more pleasant and intimate experience. Or even if there is no physical transaction- think Uber!


Flexibility is expensive and not always desirable. Putting all your fixtures on castors, for example, adds cost but you have to think about whether or not they will actually be moved, or if they might “drift off” over time into undesirable positions.

Flexible shopfitting systems add a lot of choice for the store staff, and there are infinite ways to configure them- but do you really want to put that kind of pressure on staff when they should be spending their time selling to customers?

Adaptability is the key- creating simple but well thought out systems that are adaptable to future situations. That way the system disappears and the product is king. Think Apple tables.


Most retail stores in Australia are over-lit. We may be increasingly using energy efficient LED light fixtures to save long term running costs but we could be making even bigger savings- and benefitting the environment- by simply using less light. It may sound counter intuitive but using less light generally creates a better-lit environment.

Light is one of those things we only see by comparison. We can only perceive brightness in relation to darkness. So lighting is at its most effective when used with shadows. Once we have determined the right amount of light to shed on the merchandise (that’s the important thing, remember?) the rest of the store can light itself on the overspill. We don’t need to light circulation spaces or the floors between the aisles.

The result is a store that looks dramatic and atmospheric, as opposed to blinding. One that attracts and entices customers and that they feel (and look) good in.

Dramatic and atmospheric lighting design in Great Dane Furniture
Great Dane, Fitzroy


The most sophisticated piece of technology in any store is most likely in your customer’s pocket. They use it to take selfies, send pictures of merchandise to friends for approval, give instant feedback to the rest of the world on your retail experience, and compare your prices. They may even use it to shop your competitors- from your store!

You can’t control this; you need to work with it. What you need to do is provide a retail experience so compelling and immersive that it builds its own social network. Provide selfie points for customers. Merchandise beautifully so that it gets shared and blogged. Provide extra touch points of design and service that get mentioned. And maintain and manage expectations so you can exceed them.

Initiatives like “smart” change rooms can be gimmicks- there is no longevity, maintenance is an issue, and they fall into disrepair very quickly. By far the most useful aspect of technology as far as the customer is concerned would be a merchandise planning software that can tell them what’s in stock at what store at any given time, before they visit.

That’s not glamorous but it’s service. It’s a perfect end-to-end connection of supply chain and social media technology. Food for thought?

Apple retail design


Dolly Parton used to joke that “It costs me a lot of money to look this cheap.” If you are selling goods at value prices remember that you add value by presenting them in a way that’s meaningful to the customer. The formula for value is Value = Quality x Experience ÷ Price.

Price is clearly important but if your quality is basic then a great customer experience increases value.


Some things, like newspapers and toothpaste, just get bought. Customer engagement level does not need to be high. Other goods with more complex paths to purchase, like bicycles or mobile phone plans, need to be sold. It’s why they don’t put Hugo Boss suits in vending machines. Some customer experiences need to be hosted. Labour costs are high so we need to make it as easy as possible for sales staff to engage customers and convert sales in a friendly and efficient way. Store planning and presentation of goods must facilitate this.

Suits are a case in point. Most department stores offer racks of black and navy blue suits expecting to be bought. Consideration of the path to purchase, training and visual aids for staff, and well-planned dressing rooms that facilitate good communication with customers, will increase sales and result in happy staff and happy customers. Dutch retailer Suit Supply not only have a photography style that makes the product look so cool it almost sells itself, but also value add with in-store tailoring.

Designing from the salesperson’s point of view is vital- all it takes is one team member to get frustrated, and you have an unhappy customer with 800 Facebook friends.


This doesn’t mean adding more lighting. (See rule # 4.) What it does mean is that you need to think about how customers look for things. Stores aren’t places to store goods any more- they are there to engage and sell. Finding the product is one thing. In a large format store the category signage needs to be clear and easy so as not to waste customers’ time. Once they find the product it needs to leap off the shelf at them.

One small example: at SuperCheap Auto we had the insight that car care products are the Health and Beauty category of auto retail. A lot of thought and attention goes into the packaging and it’s designed to be sold in sets, like shampoo and conditioner. So we put in LED shelf lighting. Guess what, customers noticed the product and sales increased.

Overcrowding can be a common problem. Sometimes it’s not that you can’t see the product, you can’t even get it off the rack. Which leads to…


In planning for how goods leave stores, we also need to consider how they arrive. Designers need to understand the product journey in order to build the customer journey around it. Each affects the other. Think about the journey from your DC to the customer’s home as one trip.

Cost of sales is important. Your sales staff are there to engage customers. Tasks like replenishment should be made as easy as possible, and goods should arrive in a format that takes up the least amount of your most expensive resources in a shopping centre- space and time.

Target has a great example of $10 towels, which are displayed on a pallet in a box with the price pre-printed on it. No one needed to unpack them or put a price on the shelf.


Stopping is not an option in retail. Customer expectations have changed- we are all customers and it’s all about us. To paraphrase Howard Saunders, we’re not looking for AN experience, we’re looking for THE experience.

There’s the challenge- and that’s what makes it fun!


bottom of page