Retailers are testing new designs by building mock stores in warehouses and virtual spaces
By Tracy Dillon
Prototyping of new store concepts is not new, but retailers are now seeking more validation at an earlier stage in the process.
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The three case studies below illustrate the trend.
Modeling AT&T’s future
“Prototyping has always been inherent to AT&T’s process, whether that’s a single fixture to support a new product or a full-scale store as we’ve recently done,” says Lourdes Burson, director of sales operations for AT&T Mobility. Rather than the “hard-knocks” experience of testing prototypes in the marketplace, Burson says the company prefers testing in environments that aren’t exposed to customers and field personnel, but allow for people to kick the tires.
A lab store located in AT&T’s headquarters came first. Set up as a full-scale store in the brand’s most current generation of design, the lab store is used by a wide range of groups in AT&T’s organization, from merchandising and marketing teams to visual display and product experience personnel.
“The lab store acts as the final prototype,” says Alex Shapleigh, design principal for Seattle-based Callison. Open one day each week to employees only, the lab space can be reset to evaluate new marketing campaigns and used for testing of design concepts, products, or merchandise vignettes. The technology team uses the lab store as they develop and test technology content for the stores. The training group creates videos and printed curriculum materials there. Company leadership uses the space as a venue for media interviews.
Burson’s team has found it invaluable as a location for strategy meetings, as the lab provides an excellent visual point of reference for discussions. “We didn’t realize how much we would use that space until we had it,” Burson says.
The mock store, a fully built-out store located in the warehouse of one of AT&T’s key fixture partners, is used differently. In fact, it’s three models, side by side, that mirror the current states of the brand’s three generations of stores in the field. Burson notes that the investment made sense because the brand was looking at a paradigm shift for its retail environments. While the lab store is managed like a typical store build, the mock store actively involves more vendors, including fixture manufacturers.
Fixtures, materials, and all other elements could be tested and refined in the model. With all technology fully operational in the space, the technology and IT partners were able to work out the kinds of technical details that can sometimes be an afterthought in store design.
Lighting is another area where the mock store was particularly useful. With a new emphasis on merchandising that required a higher level of lighting coordination, the team went through several iterations of lighting fixtures before they were satisfied with the results.
Once all the details were worked out, a walkthrough with senior executives brought final buy-in.
“We have great technology tools for teleconferencing and communicating,” Burson says, “But sometimes you just need to get everyone in the same room, in person, and work through it.”
Shapleigh says both the mock store and the lab store have proven extremely beneficial. Using them in conjunction, the development team can test out various reconfigurations of one of the brand’s experience pavilions, for example, and then take the newly refined concept to the lab store for live testing. “When we go to launch, we have fewer issues or challenges because we’ve already addressed them,” Shapleigh says.
Ultimately, these investments in testing help speed development, allow AT&T’s many stakeholder groups to weigh in on interdependencies, and create a high level of collaboration between the brand and its many vendor partners.
Burson believes the lab store and mock store also contribute to cost savings. “Instead of learning what works and what doesn’t through iterations of prototypes, we are able to flesh everything out, exhaust all of the details. When our customers walk into a new store for the first time, they are dealing with environments that work.”
Testing finishes and materials for Sperry
In the early stages of the redesign of Sperry’s flagship for its 2013 launch in Natick, Mass., Callison and idX’s Seattle built a real-scale store mockup on idX’s shop floor to allow the team to review and “test fit” each fixture in relation to other elements. The 20-by-40-ft. mockup encompassed the entire “porch” storefront (a new element for Sperry), as well as sales floor, ceiling, walls, fitting room, fixtures, and lighting elements.
Building a large portion of the store allowed the team to test options for the ceiling, finishes, floors, and walls. “We wanted them to be able to get a feel for each finish,” says Ron Singler, principal at Seattle-based Callison. The team also tested a variety of lighting fixtures in the space, identifying more budget-friendly fixtures that provided just the right glow.
A major goal for this mockup was merchandising, Singler explains. Sperry’s merchandising team set up the store to ensure that it worked for both current and future products, particularly since the brand plans to add more apparel and accessories to its mix. The completed set-ups were then photographed for distribution to the stores.
“The mockup gave them confidence in changing the attitude of the space to reach a younger audience,” Singler says. It also helped team members who had not been involved in design decisions understand the design intent and details and provide feedback, adds Heather Dietrichson, Sperry’s director of store construction. Seeing options in place allowed the entire team—including executives—to come to agreement quickly.
While the costs to build the mock-up were shared, idX initially covered most of the investment, then repurposed many elements when the store mockup was disassembled.
As Verizon and Columbus, Ohio-based Chute Gerdeman fine-tuned design for both the wireless company’s first Destination store at Mall of America and its Smart store concept for the wireless company’s retail fleet, a real-scale mock store played an important role. A collaboration between Verizon, Chute Gerdeman, and Sparks, the space was completely merchandised with all of the items that would be in the Destination store, had more than 100 monitors, and contained everything including air conditioning.
“The idea was to invest time and space to see how ideas would work—and hone them before they were put into production,” says Jay Highland, VP and client creative partner for Chute Gerdeman.
The project involved a series of mockups—the first starting at about 4,500 sq. ft. and the final closer to 9,000 sq. ft., says Jeff Harrow, chairman of Sparks Custom Retail, which built the mock store in its Philadelphia facility.
In the space, the team tested individual elements (including spacing and durability), demonstrated concepts to Verizon’s executive leadership, and trialed a wide range of technologies. Hundreds of people went through the mock store, offering comments and changes that Sparks could immediately put into practice and deploy for further testing. By the time the first destination store opened at the Mall of America in late 2013, it “felt like a third or fourth store rather than a first store,” says Lynn Rosenbaum, VP of retail environments for Chute Gerdeman.