Realities of retail design in the post-Covid world?

22 Apr 2020

How could Covid-19 impact retail design? Will interior designers have to rethink the concepts of human-centric design, putting the people’s health and safety above the actual experiences and convenience? As shoppers, will we ever be able to feel safe in crowded supermarkets or comfortable enough with sanitation officers behind our backs and thermal scans at every doorstep?

To some of these questions, we sought answers from three prominent design industry leaders – Carla Conte, creative director at Brand Creative, Pallavi Dean, founder and creative director at Roar, and Melani Sabhaney, co-founder and design director at Interspace. They shared their expertise and thoughts during an online panel discussion, recently co-hosted by OFIS and Cosentino.

So, where do we go from here?

Carla Conte believes that interior designers will have to think hard, fast, and outside the box to deliver spaces that make people feel safe but “also excite them, giving them something to look forward to at the end of this.”

She comments: “Until the vaccine is developed, there will be so much uncertainty as to what the right way forward is. Economic fallout could potentially be devastating, and what personally worries me is people’s mental health at the end of this. However, I want to come to the table with more optimistic views. As designers, I believe that we can contribute by creating positive and safe spaces and give people something to look forward to.”

The fact that the majority of people (willingly or not) switched to online shopping, sprung an ongoing debate again as to whether brick-and-mortar is going to survive in the post-Covid world. Carla, however, believes the opposite.

“We’ve been hearing that retail is dying and that shopping malls are going to shut down, but I strongly disagree. Brick-and-mortar is here to stay, but we’ll certainly see a reinvention of it. Brands will still be using their physical spaces to create a unique experience and connect with their consumers on an emotional level that complement their online offer,” says Carla.

Globally, many online stores are opening up physical stores as a way to attract more sales, reversing the trends to so-called clicks-to-bricks.

“This might come as a surprise, but 81% of Gen-Z prefers to shop in stores. Bear in mind that these consumers were practically born with Ipads in their hands, and they like to disconnect and get out there. Furthermore, 73% of Gen-Z likes to discover new products in-store,” she adds.


SAFE DISTANCE: Together, yet alone

Taking cues from spa and wellness concepts, those of us who design for this segment are often faced with the real-life oxymoron of creating spaces where we are – distanced yet together.

“So, in any space, you should feel like you’re amongst others, but especially in a pampering or a grooming space you should feel like you’re getting a personalized experience. Safe distancing has to be taught in design schools, and proximity will now gain a whole new meaning,” explains Carla.  “The finishes used in spas and salons also suffer from intense daily cleaning and maintenance.  Harsh chemicals are used to remove polishes and dyes.  Its important to understand  that specifying monolithic and non porous materials (which come in larger sheet sizes) means we can avoid joints, where often bacteria and viruses thrive. “

She continues: “I don’t want a world where I’m not allowed to see anybody else, but I do want to go places where we are allowed to engage with one another safely. Food is the ‘social glue’ for all occasions, driving longer shopping center body clocks. So I’m estimating that in the future, we’ll be seeing more malls adapting large open food halls with choice for ‘distance seating’ as opposed to smaller dine in restaurants and food courts.”

Melani Sabhaney, co-founder and design director at UAE-based design consultancy Interspace, shares her concerns about the social distancing and circulation in traditionally crowded shops, such as souks and jewelry stores. “Over the years, we’ve designed more than 100 Malabar Gold and Diamonds stores in the region so navigating high footfall was always our top priority. How can we implement the concept of social distancing in such crowded spaces, especially during the festive seasons, such as Diwali?”

SCREENING: Check one, check two

Designers agree that the thermal scans at malls and stand-alone stores could become the new norm in the post-Covid world, alongside specially-designed sanitation stations in key locations. Security officers will double up as sanitation officers.

“A couple of years ago, I went to a shopping mall in Saudi Arabia and at the entrance, they had a full-body scanner as a security measure. At first, I felt a bit awkward, but after a few days, I got used to it. Thermal scans at the front entrance in malls could become short-term solutions, but a lot of people are asymptomatic so we have to look beyond this. Design-wise there is no magic wand to say this is a one-stop solution for the future,” says Carla.

In addition to that, Pallavi Dean, founder and creative director at Roar, also agrees that the screening will be intrusive, and there will be a major push back from people.

“Take airport security, for example,” she says. “I absolutely hate the scanning procedures, but it keeps us all safe. So, as much as it annoys me, I would rather spend half an hour going through inconvenient procedures that will keep my family and me safe. So yes, in the post-Covid world, we will have all these intrusive measures, but let’s be honest, it’s going to keep us safe, too.”

Melani further adds that people tend to forget bad things quickly so we won’t relay that hygiene and sanitization habits will be practiced as they’re now. 

“Being designers, we have a predisposition to be problem solvers, so we need to see how we are going to navigate these challenges but with an eye for design. Maybe an interestingly-designed tunnel with integrated UV lights can be an option to further explore for people who are boarding on cruise ships or visiting shopping malls,” adds Melani.

PHYGITAL: Buzzword or reality?

Once a buzzword, but so-called phygital culture, a concept that brings together physical and digital customer experience, overnight became our new reality. Whether it’s our personal choice or we’ve been forced to shop by the “click of a button”, a current lockdown has proven to all of us that we can now go for long periods of time without having to step out of the house.

“I used to hate online shopping, and I’ve just discovered the convenience and beauty of it. I have no doubt that the future of retail will be even more phygital. We will be embracing digital but in physical spaces. So, for example, you will be able to select a couple of items online, and then when you can come to the store, these items in several sizes will be available for you to immediately try it on,” says Pallavi.

Melani shares similar thoughts: “Personally speaking, I never thought that I could be a person who can enjoy working remotely or shop groceries online, but we’re all learning a lot from these experiences. I now think what kind of design solutions we can offer to gold and jewelry retailers, for example, that will allow them to showcase their products online and still provide safe tactile experiences offered in their physical stores.”

LESS IS LESS: No contact

We’re already seeing it with Uber Eats, Instashop, and other app deliveries, which are now offering “leave at the door” options. Touch-less, contact-less, door-less, pay-less… designers agree that in the future, retailers will be implementing more “less” solutions and sensors that can help reduce and eliminate physical contact, especially in high-contact areas such as washrooms and public toilets.

“We were sketching some ideas of how we can reinvent a foot paddle and make it as a design feature. Some of our clients are still reluctant to ideas that in public bathrooms, for example, you don’t need the doors and I’m sure that we will be having more of these discussions in the future,” explains Pallavi.

SAFETY FIRST: Customers and workers at greater risk

Several major retailers in the US, including Wallmart, Costco, and Target, have been offering dedicated shopping hours for its elderly customers during the Coronavirus pandemic.

“My mother lost several brothers and sisters to Polio in Italy back in the 1950s, and she never thought that she’d be living through another pandemic again.  Now that she’s a senior citizen and living in Canada these memories have come back to haunt her and she’s terrified to even get to a pharmacy to pick up her medications” adds Carla. “I believe that dedicated shopping hours for senior citizens and those who are at greater risk could be the way forward, especially for supermarkets and stores with high-traffic where proximity has always been an issue. We can’t deny them the right to shop safely.  We are very spoiled here in the Middle East where most retailers offer delivery services.  I think the rest of the world will now invest in improving their delivery options and I’m hoping that it may become mandated by governments for essential items like food and medicine for seniors or high-risk individuals.”

Carla adds that both retailers and designers will have to think about how to protect those working on the frontline.

“We’ve been focusing a lot on how Covid-19 will impact an overall design and customer experience, but as designers, it is our responsibility to think about frontline workers, too. They have every right to be asking: ‘Who protects me?’ People working in supermarkets, cashiers at the counters, pharmacists, they all need to be protected. However, we cannot put everybody behind the glass panel (although that’s a great interim option), so we will have to challenges ourselves to come up with both practical and design-led solutions for the future.”



Cover image: Konoha bench designed by Toyo Ito for Sancal

Image 1: OFIS showroom in Oud Metha

Image 2: GoSport store designed by Brand Creative

Image 3: Cafe area at Rossano Ferreti salon for customers to socialize while getting their nails done, designed by Brand Creative 

Image 4: Malabar Gold and Diamond store in Malaysia designed by Interspace

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