Retail Customer Experience: GlobalShop – Walmart on the Return of Retail Architecture

Mar 26, 2010

By James Bickers, Editor

Through a special arrangement, presented here for
discussion is a summary of a current article from Retail Customer Experience,
a daily news portal devoted to helping retailers differentiate the shopping

The history of retail architecture is a giant circle that is now
closing in on itself: from store designs that echoed the aesthetic of their
community to giant concrete boxes and now back to local influences and materials.
In the Friday morning keynote session at the recent GlobalShop event, two high-level
members of the Walmart architecture and design team discussed why that shift
is so important, and how it is overcoming some of the negative associations
shoppers have with big boxes.

Lisa Spinks, senior architectural manager for
Walmart, and Lee Peterson, executive vice president of creative services for
retail design firm WD Partners, shared a brief history of retail architecture,
from a Kresge store in 1899 with apartments above, to the birth of the automobile
(and one of its progeny, the shopping mall), to the concrete slab approach
of the first big-box stores, concluding with the rise of the lifestyle center
in 2000, which Mr. Peterson said is “the beginning of branded architecture.”

Ms. Spinks admitted that Walmart’s visual and architectural execution over
the years has been uneven at best. A series of slides showed store after store,
all with different color schemes, exterior logos placed in almost haphazard
format, and a design aesthetic that at times approached brutalism.

“Even the logo, we couldn’t manage to execute consistently — it’s on different
background colors every time, it’s in different form every time,” she

Her team developed what would become the company’s “brand filter,” a set
of statements that would have to be satisfied by everything the company does,
beginning with store architecture. According to the brand filter, Walmart must

  • Caring (compassionate, not cold)
  • Real (approachable, not phony)
  • Innovative (smart, not complacent)
  • Straightforward (simple, not complicated)
  • Positive (motivating, not pessimistic)

In practical terms, some of the
changes to the architecture that arose included more depth to the store façade,
a sort of return to the “cityscape” design of that 1899 Kresge store, or
the original Macy’s location. The new design would be modeled slightly on
residential design, with greenery out front and different colors of brick.

end result sees the store’s façade divided into three visual zones. The “customer
zone” stretches from ground level to eight-feet up. This area is filled with
elements and materials that tie the store to the community — local building
materials, architectural flourishes and designs that reflect other prominent
buildings nearby. The “approachable zone,” from eight-feet to 16-feet up,
includes friendly and functional elements like awnings and signage that tells
shoppers which entrance is which. Everything above 16-feet is reserved for
Walmart’s brand elements.

The result, Ms. Spinks said, is an “approachable,
caring, soft approach to our building … an inviting streetscape.”

“It’s come full circle,” Mr. Peterson added. “There
are greenscapes, there are awnings, there are residential elements. It’s
a completely different ball game.”

Discussion Questions: What have you noticed regarding store design changes
at big boxes? In what areas do you think big boxes should look to further
improve on their architecture and overall appearance?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

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10 Comments on "Retail Customer Experience: GlobalShop – Walmart on the Return of Retail Architecture"

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Doron Levy
Doron Levy
12 years 2 months ago

The big thing I’ve noticed (and love it) is engagement right up at the front. So far, my last few visits to Costco, Home Depot, Lowe’s and Canadian Tire have greeted me with a smiling associate as soon as I entered. I think this is a great idea. When I was in the trenches at Blockbuster, I would make my team say hello to everyone who walked in. It seems that big chains are investing more resources in personnel to start the experience off right. Hardware and mass merchandise formats would especially benefit because the customer almost always has a question.

Why not start the conversation off in a positive note and build the sale from the front door? I like to see big box getting back to basics when it comes to customer service.

Liz Crawford
12 years 2 months ago

I like the intimacy that ensues when there is human-scale signage and proportions to architectural elements at retail. When I was in Beijing, I noticed (couldn’t help but notice) that the scale was deliberately larger-than-life for the government buildings. This monumentalism makes pedestrians feel puny, in every sense. Likewise, big box store architecture often has the same result. No wonder the big boxes score lower on “my neighborhood store” and community. All of the community initiatives in the world don’t completely compensate for this visceral experience entering the store.

So, if the zone signage and architecture is re-scaling to human proportions, I’m all for it. And I bet the loyalty and imagery scores go up too.

Ryan Mathews
12 years 2 months ago

I guess it’s also important to note that the phrase “big box” has become a pejorative term indicating not just an architectural style but a competitive strategy–one based on domination, deep pockets and insensitivity to the local community.

That said, not too surprising that there are all kinds of attempts underway to “humanize” the big box, make it more welcoming and take fresh approaches to merchandising and communication that mitigate against the growing stereotype.

Carol Spieckerman
Carol Spieckerman
12 years 2 months ago

The “greening” of buildings is something that will become more prevalent and initially, more visually obvious. Also, as Walmart and others focus on urban markets and localization, big boxes will continue to shrink and strike a balance between satisfying the “filters” and fitting into the neighborhood landscape.

Sandy Miller
Sandy Miller
12 years 2 months ago

Walmart is not the only retailer that has recently realized the value of connecting their stores to the communities they depend on. Macy’s and Starbucks have also developed programs that will adapt their stores based on regional tastes. It is, however, a clarion call when the largest retailer in the world gets on board with a design trend. The question is how to carry this localized aesthetic beyond the architecture and throughout the store experience. It’s a buyers market on every front and the fight for shopper attention has become considerably more competitive. The retailers who will remain successful in this climate are those that can provide interesting and compelling reasons for shoppers to buy.

Marketers should examine how to extend this appeal to regional tastes to in-store promotion and selling programs in a way that makes sense to the shopper and influences their decisions to buy. Enticing them into the building is only half the story.

Ted Hurlbut
Ted Hurlbut
12 years 2 months ago

For me, one of the critical issues is sheer scale. Over the past couple of years we’ve seen retailers with spaces from 10,000 feet on up struggle with effective utilization of space in an environment of reduced inventories and rationalized SKUs.

When someone’s talking about facade utilization above 16 feet, that’s a BIG building. Any retail space that size is going to have challenges making a connection with individual and community, but when the space can no longer be effectively filled and utilized it becomes an even more sterile environment.

When retail development resumes in earnest, I suspect we’re going to see a trend to smaller, more focused and intimate spaces, but we’ll still be left with many of the behemoths that were built in the past.

Ian Percy
12 years 2 months ago
There’s a principle in group dynamics that goes like this: “A group will act like it looks.” So if at a corporate event the first three rows are virtually empty that tells you about the level of engagement and how close people are to the CEO up behind the lectern giving his annual speech. Likewise you know they work in silos if each functional area sits in their own group. The ‘U’ shape of most meeting room seatings is actually designed for control, not for animated discussion. The huge hollow square design where people sit on opposing sides produces nothing but antagonism which you may have noticed when government leaders meet. The point is that people pick up their behavioral cues from the physical environment. This is why you feel that if you talk out loud in a cathedral God will strike you dead. Architecture and design as behavioral triggers is still a fledgling science/art. Each dimension of design emits some form of energy picked up by our subconscious. The subconscious in turn instructs the… Read more »
Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D.
12 years 2 months ago

Humanizing the “big box” is a good idea. Linking with the local community is a good idea. The next step is choosing which elements of the local community to link to, how to make the link which is likely to be stronger with some groups in the community than others, and then how to do that without offending other members of the community. That is the outside of the building.

The challenge for assortment of products inside is also important. Walmart is trying to eliminate brands and carry a smaller selection. How well will they be able to adapt to local communities with a smaller brand selection?

Sid Raisch
Sid Raisch
12 years 2 months ago

My main concern is that when box stores become vacant that they are not such eyesores. There is nothing worse than a big box with no signage, windows, greenery, etc. to make a town look like a ghost town. This should be a major consideration with towns negotiating to allow them to come. No tax breaks, require minimum aesthetics, and require good maintenance if they are closed.

Herb Sorensen, Ph.D.
12 years 2 months ago

It’s a start. It’s a very long way from a warehouse jammed with steel aisles to a truly human environment. Although the aesthetics may not really be there, Costco is way ahead in the move to vast open space in the center, with the warehouse out of the way around the perimeter. We refer to this as the “inverted perimeter,” or “bowl” design.

It has been done with supermarkets and is transforming some of the drug stores. Shoppers are initially “confused” because they have been trained to expect crappy store design for so long – but by and by you get serious lift. This illustrates the profound problem of relying on shoppers for guidance in store design. They have spent a lifetime learning bad or useless things from retailers, and will perpetuate them.

Bear in mind that at least one Costco with this bowl design regularly does a million dollars in sales PER DAY!!!


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