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Time for teamwork: the need for creative retail design

Each year, our professional membership organisation – The Design Business Association (DBA) – commissions a survey into what design agency clients think about the agencies they work with. It’s always illuminating and a great benchmark for our sector to help raise standards.


This year’s post-pandemic survey of over 600 design agency clients, revealed that the pace of change since the pandemic continues to be challenging. 89% of those surveyed feel that the market place is moving faster than ever before, and nearly 80% are concerned that their brand strategy planning is still too reactive and not strategic enough.


The scars of the pandemic are evident across commerce. Businesses continue to grapple with major changes in consumer behaviour with unprecedented levels of channel switching and brand loyalty disruption. It’s not surprising therefore that design agency clients are feeling the heat. Staffing cuts, new internal operational pressures, challenging market conditions, and an overload of priorities are creating a perfect storm for many.


Of those surveyed, 99% of clients agree that the importance of ‘creativity’ to resolve the ongoing challenges has never been greater. In addition, 96% also agree that their breakthrough creative ideas come from working with external design agencies, rather than relying solely on in-house teams.


Music to our design agency ears, obviously, but certainly not surprising. Our own evidence shows that at the heart of our most successful retail design projects lies a strong, collaborative client/agency team.



Combining client and agency skillsets for design development breakthroughs might seem obvious but to be effective and transform design project outcomes, teams also need to operate within a solid framework. So, the following essentials need to be considered as part of the team building process:


1. A sense of the bigger organisational picture – project design teams need to avoid operating in silos which can cause unintended consequences, wasting time and money, as well as confusion and mistrust. The most successful retail design project teams therefore need support and real buy-in from the Board Room.


2. Clear and focused priorities – agreeing the top priorities is fundamental to success. Too many priorities can result in diffused team energy and fragmented results. For instance, a retail design team might be focussed on ‘elevating the instore customer journey‘. It might also need to ‘blend the physical and digital journey for customers’ – a common ‘phygital challenge’ for retailers today. Whereas ‘supporting improved customer service through instore digital resources and staff training’ might also be identified as essential priorities that need to be run in parallel by a different team.


3. A picture of what ‘success’ looks like – the whole team (and the Board) needs to agree clear, measurable targets or specific outcomes for the design project so that there is a clear comparison of the ‘before and after’ impact of design investment. Typically we, and the DBA, encourage clients to measure:

· Turnover/profitability before and after redesign or against non-redesigned stores

· Sales/profit per square feet compared with targets and market trends

· Staff productivity improvements

· Increased spend per customer

· Customer dwell time/satisfaction

· New target customer groups reach


4. The right balance of team players - Henry David Thoreau said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Finding new creative opportunities is more likely when teams start from different perspectives. This helps challenge assumptions, biases and conventions right at the start of a project. Democratising brainstorming is vital too because it allows everyone a voice - not just the highest paid person in the room! Encouraging naïve questions can often uncover blind spots.


Of course, choosing the right design agency to partner with is fundamental to any successful team make-up. We know from our own experience, as well as from the DBA survey, that clients want their design agencies to be:

· flexible and pragmatic;

· honest and transparent;

· commercially aware;

· good communicators;

· pushing and driving in the right places; and

· capable of game-changing insight and creativity.


It’s a long list but one that most members of the DBA pride themselves on being able to fulfil. Like many design agencies, we pitch our credentials to new clients when they need help from a new retail design team. But as we said in one new business meeting recently, “if the chemistry between us feels right, and you think we understand your challenges, then the only way to satisfy yourself of our ability is to talk to our existing clients”.


Hearing first-hand how a design agency manages the client/agency team dynamic, and learning about the successful outcomes they’ve achieved for other clients, is very supportive in the selection process for a new design agency. As one of our own clients said at the end of two major store redevelopment projects:


“Your first major store development project is a journey of discovery. You hope you’ve found the best partners and you put your trust in them. It’s an emotional journey as a business owner. You worry if you are doing the right thing; you worry about how to limit your risk. But with the right team at your elbow, who understand your business vision, it feels more like a shared responsibility. Trust and confidence build and the expertise of the team combines to deliver your aspirations.”

Robert Rock, MD Rocks Jewellers, Dublin*


* Our flagship store development project for Rocks Jewellers in Dublin’s prestigious Grafton Street was shortlisted for ‘Excellence in Collaboration’ at the 2020 Fit Out Awards. You can read more about this in our previous blog.