2011 IRDC Recap

Compelling case studies, the best of visual merchandising, and lessons on creating meaningful customer experiences—it was all there (and more) during the 2011 International Retail Design Conference, held September 7-9 in San Francisco.

Instead of leaving their hearts in San Francisco, attendees left with inspiration, ideas and connections to help fuel their creative fires. The 11th annual event covered everything from retail archetypes and airport retail to in-store technology, European retail trends and designing for millennial shoppers.

We’ve gathered some of the event’s best moments, notable quotes and inspiring take-aways.

The Keynotes

Kicking off this year’s IRDC, keynote speaker Chip Conley, founder and ceo of Joie de Vivre Hospitality, shared how he was inspired by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to create his own pyramid guide to transform the guest experience at his boutique hotels. “You want customers to walk away thinking, ‘These guys get me without me even having to tell them,’ ” he explained.

Conley’s inspirational talk encouraged retailers to go beyond just providing a good or service. Discussing Apple’s foray into retail, Conley said the company approached its store environments as the best advertising they could do. “Now, it’s a club house for cool people,” he said. Another retailer that gets it, he said, is Whole Foods Market, with its store environments-turned-temples for food. “It’s like a religious experience—self-actualized at its best.”

The goal, he told attendees, is creating peak moments, or “moments when you feel like you’re in the right place.”

It was the first of several moments during IRDC when we all knew we were in the right place.

The “Designing for the Millennial Shopper” general session was full of interesting insights from Little’s Nicole Rehfuss, Marcie Merriman from Big Red Rooster and Michelle Fenstermaker from WD Partners. This hour-long discussion covered the buying habits, personality traits and core values of this powerful and influential generation, ages 18 to 29 years.

Fenstermaker shared that millennials are very careful spenders, putting 20 percent of their income into savings. Things like extreme couponing, private labels and bargain shopping at supercenters are nothing to hide. In fact, this generation is making frugality cool. In addition, “They enjoy grocery shopping more than any other generation,” she said.

Trust and responsibility is a huge issue with these shoppers. “They want to connect with brands that are candid with them,” said Rehfuss. One that’s already succeeding? Toms Shoes, which donates a pair of shoes to charity for every pair purchased.

Back for another year, tech guru Jim Crawford told attendees during his Thursday morning session on in-store technology: “I want to take the word ‘multi-channel’ out of our vernacular.”

To re-engage shoppers and create a unified shopping experience, he encouraged retailers to create a new relationship with the shopper centered on how she consumes information. “Technology itself is not innovation. It’s how we use it.”

Crawford’s session included a number of inspiring examples, including virtual fixtures; augmented reality programs that direct shoppers to a desired product on the store shelf; and New Balance’s app that created a virtual baton race to draw shoppers to its New York store.

Closing keynote speaker Rob Forbes, founder of Design Within Reach and, most recently, Public bikes, talked about adapting to the new retail paradigm and becoming an antidote to the online, discount frenzy. “Encourage people to engage differently,” he said. “Create meaningful customer experiences.”

Sharing a collection of slides from his travels, which he uses to inspire his work, Forbes talked about the importance of repetition and the effects of pattern in visual displays. As retailers rethink the use of their spaces, he said, “They have prioritized the use of powerful visual.”

Notable Breakout Sessions

“Visual merchandising has gone from the basement to the boardroom,” pronounced Eric Feigenbaum during the “Visual Merchandising Symposium.” This year, the session focused on ROI, and the panelists provided frontline examples of displays that work hard not only to attract attention, but to entice customers to stick around and spend money.

Feigenbaum, the visual merchandising chair at LIM College (and VMSD’s New York editor), was joined on stage by Hyunah Pak of Nordstrom, Sharon Krause of Macy’s and ChadMichael Morrisette, a celebrated freelance designer in L.A. and founder of CM Squared Designs.

For Nordstrom, the display direction leans on “storytelling that sells product,” said Pak. In addition, “signage is coming back even more. We’ve always been very ‘quiet’ as a company, but now we’re exploring this more.”

Morrisette, who works regularly with small boutiques, is much more about instant buzz. “The main focus for me is, ‘Get noticed,’ ” he said. “That takes risk, both financial and creative, but then local media outlets pick up these boutique windows and they get shared through social media.”

One of this year’s IRDC case studies focused on the repositioning of Harley-Davidson Motor Co. away from an intimidating and confusing shopping experience to a more welcoming environment for both newcomers and die-hard brand advocates.

FRCH Design Worldwide’s Niki Fitzgerald and Monica Gerhardt shared details on the process of creating a modular, flexible and scalable design, which was initially tested in select locations. “The challenge came with how to create consistency within dealerships,” Gerhardt said.

Four key terms were developed as strategies, outlining the concept narrative—“bloodlines,” celebrating brand heritage; “tribes,” asking why customers ride; “ride,” finding out how customers want to feel when they ride; and “custom,” a celebration of “no two bikes alike.”

These became the guiding principles for three concepts that allowed franchisees to create their own kit-of-parts, which included such options as an orange color palette, old patent drawings for graphics and simplified merchandising.

Discussing the redesign of Terminal 2 (also known as “T2”) at the San Francisco Intl. Airport, Gensler’s Jeff Henry says the best compliment he’s heard was, “It doesn’t feel like an airport.”

In order to minimize the stress of traveling, Henry, Gensler’s Melissa Mizell and Ray Quesada, project manager with the San Francisco Intl. Airport, added more than 1000 places for travelers to plug in their electronic devices, provided Wi-Fi access, installed abundant works of art and included a variety of seating arrangements, such as lounges and egg-shaped chairs. There’s also clear visibility between the café area and boarding gates. The payoff: Passengers spend 27.5 percent more per person on food than SFO’s average for all terminals.

During the case study presentation on Glentel Telecommunications stores in Canada, Cary Skidmore, vp of marketing for Glentel Inc., told attendees that the current challenge of telecommunications retailing was “cutting through the confusion of cellular telephone retailing.”

“There are so many brands, features and models constantly coming into the marketplace that choice has become overwhelming,” he said, “and so the purpose of the shopping environment must be to clarify and simplify.”

An additional Glentel challenge was to separate its two Canadian retail banners: Wireless Wave and Tbooth.

“So the main initiative was clearing out the stores, replacing service counters with freestanding tables so customers could move around at will and interact with the staff for important questions,” said Jean-Pierre Lacroix, president of Shikatani Lacroix. The merchandise was taken out of glass cases and put on wall display panels, with color cues to differentiate the various carrier brands.

During their session on “Retail Archetypes,” speakers Gavin Johnston and Ethan Whitehill of Two West Inc., defined more than 10 types of settings that prime people to buy, such as the “Cave,” (think Abercrombie), the “Garden,” (Anthropologie) and the “Bazaar” (Ikea, the masters of turning chaos into an advantage). “We provide the setting, but the customer provides the scene,” said Whitehill.

With the idea that determining your archetype helps focus the story, the duo asked the audience, “If your store were a story, what would it be about?”

View more images of IRDC 2011 in San Francisco.