Why U.S. retail will never be as advanced as China and 9 other myths of retail design debunked at EuroShop 2023

Common beliefs in store design are often true, but sometimes retailers' insights are amiss, such as whether the U.S.’s retail tech will ever be as advanced as China’s.
Elizabeth Christenson
Editor, Retail Leader
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What this means: The retail industry often operates around traditional assumptions about consumer behavior and the retail experience, which over time has clouded new strategic thinking about how to plan effectively and operate retail. Retailers often hook onto buzzwords like “experiential” when making design and store upgrade decisions, but often consumers just want a shopping environment that fits their needs. Small design, traffic flow and signage details can create a huge impact on consumer sentiment and purchase conversion, but these decisions must be made with current consumers in mind and without long-held myths about consumers.

Katelign Quartier
Katelijn Quartier said spatial design is only 40% of the store experience.

Understanding the role of design in the physical store and consumers' typical behaviors in store emerged as the focus of the “10 Myths of Retail Design” presentation at EuroShop 2023 in Dusseldorf, Germany, Feb. 26 - March 2, which garnered more than 81,000 show attendees from 141 countries. Katelijn Quartier, a professor of retail design at the Faculty of Architecture and Arts at Hasselt University in Belgium where she is also the academic director of the Retail Design Lab, dispelled these myths of retail design that apply across all retail channels:

1. It is impossible to choose a design language that shoppers understand the same way.

Myth: A common design language exists for shoppers, Quartier said. For example, consumers would expect sports brand retailers to have a similar feel.

2. The design of the store furniture determines not more than 40% of the store experience. 

Fact: Spatial design is only 40% followed by: 

  • Sensorial experience 25%, 
  • Communication 10%, 
  • 360 degree experience 9%, 
  • Interior shell 8% and 
  • Exterior 8%.

“If you’re asking an architect to design the store, they will probably put everything on [spatial design],” Quartier said. “They will do a great job of making a really nice interior, but usually they forget that the store needs to be self-explaining.”

3. A design can contribute to the desired behavior.

Fact: As consumers know how to behave in an entertainment park versus being in a cathedral, design dictates consumer behavior as they enter a building.

4. Signage is of incremental value to a store.

Myth: By studying shoppers wearing eye tracking glasses, Quartier’s research found consumers are always looking around the store at the same height. Signage does not get used, and instead, stores need to be self explanatory.

“People are not looking up unless they really can’t find something and really need to look at signage,” Quartier said. “Use your product display to communicate what they can find on the next shelf or in the next area.”

5. As we drive on the right hand side of the road, we will probably turn right into a store.

Fact: Consumers drive on the right hand side, which means consumers are intuitively programmed to turn right into a store.

“If you want to help people to do their intuitive behavior, you better have them turn right,” Quartier said. “It’s okay to have them turn left, but then you’ll have to do something interesting on the left-hand side. If you don’t do that, they will turn right.”

6. To remain relevant for the future, every store will need to deploy experience.

Myth: “It’s not only about the experience,” Quartier said. Consumers must be able to follow the flow of the store and find the products for which they are looking, she explained. 

“If your store is not working as it should be, then experience doesn’t count,” Quartier added. “Experience isn’t the answer to everything.” 

7. People are perfectly capable of doing two things at the same time (in a store). Myth: People can’t multitask. If people are searching, they are shopping. For example, if  consumers’ brains are occupied with searching, as soon as shoppers find what they want, feel they have a good idea of where they are in the store and are enjoying the store flow, then the consumer experience will be fine, Quartier explained. “But if I have a feeling that I’m searching something, my brain is occupied,” she said. 

8. The first meters in the store are meant to make people buy. 

Myth: The first meters (more than 3 feet) consumers enter the store, they do exactly nothing. As consumers enter a store, they are adapting themselves, including in ways such as from the outside environment, the trip to store and readying children. For example, when consumers enter a store for the first time, they often forget a shopping cart because they are at the beginning of the store and consumers' brains are occupied at the time. In turn, IKEA allows consumers a generous 45 meters (approximately 49 yards) to adjust before snaking through the store, Quartier said.

9. “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”

Fact: Men and women often behave differently, including when shopping, which means retailers must consider differences in gender and who they’re targeting when crafting their in-store design, Quartier said. 

10. In a few years, we will be as advanced in adopting technology as China.

Myth: Quartier believes other countries will never be as advanced as China. 

“Look at the way we build,” she said. “We have different cultures. China is growing fast. They are building new cities. They are starting from the ground and starting all over again, so there’s no architectural history. As they’re building on a huge base, they still have not enough space.”

In turn, China was quicker to adapt to e-commerce, because retailers didn’t have enough space to grow. Europe, which has historically rich architecture, does not demolish buildings. While Europe also doesn’t have enough space, its connection with architecture is different, and most consumers are located nearby the stores they shop. Europeans will use the online channel, but not at the same pace as China, Quartier explained. In America, as in China, distances are much bigger, so, in turn, Americans rely on Amazon and big supermarkets, much more than Europeans. 

“That’s a difference that will never disappear,” Quartier said.

What’s next: Making design decisions that are personalized to specific buying groups is challenging in a physical retail environment, but seamless retail technologies can help solve some issues. Smart carts, for example, can help consumers individually shop for items based on their needs and preferences throughout the shopping trip. Making retail work for all consumers just through store design is a challenge in this new era of retail, but aiding consumers in making shopping personal with tools like apps or services in-store can relieve some of those pressures.