Retail Trends

For years pundits and futurists have predicted that online shopping would be the death of the retail store. Yet year after year, we return to the mall or shopping center. So what keeps us shopping? Why do we continue to search for a parking space, fight the crowds, and stand in line at the checkout counter? The answer can be found in a closer look at some of the trends in today’s retail design.

The Greeks and Romans thought shopping was important enough that they included retail in the civic and cultural mix of the agora and the forum. In the Middle East, souks were an early version of the shopping mall, with their emphasis on sheltering the shopper from heat and sun. As the centuries passed, the town square marketplace became a fixture in great cities throughout Asia and Europe. 

In his book Call of the Mall, Paco Underhill talks about how great retail design has been an enduring part of civilization. “For centuries, the people who built places to shop tended to be merchants. So they took seriously their responsibility to attract shoppers. They created environments intended to present their wares, and to give shoppers a sense of moment, of event, of place.”

Retail is as timeless as architecture itself, and retail architects and designers are creating that sense of moment, event, and place in new and innovative ways. 

Today’s Trends


There is not a more successful example of new retail design than Apple stores. The brain-child of Ron Johnson in partnership with architects Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Apple store design shows us the timeless allure of beautiful products displayed in a beautiful environment. Apple has proven that modern, minimal design can connect with the masses. Their stores are iconic and innovative, and despite the kit of parts that reinforces the brand, the stores are not copies of one another.

Other retailers are experimenting with technology to present traditional goods in a new way. The Color Bar and Danielle Wall at the Kendra Scott store in Rice Village in Houston are examples of how technology can drive the merchandising of traditional goods, in this case women’s jewelry and accessories. At the Color Bar, customers choose the stones and metal silhouettes for a variety of necklaces, bracelets, and rings which are then fabricated and delivered to the customer. There is additional iPad support if the two color stations are occupied at the bar. To further customize the shopper’s experience, the store’s most popular Danielle earrings are recreated in LED lights that are tuned to the exact colors of the available stones and can be manipulated for the customer.

Experience and Lifestyle

Retail has always been as much about experience as it is the functional act of buying goods. Home-grown Texas retailers Whole Foods Market and Central Market are perfect examples of how rethinking the food-buying experience has created innovative new retail design. Upscale grocery stores have captured perfectly the shift in how we as consumers think about food. These grocers have capitalized on the fact that we are more concerned about what goes into our food and how it is grown. They have also built their retail environments around the idea that food selection and preparation is very much about lifestyle and personal expression.

Upscale grocery stores have brought quality merchandising to a formerly bland, functional supermarket experience. Space is allocated for seating areas to sample food items, taste wine or have a complete meal in the store. Central Market takes their merchandising layouts one step further by prescribing the path the customer takes (think IKEA) as opposed to the undifferentiated parallel aisles found in traditional supermarkets. Materials, lighting and merchandising layouts provide the customer with a much more engaging and sophisticated retail experience than the traditional supermarket. Significantly, these stores are often delivering this merchandising experience in less square footage and in more urban locations than the traditional supermarket.

Last updated: February 28, 2013

Eataly, in the Flatiron District of New York, is another food retailer demonstrating new thinking about the food buying experience. Described as the largest artisanal Italian food and wine marketplace in the world, Eataly provides a thoroughly entertaining and engaging experience. It has further blurred the line between dining and shopping with table service and self-service dining areas sprinkled liberally throughout the shelves and displays. Arranged on multiple floors in an historic building built for wholesale toy merchants, Eataly is capped by an open-air rooftop beer garden. Forget dinner and a movie—dinner and shopping will take the entire evening. 

Similarly, Phoenicia Specialty Foods in Houston offers a variety of gourmet products not typically found in a grocery store. The MKT Bar restaurant in its downtown location, which is adjacent the Discovery Green Park, entertainment venues, office buildings, and the convention center, offers a gathering spot with music and other programmatic events, and has expanded upon the urban grocery store experience for this area of the city.

Smaller is Smarter – Urban Retail

After years of stores getting larger and larger, culminating in big boxes and super centers, the trend is now reversing. Major retailers are exploring smaller, more urban prototypes to reach previously untapped urban customers, and enabling the creation of walkable, urban developments and districts. 

In Houston, the CityCentre project has shown how to redevelop a dead mall into a vibrant, mixed use neighborhood. The architectural design team included Genlser and Kirskey working in conjunction with landscape architects at The Office of James Burnett. CityCentre incorporates a luxury hotel, restaurants, office space, multi-family residential, fitness center and movie theatre on the site of the former Town and Country Mall. Laid out on approximately 35 acres, the project uses a traditional urban street grid and public open space to create a new community in west Houston.

In downtown Santa Monica, Frank Gehry’s iconic Santa Monica Place has been totally redeveloped into a new, urban-friendly collection of retail shop and restaurants. The design team of Omniplan and the Jerde Partnership removed the roof of the three-level indoor mall and reconstructed the entire project to connect with its surroundings and the Southern California climate. Restaurants and a food court were located on the third level with views to the Pacific Ocean. A central plaza, on axis with the Third Street Promenade, provides space for large-scale public events. Pugh Scarpa redesigned the adjacent city-owned parking garages to incorporate street-level retail and art to the facades of the garage. Fortunately, Gehry’s chain link lettering remains. 

Individual stores within these developments then create unique shopping experiences using space, finishes, and lighting to set a stage and create a sense of event. After 25 years in the same location, Tootsies, a high-end retail icon in Houston, decided to relocate to a the prime corner spot of a new urban mixed-use development on Westheimer Road. The client wanted a fresh, contemporary take on the familiar Art Deco design concept of its prior space. Gensler designed the store with an ambiance of Hollywood’s silver screen era achieved with art deco styling, expressed in the stepped ceiling and column details with strategically placed halo lights. Varied finishes and fixtures help brand each department, and a 10-ft by 300-ft-long glamour walk through the center of the store.

Despite the enormous increase in online shopping, brick-and-mortar retail continues to reinvent itself. Since its beginning, retail has always had a social and experiential dimension, which internet-based retail can never offer. Physical retail centers have historically had an important role to play in the city’s physical makeup, and this is now more true than ever. They are re-establishing themselves as the city’s social spaces, offering entertainment, goods and services, fresh air, and true social connection. Brick-and-mortar retail remains alive and well.

This article is expanded content for Texas Architect March/April 2013.