Plug and Play: The New Scalable Strategy that Rocks Retail

By MulvannyG2 Architecture

During the month of April, design firm MulvannyG2 hosted a museum-quality exhibit on a 1960s Japanese urban planning movement called “Metabolism.” The idea behind Metabolism—that development should grow in an organic way that expands and contracts according to changing demand—made us revisit an idea of our own: How can we take the mobile nature of one highly successful retail approach, Portland’s downtown food cart scene, and apply it to other fixed retail typologies that aren’t on wheels, such as big boxes or retail centers? How can we make architecture “move,” and what are the benefits to that?

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Let’s Rethink Architecture

Portland, Ore., has a food cart scene unlike any in the country. It’s huge, organized, and each ‘pod’—as opposed to "taco truck"—resides in a specific site within this unique community. Eating there made us not only think about mobility but about the relationship between mobile elements and fixed elements in retail architecture. It occurred to us that today’s retail building programs stress building permanence when retail brands actually should shine as the established presence, with architecture working—and changing as needed—to support that.

But to create a building program that more flexibly communicates both retail brands and trends, we need a radical shift: Instead of permanence, what if adaptability were the driving force behind the design and construction of stores or points of purchase? A means to that end: Introduce prefabricated components to large format—and other—retail typologies.

How could this actually work? One example: Let's use prefab’s flexibility to significantly improve efficiency and brand messaging opportunities while reducing the costs of store remodels. Why? Today, designers help retailers manage a five-to-10-year building remodel cycle, and each remodel’s bill includes not only the cost of construction, but the loss of revenues when all or some of the store is shuttered during construction.

How could prefab reduce those costs? Separate the individual functions of the big box—pharmacy, grocery, fashion, deli—and design prefabricated, branded components for each that could then be plugged into the box as the remodel progresses or while a brand new store is being built. While this prefab method certainly would speed up construction, we also realized that it opens up other new and exciting possibilities, with more benefits that actually turn the large format experience into a scalable one. Here, we’ll explain more:

A. More than a sum of parts. Aside from this strategy to reduce remodeling costs and keep stores operational, what if each component could exist on its own—located on a corner or as a mobile cart—and then migrate to join other components to collectively repopulate the “parent” big box store as needed? Each component would be a branded structure and designed to correspond to, elevate, and spread
the retailer’s brand.

B. Portable events. What if we considered each component as not just discrete departments within the store but as opportunities for events, based on location or season? Example: How about a Thanksgiving component that pops up in November at farmers’ markets, in neighborhoods, selling turkeys, serving items or decor? Or think of a dorm room decorating component, located on college campuses in late August as students move in, stocked with goods or taking orders for delivery from the parent store’s distribution center.

C. Components secede! As another alternative, what if a component did not plug back into a mother ship or a big box store but existed simply as a specialty store extension of a big box brand?

D. Test market opportunity. What if these components were considered as a means to introduce a brand new market, to test the water? It offers a lower threshold of risk: Instead of creating an 180,000-sq.-ft. store and experimenting with that, first establish a component in a new market and tweak from there.

E. Extending the points of purchase (POP). What if we took this even further and branded elements of the retail distribution channel that are, at this point in time, not branded? Example: Trucks deliver retail goods to stores across the country, loaded into the store on pallets. What if the truck were branded? What if the trailer lowered to ground level and unfolded into a branded experience? What if the truck stopped en route to the store, had an “event,” and sold a certain amount of goods from the truck as a discounted rate? This would require the truck to be designed as a branded point of purchase. What new relationships between retailers and channel partners would this create? What new branding opportunities?

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These ideas present opportunities to extend the retail relationship with the consumer and to market in new, advantageous ways. New points of purchase along the distribution channel offer a glimpse at the means of production, which is exciting to Gen X and GenY consumers, like us. Pop-up events leverage sales opportunities and bring the brand and its products to consumers in a redefinition of convenience, something attractive to all markets. And, as we originally conceived of this idea, it’s a way for stores to implement prefabrication to make both remodels and ground-ups less expensive, faster, and more conducive to retail experimentation.

 –Courtesy of MulvannyG2 Architecture

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