How the pandemic changed retail design

Landini Associates Managing Director Rikki Landini on reinventing the new normal
Bruce Horovitz
NRF Contributor
November 3, 2021

The pandemic has changed the way the world’s most creative retail designers approach their craft. Few have been more outspoken about it than Landini Associates, an international retail design and brand consultancy based in Sydney. NRF spoke with Managing Director Rikki Landini about how the global design firm that she co-founded with her husband and creative director Mark Landini in 1993 is “reinventing normal” for clients from McDonald’s to Aldi to Burt’s Bees.

Retail design was already seriously changing long before COVID-19, but the pandemic kicked it into high gear: Why?

It was already lazy, had become boring and far, far too transactional. COVID-19 helped us realize this. It accelerated the debate on the purpose of retail and forced retailers to push their boundaries to stay relevant.

Big Show 2022

You talk a lot about retailers needing to “re-invent” normal: What does that mean?

It means reassessing if what they are doing now is appropriate given the speed of change. Often, it’s important to review your starting point and check the foundations of your thinking and suppositions and then, if they are wrong, choose a new starting point: Reinvent your normal.

What’s the single most effective way for a retailer to “differentiate” the way it looks?

Through product and its delight. In a world saturated with products, curation is key. Simply sell stuff no one else has. Retailers sell stuff. You have to want something to buy it.

Why has “retail theater” become so critical since the pandemic?

It has always been important to entertain. The question is: Do you want to be watching or on the stage, involved? The best theatre is the one you are involved in. In the rush to digitize everything, some designers are struggling to distinguish between their phones and the real world.

How has the pandemic brought “technicolor” design to some retailers?

Color is more playful than monotones. It brings joy. We realized this years ago with Loblaws, Burt’s Bees [and] McDonald’s … . It’s a great way to differentiate, too (like Hermes orange or Tiffany blue), but we use color in a more physical way, not just on packaging. Most people have been educated to ignore color environmentally, which is odd, as the sea and sky are blue, trees are green and a sunset is orange, all of which bring awe and joy.

How has COVID-19 impacted the materials used for in-store design?

COVID-19 has taught us to enjoy the simpler things in life: more quality and less quantity. Also, local and independent is now a focus for many, combined with convenience. Consumers crave safety, and natural, anti-bacterial materials deliver that — one good thing that might come out of this pandemic is less reliance on plastic. We’ve realized we can manage and even thrive on less, so we want less waste: of materials, of product and food. We’re big believers that longevity, as in embedded energy, should play a greater role in design. A throw-away society benefits nobody.

Why has the pandemic inspired some retailers to downsize?

Many large-format retailers and department stores were already questioning their physical footprint. Some are just using space differently. Much of it is no longer relevant to visit. Larger stores are now being given a dual purpose of being both fulfillment centers and physical stores. The internet has taken care of the mundane and many large-format retail spaces and department stores had become mundane.

How have some retailers radically changed the design of their floor plans post-COVID-19?

Obvious reasons of hygiene and social distancing, but some want to create experiences over function and use space as marketing. Others use it to better deliver function as an experience. Our work for Glassons is a good example of aligning the search facility of Google with the in-store experience. Information and choice have grown exponentially, and we have become an impatient race very quickly. Search engines are partly to blame.

What’s the single most surprising way the pandemic has impacted retail store design?

It’s shut down a few and killed off the weak and irrelevant — and that’s just the designers!

The use of technology in retail design has greatly changed, but not the way many expected. Can you explain that?

Technology’s role should always be to enhance, be that the customer experience or the operations — not used for the sake of it. For the consumer, all transactions, on and offline, should be as frictionless as possible.

What’s your most outside-the-box retail design project?

What many see as revolutionary is often just the application of common sense. Ironically, our most Instagrammed project is the McDonald’s Sky Kitchen (at Sydney International Airport). That was completely about form following function as the available plan didn’t accommodate the spatial needs. We used technology and spatial volume. We reinvented their normal.

You are the folks who also turned McDonald’s Times Square into an all-glass setting. Can you explain why and what else you did there?

I think everyone can agree that Times Square is a better spectacle from a quiet and elevated space. We just created a viewing platform for a few minutes of calm respite.

Burt's Bees

Can you explain your Burt’s Bee’s store design?

The store brings to life the natural elements and sustainability of Burt’s life — and the brand. The back wall is a large photo graphic of Burt tending his bees, the honey jars contain samples of the natural ingredients used in the products, and the materials used in the furniture were chosen for their sustainability and longevity.

Since the pandemic, most customers want to spend less time inside retail stores, yet designers design stores to keep customers in longer. Who wins in a post-pandemic world?

Anyone who can create real community. That’s one of the reasons that physical retail shops are so compelling. They smell better than your computer and you can meet people at them and hug hello. I think we are all fed up with Zoom-based dinner parties.

What are some key retail design changes taking shape that have nothing to do with the pandemic?

The world is burning up. At some point, the grown-ups will have to find a way to make consumption slow down a tad. This will likely be value- and product-led. Aldi is a great example of a business that has always understood this.

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