It’s All In the Retail Details: Creating the Ideal Store

Retailers often have a particular design concept in mind, but aren’t sure how to translate their ideas into a profitable store layout. Thankfully, they don’t have to go it alone.

Design professionals like Frank White and Ken Galloway of Davis Wince Ltd. Architecture offer expertise that can help save money and reduce stress, especially if they are brought on board as soon as the retailer decides to build a new store or buy or rent an existing space.

“It helps prevent signing inappropriate leases or ending up trying to fit a square peg through a round hole, where one is trying to open a store in a bad space for the brand,” Galloway says.

In the following interview, he and White discuss planning, lighting, staying on budget, and more.

Melanie McIntyre: How does a good architect go about determining a retailer’s wants and needs for a space?

Frank White: First, it is important to understand the role of architect and retail planner. There are retail design firms and architectural firm that do one or the other and occasionally both. I’m not talking an architect that takes a client’s thoughts and puts them on paper. That’s just a drafting service. It is having the knowledge and taking the time to understand what the client’s business plan is and making the correct strategic decisions to guide the project to the best possible design solution.

Guide with your head, not your heart. A simple example would be the owner might love blue and gold, but you wouldn’t want to design an Ohio State memorabilia shop in that color palette. Or another example… A vision for wide open spaces may not realistically hold enough merchandise to make the store profitable.

Ken Galloway: Yes, retail startups often fail due to lack of an appropriate design and merchandise planning. A retail entrepreneur has a passion for a type of merchandise and jumps in with both feet to sell the product– sort of a ready, fire, aim approach to retailing. Either intuitively, or by following a tried and true process, every retailer walks the same path of strategic retail planning, including space planning, store design, branding, visual communication, and the best merchandise plan to engage the consumer in an efficient, yet inspiring manner. I have been privileged to have been part of a creative group of professionals who developed a retail planning process that works well for our clients.  It really works best to develop this plan before the first lease is signed.

MM: Are there any concepts that are fairly universal and/or standard in regard to space planning?

KG: There are many proven space planning concepts, which could fill a good-sized book that few would want to read.  But to mention just one: planned circulation. It is critical to drive the customer through the space in an intentional and organized fashion. For instance, the loop circulation plan will lead the customer by each major merchandise category, and encourage impulse shopping. Many large-box retailers use this to create a “power alley” for shopping.

FW: There are also municipal, state, and federal requirements for handicap use, access and egress, among others. Too long to list here, but all can impact a retailer’s floor plan and merchandising.

MM: Do certain types of lighting work better for particular retail spaces?

FW: The “color” of the light is important. There are cool, warm and neutral lamp colors. These can be seen in displays at any big-box hardware store lighting department. Lamp color will enhance or drastically change a color palette.

KG: And, really, lighting is critical to creating the proper color for a store. For instance, too much white light creates a “discount” look. Too little white light makes it hard to see the product. It’s best to create the appropriate “mood lighting” that matches store design and then add select spotlighting to accent the product.

It’s harder to execute than it might seem, especially if one is working to create an energy-efficient, or “green” store, which most of our clients are now serious about achieving. Huge opportunities exist to develop green stores that yield long-term cost-savings benefits.

FW: That’s a big concern today. The current technology of LED lighting is exciting. LED lighting is extremely efficient and has a very long life. It is still a developing technology and, as such, costly but, like flat screen technology, is coming down.

MM: Startups often are concerned about budget. Are there things business owners can do to keep project costs down?

FW: Understanding the responsibilities of the tenant and landlord up front is so important. A preconstruction analysis of the space before signing a lease will assure there are no major “surprise” modifications needed to match the business plan.

KG: Also, the best way to bring a store in on budget is to develop the budget up front, then plan and design to that budget. This takes experienced store planners and designers, but once the design is complete and the preliminary budget is “knocked out,” it becomes much easier to move through construction with few costly change orders. But it all starts with assessing the space up front.

MM: Why should business owners consider hiring an architect to work on their retail space?

KG: I’ll start by saying that it is very important that the retail design team include more than just traditional architects. Architecture is a very important tool to get a new store built on time and on budget, but successful stores utilize a team design approach, which includes a store planning project manager, merchandise planners, environmental designers, visual communication designers, lighting designers, documentation specialists, architects and select engineers. Business owners should evaluate any firm’s ability to bring a team together that can handle all of these elements.

FW: This goes back to a point I made earlier about retail teams as opposed to basic drafting service providers. Verify the portfolio of the architectural firm you are considering and also the professionals that will be working on it. Typically, an architect should take the lead, but the team needs these other specialized service providers as well.

MM: Is there anything else you think I should know?

KG: While this may sound a bit too passionate, there are few businesses that are more fun, and at the same time more challenging, than trying to create a new retail concept. There are so many “moving parts” that all must come together at the right time to make the store work. Once the prototype has been developed, it is easier to execute with each successive store, but the fun, high risk, and thrill, is in the up-front planning. This is where the creative juices best flow and full nights sleep are rare!

FW: In a new retail venture, assume that it will evolve until the product mix is established. Entire chains have been spun off of sub categories of successful businesses. Go Figure on High Street in the Short North is a full figure retail shop. Sherri Brunner has found that reducing her inventory to focus on better product and accessories has increased her sales and the customers love it.


More Tips from Davis Wince: How Do I Identify an Architect for My Startup Business?


Ken Galloway serves on the advisory board for Davis Wince Ltd. Architecture and has more than 35 years of experience in retail consulting, management, corporate marketing, and store operations. Ken was president of Total Image Specialists from 1995 to 2009 and spent 16 years with Retail Planning Associates, seven of those years as president. He also has held posts with The Limited and Ernst & Young. Ken is an Ohio University graduate and a Certified Public Accountant.

Frank White serves as the director of retail solutions for Davis Wince Ltd. Architecture. For the past 30 years, Frank has been involved in all aspects of retail consulting, from “on-the-boards” planning and design to international consulting and field installation. Frank also is co-author of several retail design books, including “Independent Bookstore Planning” and the “Retail Action Guide” series.

To speak with Ken or Frank, or learn more about the retail branding and design process, visit or contact David Ringler at [email protected]