Indian retailers have come a long way from having simple retail formats to experimenting with outlets exclusively designed for a better consumer experience. Juhi Santani, Interior Architect, Retale Design Solutions, talks to Images Retail about the country’s retailers who have begun experimenting with new ideas for the insatiable Indian consumer.
Armed with a degree from the School of Interior Design, CEPT, Ahmedabad, Juhi Santani, ventured into designing with retailers like Wrangler, Weekender and Tommy Hilfiger. Designing with retailers also involved connecting with businesses as well as creating a lasting design statement. According to Santani, it was mostly apparel that was sold in a retail format initially and then slowly jewellery and accessories found their way into the retail format. Today, every product or service is sold in a retail outlet. She says: “Increasingly, manufacturers are looking at having their products being retailed under their own brand. A lot of people now understand the subtlety behind retail design. There has been noticeable change in trends and I am glad to be part of that change. Retailers have changed their approach significantly.”
After starting out Retale Design Solutions in Bengaluru in 2003, Santani has been working closely with brands like Titan Raga, Bossini, Kappa, PUMA, adidas, Jumbo, Souch, Chai Point and Prestige, to name a few. Through the years, she also noticed that earlier, retailers would blindly venture to roll out 200–300 stores in a year, that being their highest target to achieve and the only way that they could define themselves. A retailer would hire a designated agency to help them with their store target even if it were not guaranteed to profit.
She says: “We have a team of around 14 now. We would like to remain a boutique design company. Even if it is just a roll-out of stores for a brand, there is a lot of thought process that goes into filling out that particular layout and filling out those particular elements or how we integrate for that particular thing. We have rolled out stores worth Rs. 5–6 crore in the past one year out of which 85–90 per cent is through design alone.”
Crucial role of design
Working mostly with a lot of start-ups, Santani is also actively involved in understanding and shaping up of a brand, its price-points, product offers and USP. Becoming part of the brand’s early stages, determining whether to opt for a kiosk, cafe, small counter or even a large format store makes a designer part of the company’s story.
“It gives immense pleasure to see a retailer design as a larger part of a brand development. Those are the areas that we help in strategising, especially the visual merchandising,” explains Santani.
Though brands come with their own specific locations and themes, Santani and her team only get involved in purely the design elements – starting with
the concept to the brand’s roll-out of stores, where the rolling out of the concept can vary from location to location. International brands already have an existing format that they would like to execute and retail designers adapt that to local conditions in India at particular locations or services.
Working with clients like Siemens Audiology centres requires a different kind of set-up. Santani explains that the standard format with apparels can be extended to high streets, malls or even a kiosk format, but the health and wellness segment call for a different approach as technology like Siemens hearing devices is a common requirement. Such a centre would be operated either by a surgeon or a shop owner who is also an expert in the subject matter and so require a different location as well as different designs.
Santani further says: “We are required to travel to small towns, where we get to measure the location and understand the brief. There is a whole lot of work that goes behind setting up a store and the design is not really a part of it. In terms of the services we offer, they are multilayered. For instance, for someone like Chai Point, we do more of their high-end outlets. Chai Point has not focused on seating, but now it is a huge component of the outlet in certain locations considering the kind of customers they are acquiring over a period of time in certain locations. So we also need to see how a retailer would like to change whether it is in the next 6 months or the next 3 years. We lay great emphasis on the franchise or corporate hubs too, where we help them get a better understanding of their small format. We work together on that and it has been an ongoing journey.”
According to Santani, the hallmark of a retail outlet is not that it remains rooted to a particular location alone; there must be a certain amount of flexibility. While selecting a store, a retailer does not pay attention to provide any make-shift component in order to shift location. At least 50 per cent of a store’s components can be moved but very often the back-end services are always left behind.
Santani finds that depending on the nature of a brand, every design agency tries to bring down costs of props. There is also a huge thought process that goes into the back-end due to limited costs that go into the designing of store interiors. Overall, it is the look of the store which has a huge impact on the customer base and which can topple if the brand is not positioned right.
Considering India’s extremely volatile market, every segment comes with its own set of challenges. A brand’s budget constraint, though at times can be
a necessary requirement, but can be a challenge at the same time. Santani finds that retailers could benefit immensely from putting in that extra Rs.
3–5 lakh into design.
She advises retailers to go for a no-frills design, but at the same time suggest that the extra Rs. 2–3 lakh could bring value to a retailer’s brand as a store requires finishing touches. Some retailers invest 30–40 per cent on visual merchandising as they also depend on their in-house designers due to budgets constraints.
Another major concern is that though retailers have become open to various experimentations, they have not devised a formula. She explains: “They have this notion that what works in the US will work for them here and, secondly, what works in Bengaluru will work in Dhavangere, or some retailers would like to do the same thing that bigger brands are doing. There are different scenarios, and we do keep evolving the designs accordingly.”
She adds: “Every 2–3 years, we try to change the look. We do not advise retailers to tear down their outlets as they are just about recovering their investments. People do realise that the value does come through innovation.”
Understanding the retailer
Santani points out that there were several occasions when clients came back saying that they do not think the idea would fit into a mall or a shop. Store interiors cannot be copied and then pasted on to different locations; it is also about meeting the requirements of consumers at different locations where visual merchandising and store elements are taken care of.
“When you work with clients who are like 3rd generation retailers, they have their own way of working. You have to understand how they work and modify your designs to suit their requirements,” says Santani. “There are so many players at so many levels, especially in the last 2 years. I think people are just discovering what food and beverages are coming out with, in terms of cuisine and fine dine and in-between. A lot of people are experimenting. This area is more complicated than selling a product. For instance, a QSR is much easier not necessarily geographically but it comes with its own challenges in terms of rolling out and standardisation. India is a multiple country zoned into one,” she adds.
Retailers from different regions come with different production quality. Clients from the metros often shell out more on the store interiors for better quality, otherwise Santani noticed that other retailers tailor out their retail formats to the expectations of a particular region.
Though a constant challenge, the Indian retail industry is a volatile market and has seen tremendous amount of change in innovations, especially in terms of better customer experience. Santani signs of with: “You have to experiment to a certain extent as towns and cities are shifting so quickly. In this business, you have to be prepared for some kind of failure.”