Crafting Design Friction: Leaning into Brand Loyalty and Getting Customers Back to Physical Stores

Discover how brands are boosting loyalty and driving foot traffic by transforming retail spaces into unique, engaging experiences that adapt to evolving customer trends.

Retail is an ever-evolving door, with brands constantly hoping to be the next big thing. But what's involved in becoming more than just a fad, a brand with a brick-and-mortar presence that can stand the test of time while providing more than just merchandise? What about the experience that comes with it? How can brands combine their experiential elements to provide a fun and memorable experience for the customer while generating profits for retailers?  

It may sound like a utopian dream or something that is easily achieved for only a short time, but the brands that do it well have proven time and again that it can be done. However, retailers can't be afraid of change. Customer trends are just that—trends that ebb and flow with the generations that accompany them.  

One way designers, developers, and the brands they work with can update the designs of their retail locations to intrigue and delight customers is by disrupting the traditional brick-and-mortar shopping experience by replacing the mundane or expected with something extraordinary.

Design Friction and the Evolving Customer Journey

Attendees from the Retail Innovation & Conference Expo (RICE) in Chicago, IL, got some firsthand experience of this in practice as part of their retail tour throughout the city. Highlights included Ralph Lauren, the Starbucks Reserve® Roastery, Eataly, and more, providing attendees with inspiration and ideas for how brands are disrupting the retail status quo.    

"Gone are the days where retailers can just throw a bunch of merchandise in a store and solely rely on that to sell the experience, expecting brand loyalty or repeat visits," said James Owens (AIA, NCARB), Vice President at HFA.  

He remarks that the retailers doing it well realize that crafting one-of-a-kind experiences is the next-level shopping encounter customers crave. And thanks to the social media boom starring the likes of Facebook, TikTok and more, creating buzz-worthy spaces is yet another way to lay the groundwork for a retail experience like no other.

"When retailers have a limited footprint, they must go all in by curating nice environments that are closer to retailtainment, where it's still very grounded in merchandise, but your surroundings are much more upscale, and more of an event than typical retail has been in the past,” added Owens.

Let’s face it, in today’s omnichannel retail environment, retailers are fighting to capture customers’ attention with so many options to choose from. Therefore, retailers must focus on investing in the quality of their brick-and-mortar locations rather than the quantity if they want to make a lasting impression that has staying power.

While designing this more upscale, experiential shopping experience, brands should consider an educational or informational element and how that plays into the shopper's journey. Take Gen Z's and Millennials, for example. According to a recent study, these large, vocal generational groups are more likely than their Baby Boomer counterparts to care about where a product is from, the values behind the company, etc. Transparency is everything, and in a world that is lived on social media, it's even easier for a brand to become the belle of the ball or the wicked stepsister.    

The Outlets of Des Moines boast more than 300,000 square feet of walkable retail space, designed with thoughtfully curated pedestrian plazas, casual seating areas, and more.  

Retail at the Speed of Likes

There's also something to be said about the speed at which customers experience retail environments. You know the feeling? Some days, you want to get in and out with whatever you came for with minimal fuss. Still, other times, you see a TikTok chronicling the newest fad in retail—picture that giant travel center known for its vast array of road trip snacks, drinks, and rodent-starring paraphernalia finally making it to your state—so you make a pit stop that's going to last longer than a traditional bathroom break.  

Depending on the authenticity and creation of a "linger-worthy" environment, retailers can and should look to their customer base to determine how they prefer to experience their retail brand and make it so.  

As Owens points out, the inherent challenge is to slow down the fast-paced retail environment, making it memorable and encouraging repeat visits. Designers must find a middle ground, partnering with retailers to create intentional friction points that enhance the customer journey and boost sales.

Experience is Everything

Creating lasting brand loyalty and drawing customers back into physical stores is about embracing change and prioritizing the customer experience. By reimagining retail spaces as more than just places to buy merchandise, brands can craft engaging and memorable environments. Whether it's through creating unique, "linger-worthy" spaces or finding that perfect balance between fast and slow retail experiences, the goal remains the same: to make every visit an event worth talking about. As trends evolve, the brands that stay ahead will listen to their customers and adapt to their desires. Remember, in the world of retail, experience is everything. So, let's continue to innovate and transform our spaces into destinations that delight and inspire, ensuring customers return for more.  


Special thanks to James Owens (AIA, NCARB), HFA Vice President, for his thought leadership and contribution to this article. For more information on our work in the retail sector, contact or visit our website.

Written by
Ashley Hayre

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