Putting the Customer First? Hospitality Architects Know the Journey

Perspectives from a hospitality architect on how retailers can keep the customer front and center and how to tell a story with their spaces.

Good architects understand that what people expect from a space will shape their experience of it. And in today’s marketplace, expectations are higher than ever. While consumers still insist on ease and convenience, they increasingly want to be engaged and entertained, too. 

Hospitality architects are accustomed to using design to tell stories and craft experiences at spas, resorts, hotels, restaurants and entertainment destinations. That makes them particularly well suited to guide retailers that now aim to put the customer experience front and center. 

After working for more than a decade with hospitality clients like Shake Shack, Topgolf, and in Chicago’s Elmhurst neighborhood, the award-winning 151 Kitchen | Bar, I have become a big believer in putting yourself in the customer’s shoes and then allowing creative solutions to emerge from that empathic exercise. Having honed this process over the years, I now recommend tackling it in two basic steps.

Step 1: Know Thy Customer

Creating patron profiles before starting a project can help designers better understand not just the purpose of a building, but also how their customers will interact with and flow through the space. For a sense of this, here are a few examples inspired by actual client engagements.

  • The Gamers” (ages 12 to 25). When at the entertainment complex, they spend most of their time feeding tokens into the arcade games.
  •  “The Neighborhood Hangouts” (ages 26 to 50+). Regulars who come to that entertainment concept to eat, drink and socialize. Neighborhood Hangouts love to gather in the gravel courtyard and soak in the ambience created by the fireplaces, cornhole sets, Edison lights and live music.   
  •  “The Talkers” (age 65+). Local retirees who patronize the c-store every morning, rain or shine. They spend an average of 25 minutes per visit chatting with cashiers and/or sitting at the café tables; average daily purchases: 3.5 (mostly coffee and donuts).
  • Suburban Chauffeurs” (age 27 to 41). Busy parents who pull into the c-store twice a week for grab-and-go drinks and snacks to refuel the kids after soccer or baseball (sometimes they refuel the SUV, too).

Many national retail chains come to HFA engagements with USB drives full of this type of segmented customer data, but even they may not have thought about or measured—using surveys, always-on cell signals, digital camera footage and the like—the precise ways in which different people use spaces differently. Relative newcomers to retailing often are still building such knowledge and putting together their brand books.

In either case, these companies may turn to HFA for assistance with further developing their customer profiles.

Step 2: Imagine New Possibilities

Gathering detailed customer information allows hospitality architects to make smarter decisions about key experiential components such as which amenities to offer (along with their sizes, design and locations) or the materials, sightlines, lighting and sound levels in different parts of the building.

Some of that information-gathering can happen at a client’s existing buildings. Imagine a spa where the amenities include both massage-therapy rooms and cryotherapy chambers. In studying how different types of customers actually use the space, the team might see that the spa’s “Relaxed Regulars” were waiting too long for those massages, simply because available rooms were scarce. Meanwhile, the cryotherapy craze may have cooled (pardon the pun) since the building opened, and so fewer “Ice Addicts” were coming in for cryotherapy. In response, HFA could redesign the prototype with the needs of those end-users in mind–bring on the extra massage tables, in other words, and dial back the cryotherapy tanks (brrr).

Back at that c-store, direct observation could reveal that those leisurely Talkers were impeding the flow of the Suburban Chauffeurs. Could a quick floor plan adjustment solve the problem? Along the same lines, maybe the team observed that the Gamers at that entertainment concept were under-spending on food and beverage. What if they no longer had to leave the arcade to grab a soda and a slice?

Careful study of how people use retail spaces can lead to a rich and productive dialog between architect and client. The architect may also suggest approaches that have worked well in the past. However, responding to existing situations is only part of the picture: By using their creativity and bringing a fresh perspective, hospitality architects help their clients visualize new possibilities for the customer experience as well.

Seizing New Opportunities 

Toward that end, hospitality designers are increasingly helping retailers shift away from utilitarian elements—cold fluorescent lighting, warehouse-like floor plans, and ho-hum finishes—and toward spaces that function perfectly well but are much warmer and more inviting.

It can be a big shift. Utility was central to American retail going back to the postwar economic boom; when developers began blanketing the suburbs with rectangular, high-ceilinged stores—these became literal “big boxes” eventually—that were packed with products. 

Today, HFA’s retail clients increasingly see their built environments as backdrops for storytelling and diverse customer experiences, not mere storehouses of SKUs. 

Grocers are offering more cafés, community rooms, sit-down restaurants, and interactive stations for picking up online orders, sampling products, watching cooking demonstrations, and more. Pharmacies are integrating medical clinics and even yoga classes into their buildings. Next-generation convenience retailers are rolling out colorful, clean, and bright new stores, with high-quality finishes and elevated approaches to food and beverages that are a far cry from the prosaic c-stores of the 1980s.   

While luxury retailers have always focused on store design, they, too, are offering a wider array of amenities and experiences. In many ways, this is a throwback to their downtown roots in the 19th- and early 20th centuries. Nordstrom famously installed full-fledged cocktail bars a few years ago, but others have embraced lounges, private fitting rooms, coffee bars, in-store kitchens, and communal spaces—all basic elements of hospitality architecture. 

And finally, the shift toward showroom-like stores is leading to smaller-footprint locations that are more about branding and storytelling than pure utility and convenience. So-called “clicks to bricks” chains—companies that added physical locations after starting out exclusively online—are embracing this model in a big way. 

Common Goals 

While hospitality-informed design appeals to a wide array of retailers, these clients tend to share some fundamental goals, including:

  • Encouraging customers to stay longer and feel more engaged
  • Reinforcing the brand through architecture and design
  • Making physical and digital experiences feel seamless
  • Reducing friction on the customer journey  

These imperatives are all part of hospitality architect's playbook for delivering higher results to hotels, spas, resorts, entertainment destinations, and restaurants. The “color palette” in hospitality design includes lighting, materials, furniture, texture, sound, graphics and more to broaden the appeal, tell the brand’s story, and boost dwell times. Hospitality architects have always studied ways to reduce friction associated with wait times and customer queues, and they see the customer journey as beginning when people approach a building, not just when they cross the threshold.

They are also practiced in the art and science of maximizing the end-user experience within the confines of the budget. For example, more expensive finishes and materials can be employed selectively at ground level in areas where customers are most likely to soak them in.  

In addition, today’s hospitality architects are learning valuable new lessons about integrating digital and physical experiences for retail clients. Like how attention-grabbing visual vignettes can boost the retailer’s chances of a strong showing on Instagram or TikTok. And fonts, colors, visual imagery, and messaging can be brand-consistent across all physical and digital touchpoints.

As I see it, the line between hospitality and retail design is already blurring as the customer experience gains near-universal centrality. Partnering with retail clients to discover new directions on this journey is part of what makes my role at HFA so exciting. 

Written by
Nicole Poole

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