Designs Pump Life Into Main Street Retail

The H1912 design solutions included repurposing a vintage 1950s metal desk for customer service, along with an industrial table and previously owned jewelry cases for display settings.

By Joshua Zinder, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP

With the rise of suburban shopping malls, followed by the boom in big-box stores and the advent of online retail, it’s easy to conceive that Main Street retail is under attack. Some municipalities have experimented with restaurant-only redevelopment of their downtown areas, but these have been shown to be remarkably vulnerable to economic downturns. Successful retail options are, it would seem, vital to a thriving town center.

Learn more about designing brick-and-mortar stores to attract customers in our interview with Joshua Zinder.

There are good reasons why these shopping districts should be able to flourish alongside their seemingly ubiquitous competitors. For one thing, in general, people are looking to do their shopping in person. A recent survey by Morar Consulting, New York City (morarhpi.com), and financial technology company Adyen, San Francisco (adyen.com), revealed that, out of 2,000 respondents between the ages of 18 and 55, more than 60% would shop more in retail locations “if preferred shopping experience is implemented.” Majorities of respondents noted that they prefer in-store shopping for managing returns and for the tactile and visual experience, and about a third mentioned shopping as a “social activity.”

For Arlee’s Raw Blends, the interior design introduced gabled arches of natural wood to evoke a community and bespoke countertops made from reclaimed wood salvaged after Superstorm Sandy.

It’s important to note that the age group known as Millennials makes up a significant share of these respondents, and constitute a large and growing share of general economic activity. So, what do Millennials want? They tend to seek out integrated social atmosphere and density of social activity and amenities available mostly in urban centers. But more than these, Millennials frequently prefer an authentic experience.

Authenticity can be interpreted in a number of ways, but for the purpose of recapturing foot traffic into brick-and-mortar retail, think of it as celebrating the existing or original character of a place—or of an entity, whether a person, group, or company. This presents a spectrum of options for the retailer, which architects and interiors experts are equipped to evaluate and develop into designs. The goal for the design team is to present the retail venue as authentic, distinct, and unique, a place that stands apart and is worth the trip.

Our firm recently undertook such a task for H1912, a local boutique jeweler. Market research conducted on behalf of parent company Hamilton Jewelers, Princeton, NJ (hamiltonjewelers.com), revealed a demand among younger generations for vintage jewelry—authentic pieces, no pastiche or fakes—and H1912 was conceived to tap into that market. The design challenge was to deliver a space that feels youthful and bright while impressing shoppers as accessible and welcoming. Solutions included repurposing a vintage 1950s metal desk for customer service, along with an industrial table and previously owned jewelry cases for display settings. The design also introduced a brick wall to reinforce a connection to the original structure, and LED lighting to create a bright atmosphere.

The Red Onion delicatessen received a budget-conscious makeover that included a wall covering created from a close-up photo of freshly sliced red onions and a unique treatment to the ceiling grid.

For health-food purveyor Arlee’s Raw Blends, Princeton, NJ (arleesrawblends.com), we took a completely different tack. The owners wanted an eye-catching design to capture their company’s mission and core values of home, health, and community, as well as earth-friendly living. The interior design introduced gabled arches of natural wood to evoke a cluster of houses—a community—and bespoke countertops made from reclaimed wood salvaged after Superstorm Sandy. Visitors to Arlee’s enjoy a distinct, authentic experience of place, along with their purchases of cold-pressed juice and organic snacks.

Red Onion, Princeton, NJ, a take-out delicatessen, received a budget-conscious makeover that included a mural-sized custom wall covering created from a close-up photo of freshly sliced red onions, to reinforce the store’s identity. The design team also removed the acoustical panels from the existing ceiling grid and painted the ceiling red and the conduits and ducts above it pale blue. This draws the eye to the grid and makes the old and worn system seem fresh and new.

Authenticity doesn’t cost much, but it requires some imagination and communication of a clear vision. When a customer enters a store, they should have an immediate sense of the business and its offerings. That sensory response will lead them to return and bring friends.

Joshua Zinder, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, is founding partner of Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design (JZA+D, joshuazinder.com), an architecture and interiors practice headquartered in Princeton, New Jersey. The firm’s international portfolio includes commercial, hospitality, retail, and residential projects, as well as product, furniture, and graphic designs.

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