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Carly Wickham, Head of Marketing

What is ‘permanently temporary’ in retail design?

John Ryan used the great phrase ‘permanently temporary’ in a recent Retail Week article, he said

“ ‘permanently temporary’ may sound oxymoronic, but it’s actually quite close to what is happening in higher-end retail at the moment, as retailers seek to avoid being typecast.”

Ryan was making this comment in response to the new Tate Modern store, a space intended to be constantly in a state of flux. The brief for the leading London Museum was to allow the retail store to appear different every time a visit is made. Mirroring the curation of the exhibition space, with the curation of the store content and layout is a great parallel.

tate modern permanent temporary retail design

Back to the enlightening phrase ‘permanently temporary’, could it perhaps have always been applied to retail environments? Is its relevance today heightened by the constantly increasing pace of change? Does the ability of e-tail stores to flex their content so easily create a consumer expectation that leaves retail environments constantly looking for new ways to hit the refresh button on their in-store VM and design?

How can retailers achieve ‘permanently temporary’?

We put this to the Green Room team

Our Strategy Director, Sam, pointed out that bigger retailers such as TopShop have developed a strategy of integrating permanent pop-up modules into their fabric. This has the benefit of enabling a more established brand to look like a benefactor to fledgeling startups, whilst also providing their large stores with new, fresh, curated content on a regular basis. Permanently temporary personified.

topshop permanent temporary retail design

Our Digital Director, Andrew, predicted that as brands and vendors truly adopt an Internet of Things mentality and demand interconnectivity in their stores, we will see much more active optimisation of retail spaces. When all of the sensors in the brand’s retail estate are connected to all of the outputs via a common control system, we will be able to ‘listen’ to the spaces and ‘tune’ them as Visual Merchandisers or as Business Analysts in real time.

In order to bring his thinking to life, he presented two examples of what this might look like:

  1. A brand sees basket size decrease when their stores are too busy for customers to carefully consider high ticket items. Data from footfall counters triggers digital signage to draw customers to other areas of the store and ‘quieten down’ the appeal of the high ticket areas.
  2. A pop-up triggers a flash sale for half an hour every day when the 200th customer makes their purchase. EPOS data triggers a pre-programmed store template that puts lighting, audio, content and shelf-edge pricing into a high energy sale mode for a fixed 30 minutes.

Our Design Director, James, questioned whether permanently temporary was always the appropriate response? He expressed that the first priority is to ensure an understanding of what customers are looking for from your retail offering, contextualising this with a society increasingly moving towards a constant stream of ‘shallow’ information and ‘convenience experiences’. Do customers want a retail experience that’s the equivalent of click-bait or are they looking for something deeper and more stable?

In order to know that designs are meeting/exceeding ever-changing customer requirements, James suggested the creation of beta spaces; environments set aside from the main estate that are in a constant state of test-measure-learn, allowing brands to quickly pilot new offers and products and gain live feedback before rolling them out more widely.

Our Head of Marketing, Carly, questioned why the constantly updating social media feeds, packed with up-to-the-minute trend knowledge, are not always incorporated into the store environment? Nordstrom is a brand that is excelling in this area, they use Pinterest trends to adjust displays to highlight what the social media channel says is hot right now.

Noordstrom pinterest

The flagship football store design we designed for Pro:Direct can be viewed as an embodiment of permanently temporary. This predominantly online retailer pushes the e-commerce site’s ever evolving content through the store, facilitated by the use of multiple screens within the retail environment. This cohesive approach to content use, both in the virtual and the physical retailing worlds, is efficient and perhaps surprisingly not always achieved well throughout the industry.


Feel free to continue this discussion via our twitter hashtag #CompellingExperiences.