Shopping for ideas

The region's retail outlets are competing in a booming market where plush design and extravagance make all the difference.

The Escada shop at Wafi in Dubai was designed by Schwitzke & Partner.
The Escada shop at Wafi in Dubai was designed by Schwitzke & Partner.

The region's retail outlets are competing in a booming market where plush design and extravagance make all the difference.

The Middle East region has become synonymous for shopping with residents spending many a weekend traipsing through the multitude of malls that dot the desert landscape.

And as an industry, the retail sector is expected to grow faster than any other, with forecasts predicting it to exceed US$ 500 billion by 2010. Add five million m2 of retail space to the current six million already present, plus many more in the pipeline, and you have an exciting world of retail and design opportunity.

"Over the next five years the GCC will have more than 200 retail developments that will occupy in excess of 11 million m2 of retail space and accommodate more than 27,000 retailers," explains Paula Al Chami, exhibition director, InRetail.

"These are mind-boggling figures, and those associated with the industry have to stay up to date with the rest of the world if they wish to stay competitive. The transition to custom-designed shopping complexes across the region has created an acute need for professionals to stay in touch with the latest trends in the industry," she adds.

According to Markus Schwitzke of architecture and design firm Schwizke & Partner, this rapid increase in the number of malls is forcing retail outlets to come up with even more customer-enticing designs and allows more specialised retail designers to make their mark in this ever-growing region.

"The street market is dead. Dubai has created new high streets, which are located within the shopping malls," he says.

"These malls are competing a short distance from one another. The result is that mall managers are looking for new, innovative and high quality concepts to make a difference. They invest a lot in building retail design teams to control and achieve a certain quality. Also western brands are starting to recognise that Dubai is attracting more and more tourists and they are using it to introduce new brand or store concepts to the world. As a result we have seen an increase in the quality of store design, with more specialised retail designers getting their chance to be involved."

But this explosion of retail outlets brings with it its own set of problems. With a number of regional cities expanding rapidly, it is difficult for retailers to predict which areas will be the retail hotspots of the future.

Schwitzke believes this, added to the speed of developments in the Middle East, results in a reduction in the investment of retail fit-outs, with designers putting flexibility and convertibility above other aspects of design. Rigid spatial layouts and immovable display solutions are no longer wanted.

Retail designers are instead, concentrating their efforts on visual merchandising, display areas and creating visual graphics that represent the identity of the store and wow customers.

"Multi-disciplinary digital signage within stores seem to be increasingly popular at the moment, providing firms with a flexible area to run TVCs, digital branding as well as new offers," admits Alfred Johnson managing partner of interior design firm Imagination.

He adds that point of sale areas combined with interactive technology is also a product that is making waves within the industry.

Producing display areas that defy normal expectations is a fad that is taking hold in the Middle East at the moment, as Johnson explains: "Designers are pushing radical approaches to unconventional display areas. A good example is flooring, where we are seeing the experimental use of lacquered concrete with a varied finish that is either rough or boutique with a polished, pure detail. Designers are also exploring the realms of new-age glass with manufacturers developing a variety of ways to mould, emboss, incorporate LEDs, as well as custom bend glass. There is also a trend in brand representation without using the logo graphically throughout the store."

With restrictions due to the positioning of retail outlets within malls containing little natural light, two distinct design patterns have emerged within the region according to Schwitzke.

"The trend at the moment is taking elements from high street design with the shop front doubling up as a building façade, often involving heavy and dark elements, such as pillars in wood," he says.

"We are also seeing more open, bright and welcoming concepts with greater transparency into the store. There are more full-height glass shop fronts in concepts that are using friendly, lighter colours, back painted glass, natural stone and wood. Using LEDs, special light features and innovative signage solutions are essential for shop design in Dubai."

Trend predictions for the future will, like all construction-based industries, focus on sustainability, from how the store is designed to the type of materials used and how they are manufactured, down to the lifespan of the design itself.

"Sustainability has begun to take hold with a variety of brands making it a priority with their design firms," says Johnson, who has been in talks with a US-based firm that recycles plastic and other products into a revolutionary product similar to MDF.

The material has a minimum guarantee of 30 years in extreme conditions. Materials that produce low carbon emissions during manufacturing are also making headway in the market. Having said this, Johnson adds that more eco-awareness needs to be raised by design firms when accepting jobs.

Green issues aside, Schwitzke believes the future will see more customer interaction within the store, with concepts that surprise shoppers and invite them to stay longer being successful.

"Integrated concepts, which have shopping, entertainment and food and beverage under one umbrella may prove popular," adds Schwitzke. "But this is a real challenge and it has often failed already because besides design, it is important to get the right mix between product and service."

Johnson agrees and highlights new materials as a driving force behind retail design. "The future promises to be very exciting for retail design. Exploring the development of materials and technology, designers are paving the way into a more open concept of a store, whereby customers become one with the environment," he concludes.

Whatever direction retail design takes, it seems clear that the Middle East, with its huge number of mall developments, will be paving the way for cutting edge and custom-designed shopping.

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