On Tuesday, May 12, we took our Year of Gathering series virtual. What began as a series of conversations inspired by our latest monograph Gathering, our virtual conversations are now responding to our current circumstance. Gathering focuses exclusively on our institutional, civic, and commercial work and exemplifies how architecture has the power to bring people together to engage in new ways, generate ideas, share their passions, and build communities. Our Year of Gathering series features provocative conversations inspired by our work and the connections we foster.
For our discussion, Innovation in the Face of COVID-19, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson Principal Greg Mottola was joined once again by Donald Albrecht, curator, and critic. Their conversation was a thoughtful follow up to our February inaugural event in Brooklyn. The event focused on the power of transformational retail experiences. The panelists all agreed “bad” retail is dying, while values-driven brands are reshaping the industry, creating space for togetherness and collective experiences. Little did we know how much the world would change in just a few months.
Our webinar addressed these transformations and the new need for distancing, a keen focus on online or curbside sales, and a perspective shift on what the shopping experience means. Donald brought a critical historical perspective to our conversation, allowing us to learn from the past to inform the present and the future. Greg Mottola shared his insight into client concerns and the emerging need for easily cleanable surfaces.
How Retail is Changing
While the future is difficult to predict, both Greg and Donald agreed, retailers are thinking in two views — short-term adaptations and long-term innovations. Short-term changes include how to make physical spaces safer, how to make the cleaning process visible to customers, how to make the shopping experience touchless, and how to keep workers safe. Both agreed that brand loyalty is more important than ever as retailers need to earn customer trust as shopping has become riskier. Greg said, “people still have trust in the brand” and want to show their support. Donald believes that smaller boutique brands will have an easier time pivoting and tailoring their customer service rather than larger department stores that rely on volume and high traffic. Donald expressed concern that we will see stores close, but those brands likely were already in debt.
Greg and Donald discussed trends to watch during this immediate view. Emergent trends may include appointment-based shopping with increased 1-to-1 customer service, ‘curb to street’ experiences where dining and shopping spill out from storefronts into open-air spaces, as well as a possible adoption of buying quality luxury products over inexpensive goods to ensure their purchase is a lasting investment and to limit the need for shopping trips. Donald said, expect to see an urban design shift, “the people that inhabit the outdoor space will become more significant, and the car will be reduced.” The digital shopping model will be cemented in home delivery and pickup. Less digitally native brands will have a harder time keeping customers engaged while updating their procedures.
What short-term trends become permanent shopping habits are still unclear. However, Greg expressed his belief that elevated brands (brands that project inclusiveness and consciousness) will remain focused on transformative retail experiences. Both Greg and Donald agreed that these brands would likely weather the store better due to their already established identity. Values-driven brands are here to stay with a commitment to building community and shared experiences around their products.
We Miss Gathering
An underlying theme of the discussion was a feeling of gained appreciation for what we are currently missing — community and social interactions. These are qualities that we foster in spaces such as libraries, community centers, cafes, and other public buildings. These are the projects that shaped our book Gathering and have provided an outline for our Year of Gathering series. Spaces that are often defined academically as ‘third spaces’ where we can come together outside of our homes and workplaces. Greg commented, “We realize we miss gathering now.” Donald said, “that they are not just throw away [spaces]; that they do build community. And we are learning the value of them now that they are no longer with us.” From this heightened awareness, what can we learn, and how can it help shape the future of retail design?
Join the Discussion
Also, if you are looking for some inspiration from beautiful places to gather while in isolation, grab yourself a copy of Gathering from these independent booksellers.