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Commentary: The Business

Why Some COVID-19 Changes in Store Design Are Here to Stay

Store designer Jesse Balaity explains out how retailers can plan for a healthier future.

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WE HAVE THE opportunity to pursue lasting design strategies that respond to COVID-19 and anticipate future public health threats. We will transition from intrusive devices to integrated strategies and practices. I categorize these strategies as direct for everything the user can see, touch, smell, or hear; and indirect for technologies that work in the background.

Direct

When I’m designing a store, I now specify touchless everything, including door hardware, plumbing fixtures, bathroom accessories, lighting controls, and point-of-sale hardware at minimum. None of these elements are difficult to retrofit. Anything that cannot be touchless must be conducive to sanitation. This means using only contract grade cleanable upholstery and solid surfaces at customer touch points. Eliminate or minimize carpet, drapery, and fabrics like velour and felt. “Contract grade” sounds expensive, but some consumer grade vendors like West Elm now offer moderately priced contract furniture with cleanable upholstery that still feels luxurious.

For store layout, I continue strategies for customer interaction that predated COVID. With private and semi-private meeting areas, customers can safely escape the busy sales floor while the sale staff caters to their needs. I also suggest that clients remove low turnover showcases to provide more open space. There is a tradeoff between lost sales from reduced categories and increased retention of customers who would not otherwise feel safe in a crowded store.

I do not suggest eliminating the lounge, bar, and other creative social environments that are so crucial to the customer experience. A client still wants a comfortable place to sit and have a glass of wine. Space out seating, eliminate self-service amenities, and choose chairs and stools over shared sofas.

Indirect

I coordinate with mechanical and electrical engineers for meaningful technological solutions. These may include high intensity UV treatment and bipolar ionization systems in the ductwork, MERV-13 return air filtration, and increased air circulation rates. I find that these options add less than 15 percent to the cost of new HVAC systems and that several systems may be retrofitted.

My hope is that health-related design strategies will follow the path of environmental design. What were once novel or inconvenient — like electric car chargers or sensor faucets — are now innocuous. The big plastic shields will come down, and we will acclimate to more subtle devices and strategies in the coming year.

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