Aesop’s new Pitt Street store at Westfield Sydney, designed with trusted Norwegian collaborator Snøhetta, uses a mix of local sandstone and granite in what is a nod Australia’s coastal escarpments and the granite that lines the pavements of Sydney’s CBD.
Visitors decompress across the set-back threshold, which unfolds into a vast chamber. Crafted by a local stonemason, Aesop says the granite’s texture is poised between the natural and the ordered.
An immense stainless steel counter with basins welcomes exploration of Aesop’s skin, hair, and body care products.
Aesop’s Denise Neri says: “Located on Pitt Street’s pedestrian mall, this generous store is an opportunity to grow with Aesop’s diverse clientele. Every design decision was based on the company’s commitment to hosting customers in a considered and personalised way.”
At the heart of the store, stone steps rise into an amphitheatre where visitors might see a film, or simply pause and reflect.
Aesop acknowledges that as the company evolves, meticulously considered design remains paramount to the creation of each space.
The Aesop store is cutting edge, and according to Rebecca Burk, National Retail Design Account Manager at Scentre Group, is an example of how a meticulous approach to design can be used to differentiate, express and curate their brand.
“Aesop is well known as an Australian brand but what they do in Sydney is pick up on the context and create a very specific design for an enriched experience,” says Burk.
“This is how retail can be more than about selling.
“A store can be a palate to overlay a memorable experience which delights the customer, but also has a subtle impact on brand loyalty.”
Burk and the retail design team at Scentre Group work alongside retailers to optimise the design of their stores and integrate them as best they can into the curated environments of 41 Westfield living centres.
Their belief is that in today’s retail environment, good design is not simply about aesthetics, it’s an essential part of the contemporary customer experience.
Brands are consistently raising their design standards so that their interactions with customers are not just transactions, but deliver a unique and memorable experience.
“Design also has to be brand appropriate and resonate with the demographics of customers,” says Burk.
“Some customer groups might be intimidated by over engineered and over the top design, while for other brands with different customers it is a key part of what they deliver.
“But the point is that retailers today understand that design is part of their toolkit, and that interiors can be highly curated and detailed down to every last gesture.”
“In a living centre, you need to design that very quick transition the customer makes when they come out of the centre space and into particular stores, so that means thinking about lighting, materials which can create a transition and a contrast, and also thinking hard about the precinct they are in and working with that.
“That shopfront expression is often the very first opportunity to grab a customer and make it clear what they stand for as a brand.”
It is an approach embraced by specialist tea retailer T2 at its network of more than 50 stores across Australia and New Zealand.
Kate Iles, the head of retail design at T2, says that with 100 teas from all over the world, T2 stores are a “passport to the rest of the world through a retail space.”
“We like to think we are tea done differently, and we like to think we are retail design done differently as well,” says Iles.
“We try and create a striking contrast between our bright product and an urban design, but make sure the product is the highlight of the design and the sensory experience.
“The design is intended to give the customer a variety of experiences and take them on a journey, and that is how we lay them out.”
In the two decades T2 has been in the Australian market, the design of its stores has also evolved.
Sustainability has increased as a brand priority and differentiator, with T2 aiming for its first Green Star rating at its new Westfield Bondi Junction store in 2020.
“The rating is about T2 trying to live and breathe our sustainability message, and that goes to supporting local business and ethical practices all through the business. Green Star reflects our brand’s commitment to that through a physical store,” says Kate Iles.
While customers can buy tea online, they can’t have the product sampling and experience they can get in-store, and that is why T2 has put a focus on the “theatricality” of the tasting experience and made it a design centrepiece.
Reflecting the current converged retail landscape, online engagement and social media are also part of the design “toolkit” that brands are leveraging.
Some brands, says Scentre Group’s Burk, have become adept in using the “Instagramability” of their stores both as a way of creating a destination, and to promote their brand to a wider audience.
“Sometimes design’s second client is Instagram,” she says.
“These stores provide an experience which is geared towards the customer sharing it with their wider friendship group, and incorporating that group into the experience,” says Burk.
“You can’t put a price on how valuable it is when someone posts a photograph from the store.”
While all brands have individual characteristics which are expressed differently, Burk says brands need to be consistent across all channels, from store design and experience through to online touch points.
“This all comes down to harmony between all of the channels and a brand’s ability to deliver a seamless, connected customer experience through design,” she says.
“These are all the things that great retailers understand and are delivering.”