The William H. Whyte of retail
An interview with Paco Underhill from Metropolis magazine.
In your book, you're critical of retail designers. Why?
First of all, I don't mean to point my finger at just retail design. It's the entire design profession. If we look at the history of design education, very little of it is about people, sociology, or psychology. It's all about drawing, structure, and form. And I think that's a flaw in the education process.
We also must recognize that historically the design profession--particularly architecture--has been one of the least gender-integrated artistic disciplines. We live in a world that's run by men, managed by men, owned by men, and yet women run the families and are overwhelmingly the main retail consumers.
But the problem with retail design isn't just rooted in the architectural houses that do the work. First you must realize that the depreciation schedule for retail fixtures is about five years. So by definition what makes a good store is always in transition. It's designed for a limited life span. Materials, technology, and lighting issues change constantly. I also think that retail design has been asked to do things by the financial markets that don't do it justice. For much of the past 25 years, retail has focused on opening new doors rather than on improving or understanding the existing market. So the design process has been crash and burn--get the damn thing done, do the best you can, and accept mistakes along the way because we don't have time to stop and fix them.
Part of what's interesting now is that we're not in the same expansion mode. No one opens a new store or shopping mall to serve a new market; they open it to steal someone else's market. We're also getting to a point where, increasingly, we're going to see a lot of vacant real estate out there.