First impressions matter. In fashion, art, and architecture, we judge what we see. Despite our better upbringings that warned us about books and their covers, sometimes we have only a moment to show off the cover in hopes that it will impress you enough to warrant a closer look.
For almost any storeowner, how people perceive their storefront is a nerve wracking, yet imperative part of being a brick-and-mortar business owner. The moment when a consumer sees a store for the first time is crucial. Maybe it’s a glimpse as we drive by, maybe a long linger as we sit outside sipping coffee, maybe a lustful drool as Ralphie waits for the Higbee’s Christmas display to be unveiled. In that brief time, the storefront has the daunting task of expressing the brand’s story to anyone who sees it.
And it better work.
As more retailers fight for omni-channel success, only the smartest brands will survive in physical spaces. Those spaces must become, as Doug Stephens, the world’s foremost consumer futurist, suggests, “experiential brand starting points, with high production value. Stages where magic happens.”
For those storefronts that fall short of conveying that brand experience, improving these six components offers the best chance for brand success.
Signage is not just a “Hello: my name is” sticker. The storefront sign is an opportunity to tell your brand story within a few letters’ length. The brightest authors of storefront design have proven that a sign can exist in 21 basic configurations on a building, so there is ample chance for it to be easily visible to any passerby.
There are several different types of signs that can be successfully used on a storefront:
- Flat signs on the building can be a simple reproduction of the brand logo, and should be located conspicuously but not necessarily as large as is allowed. Allow some breathing room around a flat sign where possible so the remaining façade becomes an equally important part of the design.
- Projecting signs tend to be smaller, by jurisdictional limits, but are also better candidates for more sculptural signage – hang a typewriter up there if you’re a bookshop, or a bike from the façade if you’re a bike shop.
- The portable sandwich board sign that gets placed on the sidewalk during business hours is often a forgotten secret weapon, employed too infrequently. The style and message of the sign can change daily – hourly even – to suit the mood of the neighborhood and of passersby. You get one chance to construct signs on the building, but get a thousand chances to play with the sandwich board, and a thousand chances to express your brand message.
Unless you just opened a “Dining In The Dark” restaurant, your lighting design matters a lot (and even that restaurant would have some lighting on their façade). Lighting storefronts can be separated into two, basic gestures: lighting the façade (what’s outside), and lighting the display (what’s inside).
Lighting what’s outside commonly means shining light on signage and perhaps on some opaque portions of the façade for dramatic effect. The effect is greater during darker hours of the day, so a well-lit façade quickly becomes a glowing beacon luring potential customers. Many storefronts will be washed with light from nearby street lamps, so façade lighting must be powerful enough to not get washed out also.
Lighting what’s inside may be as humble as a spotlight on the goods displayed behind the glass, or it can be as emotional as a warmly lit, custom curated holiday display (remember Ralphie). For retail, the first 10 feet behind the glass becomes the best candidate for display lighting since items deeper inside the store rely on separate interior lighting. For restaurants with a clear view in, the entire interior experience – diners enjoying a meal, friends enjoying a drink at the bar – becomes the storefront display.
Paint is cheap. While great lighting is the most impactful of all six components, the color of your façade is sometimes the easiest to update. Brands usually rely on their standard colors to determine customer-facing colorways, but new brands are challenging industry standards and experimenting with off-brand color and artistic embellishments on their facades.
Using bold colors is a simple step to increasing storefront visibility. Just as important is contrasting colors – even if black and white – to help draw customers’ eyes to a logo, name or feature.
And if paint isn’t the answer, then consider durable materials to comprise the façade and express the ingenuity of the brand – wood, metal, masonry, or synthetics.
What’s on display varies by brand. For retailers, it is customarily a sneak peek of the goods housed inside. But displays that are winning the attention of the shrinking retail customer crowd are employing more abstract thinking to create installations that express the experience their brand offers, rather than just of the shoes it sells.
Displays are an opportunity to not only bring the inner store experience out to the street, but also to differentiate the brand from its competitors without the cost of permanent construction. For those stores that inherit a tenant space and a landlord’s lackluster storefront, a great display can still make the storefront successful.
In a restaurant setting, where the experience is what’s for sale (great food and great company IS the experience) the display has a simpler role: go away. Keep the glass open and uncluttered, allowing passersby to clearly see the action inside.
The great enemy of any display is visual clutter. Clutter clogs otherwise transparent storefront glass, cutting off the vital connection between shopkeeper and their neighborhood. An introverted storefront contributes little to the success of the community.
A traditional weather protection component of storefronts for centuries, the awning also doubled as a banner for various lettering and graphics advertising the brand. That legacy continues today as most jurisdictional sign criterion and local design guidelines still encourage awnings as a design element.
When allowed, awnings can quickly become the largest area for a brand to express itself through words, logos, and graphic design. Storeowners too often assume that their store name in simple letters on the valance will suffice and they miss an opportunity to challenge the typical awning design. An unusual awning – even the simple awning structure can be rethought – is a step towards differentiation in a centuries old style.
Awnings can also be considered part of the storefront color, and should be afforded the same dramatic lighting as other portions of the façade. Nighttime presence is critical for brands that otherwise shut down after hours, and a well-lit awning is a powerful beacon.
If there were no sidewalks, and we all parked our cars up against the glass, this sixth component wouldn’t exist. To the delight of the late great urban theorist, Jane Jacobs and all the rest of us, the streetscape does exist and it is the silent partner to the successful storefront. While most shop owners don’t have direct control over their permanent streetscape design, many can still find ways to extend their brand experience out the front door.
For cafes and restaurants, the simple move is to extend seating outside. However, the exterior experience must be as thoughtful and as expressive as the interior so that the brand integrity is visible to customers. For those restaurants that cannot extend seating outward, the storefront glass can be openable to provide a direct connection to the neighborhood activity.
And the streetscape is home to the secret weapon – the portable sandwich sign – where a brand can play freely for an hour or a day outside of their permanent construction.
As the marketplace evolves to provide customized, collaborative store environments for its savvier customers, storefront designs must also evolve. Mediocre storefronts imply mediocre stores, at least is the perception to a customer who is being otherwise courted and wooed during every online retail interaction. To remain relevant, storefronts must work to be the lasting first impression of brands that want and need today’s customers.