Rx For Retail 2024: Personalized, Localized, Unified, and Immersive

6 min read

International Retail Design Conference (IRDC) 2023 offered insights and predictions into the future of the retail industry, emphasizing the growing importance of personalization, localization, unification, and immersiveness in creating the customer experience. This article highlights some of the key takeaways from the event. 

As a “recovering” store designer I spent nearly a half-century uniting inspired store design with lifting the retailers’ bottom line. In that time, I attended countless retail industry conferences in the U.S. and abroad, yet few, if any, surpassed the granddad of them all, NRF’s “Big Show.”

The National Retail Federation’s grand gathering leads off 2024, January 14 – 16 at NYC’s Jacob Javits Convention Center as it has since January 1911. The ginormous, three-day event will feature 170 sessions with 450 speakers, 1,000 exhibitors, and an expected 40,000 attendees. It will no doubt include many premiere announcements and memorable moments and will receive extensive news coverage.

Besides the NRF Big Show, and relative newbie Las Vegas’ Shoptalk 2024, there were other smaller, but no less significant shows in 2023. Most don’t receive the same love and attention as these venerable shows.

Design, and The Bottom Line

Having recently attended the International Retail Design Conference (IRDC) two-day October 25–26 conference in my hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota, I was delighted to experience insights on the fusion of retail design and the bottom line, a subject less often explored at the “Bigs.”

The IRDC’s 23rd annual gathering was sponsored by Visual Merchandising + Store Design (VMSD) the leading retail design publication, and an industry staple for over 125 years. At the heart of the event were discussions led by twenty-eight world-class presenters, with perspectives on the “new retail.”

Subjects included the latest formats, visual storytelling, creative problem solving, behavioral sciences, the economy, sustainability, and generative ai. And yes, retail design awards.

Despite the breadth and diversity of speakers and their subject matter, four overarching themes emerged, which are likely to be echoed at the NRF Big Show. They were:

· Personalization – Making the customer feel “seen.”

· Localization – Getting closer to the customer.

· Unification – Redefining the store in a time of unified commerce.

· Immersiveness – Exploring “next level” customer engagement.

Setting the Tone

The opening Keynote Speaker was Lizzie Velasquez, a motivational speaker, YouTube personality and anti-bullying activist. Her 2013 TEDx talk titled “How Do You Define Yourself?” has garnered over thirteen million views. She turned her own teenage hateful cyber bullying story into one of empowerment and activism. Lizzie possesses an infectious positivity, which combined with a keen sense of humor, helps others to develop a positive self-image through the power of fashion.

During the Q&A, Lizzie was asked what defines a great shopping experience for her. Without hesitation she remarked “customers want to feel seen in the store.” Unbeknownst to her, that very point of personal engagement becoming one of the events’ underlying themes.

Everybody’s Secret

Sometimes a brand must truly “get lost” before it can course correct and regain relevance in the marketplace. Such has been the case with Victoria’s Secret, which is in the middle of a major brand repositioning.

According to Albert Gilkey, SVP of Store Design & Visual for VS, he and his team are in year three of a five-year rebranding journey, including the creation of the Store of the Future.

Gilkey stated, “reconnecting with the consumer informs everything.” While sounding appropriate enough, it was a tacit admission of VS’s past “tone deafness” and denial of consumer sensibilities. Their new insights and inclusivity efforts were said to be driven by “a transition from a founder-led to a collaborative-led design process.”

Their retail redesign offers lighter and brighter stores, better sightlines, content driven LED screens, new (more inclusive) mannequins and redesigned RFID enabled changing rooms. Remodels have received kudos from both store managers and shoppers alike. Customers acknowledge “feeling seen and included,” clearly a ratification of Ms. Velasquez’s Keynote comments.

Design for the Times

A movement toward localization has gained traction across the retail spectrum. It is depicted in Nike’s trio of new, more focused, and curated neighborhood concepts as well as Target’s doubling down on smaller neighborhood stores. The latter was the subject of discussion led by Targets’ lead design architect, Ken McQuade, and director of store design Robyn Vogel.

Target’s design team divides its downsizing into three categories, “Urban Stores,” “Dense Urban Stores,” and “College Campus Stores.” Unlike their typical suburban big boxes, the smaller formats provide a more localized assortment and feature local design cues.


Target’s New York, Times Square store, launched in 2022, is an example of an Urban Store on steroids. Its 30,000 sq. Ft. Vertical format demonstrates Target’s prowess at shoehorning goods into a challenging urban space. Its “New York state of mind” is evident in the exterior’s 84-foot-high digital screen. Inside, urban arts themes are embodied in bold interior graphics sourced by local artists and designers.

Adapting designs to regionality were also drivers for Target’s Jackson Hole, Wyoming rehab of a former K-mart store. It incorporated the use of locally sourced stone and reclaimed wood, throughout. The palette, juxtaposed against the mountainous backdrop, is both theme-appropriate and neighborly while challenging Target’s decades-long cookie-cutter approach. I applaud the effort.

Sending “Target to college” has also become a “Tarjay” thing as evidenced by Target’s University of Michigan location which fulfilled the need for a campus grocery store. Target’s adaptive reuse muscle was flexed here. They artfully preserved an Art Deco era movie theater, a Ann Arbor, Michigan landmark, complete with historic marque. This is a prime example of retailers’ expanding commitment to adaptive reuse as they pursue more diverse urban properties.

Economic Disruption

Sarah Quinlan, Chief Economist of The Consello Group, shared her overview of the retail economy, addressing current pain points and viable solutions. She discussed supply chain “whiplash” brought on by the swing from pandemic driven hyper-consumption to the post-pandemic shift to services and “Funflation.”

For all the bleeding headlines, Quinlan remains bullish on the overall economy. She pointed to the fact that “friend shoring” is lowering our import costs while our status as the world’s largest oil producer has increased our energy independence.

Quinlan made the point that despite eCommerce’s profound impact, its growth has flattened significantly. Additionally, she noted we continue to spend 10% more in stores than we do when purchasing online.

Commenting on retailers’ current fascination with shiny tech objects, Quinlan offered a cautionary tale – “pay attention to the basics.” With that she reaffirmed the importance of a “personal touch.”

Quinlan appears to be an advocate for retailers’ “upskilling” customer facing salespersons to higher level brand ambassadors, something I’ve long advocated. These “soft skills” are essential to building brand loyalty in an era of unified commerce. Her final edict – “don’t screw-up the checkout.”

Designing Tomorrow's Retail

Arguably, among “New Retail’s” greatest challenges and opportunities involves the transformation of the store from being transactional to becoming experiential, evolving from a place for “storing” stuff to a place of brand exploration and engagement.

This has given rise to the rather ubiquitous “customer experience” trope which is about as descriptive and meaningful as “good food” or “nice car.” The more nuanced term being adopted by industry thought leaders is “immersive experience.” This implies the creation of environments that truly engage and delight customers as well as binding them to brand or retailer while elevating brand value.

This level of transformation, like the evolution from analog to digital, requires new tools and new “toolers.” Fortunately, the change agents in the house were up to the task.

Neuro Design

Samar Younes is the founder and chief imagination officer, of Samaritual, and considers herself an “innovation catalyst” with a collaborative mission to harness generative AI as a creative ally.

Her focus goes beyond aesthetics and functionality but is a quest to infuse retail design with deeper meaning and connectivity, engaging customers in a shared journey that transcends mere commercial transactions.

Her approach draws upon Neuro Design, which is the intersection between psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, anthropology, and design. When skillfully applied to the design of either virtual or built environments, it can impact decision making and help form indelible memories.

Younes used the term “play” and harnessing the power of play in her narrative. For me, it recalled the similarly playful yet analog approach that Charles and Ray Eames incorporated in their legendary twentieth-century design practice.

The Eames’ understood the importance of play as a form of experimentation and creativity and borrowed from architecture, math, physics, interior design, psychology, and philosophy. This interdisciplinary approach led to the most iconic designs of the mid-twentieth century.

Immersion Rather than Mere Experience

David Kepron, a veteran of 30 years of retail and hospitality design articulated key differences between a mere customer experience and an immersive one. The latter requires the integration of the brand’s DNA throughout a storytelling narrative that resonates with the consumer and evokes joy. Kepron emphasized the importance of the formula to the “new retail” where the built environment must be “imagineered” taking the consumer beyond static transactions to truly transformational, even theatrical experiences.

Certainly, Apple is a prime example. Its holistic approach and brand DNA are carefully woven throughout every brand touchpoint along the customer journey. One of the more granular examples (and a personal favorite) is when an Apple team member hands a customer their new, wrapped iPhone box for them to open, prior to set-up. This nuanced gesture of “unwrapping” evokes joyful memories of the past, and imbues the brand with greater value, by association.

Mixing Familiarity with Novelty

Kepron’s themes were expanded on by a power-panel including Gabriele Chiave, VP Global, Design Creative Direction & Innovation for Estée Lauder, Dr. Paul Zak, founder of Immersion Neuroscience, and Tracy Lee Stum, of TiLT Museum.

The three thought leaders talked about the interplay of familiarity plus novelty that helps build a joyful narrative throughout the customer journey. They noted the importance of balancing surprise with promoting security, a kind of Yin and Yang thing.

And once again, the trio reinforced the importance eye contact plays between a well-trained brand ambassador and the customer. In fact, the more positive each customer engagement is, the better the outcome. Once again “feeling seen” and positively engaged is the catalyst that brings retail theater to its encore worthy finale.

So, in retrospect, beyond the immensity and grandeur of both The NRF’s Big Show and Las Vegas’ Shoptalk there are other worthwhile retail industry conferences on the annual docket. For me, this year’s IRDC gathering successfully united retail design and the retailer’s bottom line.


This article was written by Sanford Stein from Forbes and was legally licensed through the DiveMarketplace by Industry Dive. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.

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Sanford Stein