Is Retail Design Tone Deaf?

Devangshu Dutta

October 21, 2011

At the outset, let me say that this is the personal complaint of a consumer. However, I’m airing it here because I believe it is also important to the future profitability of our readers’ businesses.

Over the last few years I have felt increasingly uncomfortable with the noise in public and commercial spaces.

It may be that my sensitivity to this has increased with age, but it is a fact that noise levels have also increased dramatically in every urban public space around us. In fact, it has reached a point where I now feel that people involved in the architecture and design are either addicted to noise or, at the very least, completely immune to it.

I can’t think of any other reason why locations such as retail stores, malls, restaurants, large office receptions, and other public spaces are designed and built so badly from the point of view of handling sound.

Fundamentally Unsound

The retail soundscape, if I might call it that, is littered with noisy and uncomfortable spaces. Sound levels in busy restaurants and shopping malls can be as high as 70-110 decibels, which is the equivalent of a busy construction site. Sportswear stores play loud and fast-paced music throughout the day; are they trying to make you believe that you are in a nightclub at 11 a.m.? Internal equipment such as air-conditioning and fans add to noise levels. Restaurants and cafes are worse: noise sources include the kitchen, customers using the crockery and cutlery, chairs moving as people sit or leave, apart from the conversations going on.

For sustained exposure, 80 dB is judged to be the outside limit, and we are frequently exposed to sound levels that are higher than that, for long periods of time.

Unfortunately, it is also a vicious upward spiral of sound. Loudness feed loudness. We all raise our voices when we are competing with the surrounding sounds, and only end up adding to the noise further.

Developers spend millions on picking the right stone, fancy fixtures and creative layouts to make the place “look good”. I don’t remember ever coming across a retail space designer in India who says that the space should “sound good”. Even stores selling high-end audio equipment are badly designed and executed!

I remember sitting in a restaurant belonging to a popular Indian quick service chain after a “modern” redesign. No matter how much I tried, I could not understand a word of what my wife is saying (and that’s not just because we’ve been married for so long!). The reason my wife was inaudible was the high level of ambient noise, echoing from all the hard surfaces around us. What was worse was that I could very clearly hear a stranger who was sitting 5 tables away because the false ceiling had dome that perfectly captured his voice and bounced it across the room to me.

Toning it Down

The most basic thing to remember is this: noise has a negative impact. Not only are the customers uncomfortable, high noise levels actually interfere with the staff’s health and performance. Noise increases physical and mental stress.

What’s more, if conversations are not possible at a normal volume and tone, we have to put in more effort into hearing and understanding what the other person is saying. There comes a point when we just give up. Can you imagine what impact that has on a sale?

Studies have shown that noise can drive sales down by more than 80%. On the positive side, if sound is managed well, sales can rise by more than 1,000%! Isn’t that worth looking into?

A plea to architects and retail managers: do consider the fact that customers coming to the mall expect that space to be qualitatively different from an open market. Making a space noisy is not enough to recreate the feel of an open market – it only means that your space is noisy, and probably worse than an open market will be.

Materials selected for building and fitting out the retail outlet, the mall or the restaurant can have huge implications for how sound is handled in that space. A lot of “modern” design depends on hard, polished, reflective surfaces of stone, glass or metal. The floor, the ceiling and the walls, as well as the fixtures are all surfaces from which sound reflects back into the space, not just once but many times before it dies down. So not only do the sounds get amplified in such a space, the reflections also interfere with each other, adding to the problem.

Not Just the Sounds of Silence

Of course, just making every space a quiet “dead” space is not the answer. Sound and silence affect us positively as well as negatively.

The ancients believed that sound could transform the energy of human beings and their surroundings, and from various base sounds they created “simple” beej mantras to complex Vedic chants. Anyone who has chanted or sung hymns, or even an old peppy film soundtrack knows that sound has the power to affect our moods.

At one extreme, most people are uncomfortable in a heavy engineering factory, or for that matter, a modern shopping centre on a busy weekend, without realising why. At the other end, most people would also be uncomfortable in a recording studio, because it suppresses ambient sound as much as possible, leaving the space “empty”.

In some cases (e.g. a night club, or discount store), sounds need to be louder to ensure that the place “feels” lively, even when it is not full to capacity. In some places our enjoyment is enhanced by noise. Watching a cricket match in a stadium while wearing noise-cancelling headphones would hardly be as much fun. A school playground is “happy” when hundreds of children are running around screaming and shouting at the top of their voices, and “solemn” during a quiet morning assembly.

In some cultures and countries, normal social interaction is “louder” than would be acceptable in others. (For example, a British acquaintance mentioned to me how heavily she felt “the sounds of silence” when she moved back to England, after spending many years in Asia.)

So the key is to first define the ambience and the mood that you want to create in your space. What is the objective: who do you want to attract, who do you want to send away? (For example, operators of public transportation systems have successfully used classical music to drive away loiterers who were undesirable.)

Disney offers an inspiring example of how sound can be used. Over the years they have evolved systems combining sophisticated software and hardware in their amusement parks, such that you can walk through the whole park without the decibel-level changing too much. The music sets the appropriate mood for each specific zone. What’s more, the transitions are smooth as you move between zones.

Not everyone needs the sophistication of a Disney amusement park, but I believe it is worthwhile for most retailers to think about how sound is affecting people in their stores.

I would urge you, at the very least, to look at how it impacts conversations between customers, and between the customer and members of the serving staff, because that will definitely impact sales.

A leading cafe chain proclaims: “A lot can happen over coffee”. Yes, it can; but not if you make conversation impossible.

Try it. Tone it down. You’ll see an upswing in productivity, sales and customer satisfaction.

(Read “How Mr. Q Manufactured Emotion” in the Disney parks, on Dustin Curtis’ blog.)

Price Parity or Disparity for an International Brand

Tarang Gautam Saxena

October 10, 2008

I recently had the opportunity of window shopping with some friends visiting India and it was interesting to note how visitors to India from different continents react to the retail prices of the products of the international brands available in the Indian market. 

Friends from Europe (specifically from the UK, which is a relatively expensive country to live in) were pleasantly surprised to find the prices of some of the products of international brands such as L’Oreal, Tommy Hilfiger, Marks & Spencer and Levi Strauss cheaper and they extended their list of things to buy from India at the cost of paying for the extra baggage on their way home. (Well, it also happened to be the discount season during their visit.)

On the other hand, friends from Canada who had arrived a few weeks earlier (before the discount sales started)  found the products of international brands too expensive by “Indian standards” and decided that they should do their shopping back in their home country during the markdown sales for Halloween or Christmas!! After all, shouldn’t India be cheaper?!

Yet again, a case in point, when I visited a “just opened” retail outlet of an international brand at a well known mall in the NCR region, I noticed the Rupee price mentioned on the tag was higher than the converted value of the unit price printed in Euros on the same tag. As a consumer I rationalized that probably the brand was launched in a hurry and one forgot to remove the Euro price stickers, though it may also have been a possibility that since the products were imported, the high import duty structure may have resulted in a higher Indian price!

Is it possible for the international brands to follow a common pricing globally?  Could the international brands integrate the global tariff barriers/ duties, and currency conversions in their cost structure and have their products priced the same across all international borders?

Well, maybe not just yet…although some brands have tried. For now, consumers can only hope for more parity.

Come to think of it…..if you went shopping in the UK after the US you may just find that for some products the prices (read digits) appear to be the same ……only the “$” would have been replaced by£”.

Shopping Centres – Boon or Bane

Devangshu Dutta

March 13, 2008

Many people I know treat shopping centres or malls as a new phenomenon, a progressive development of recent times or a modern blot on the traditional cityscape (depending on your point of view).

However, Grand Bazaar (Istanbul, Turkey) is the earliest known mall, with the original structures built in 1464, with additions and embellishments later.

In India, if one were to include open arcades, Chandni Chowk in Delhi is reported to have opened around 1650, with its speciality shopping streets. (Of course, more traditional bazaars have been around many thousands of years around the world.)

But even if one were to get more “traditional” about the definition of a mall, possibly India’s first mall was founded in the hottest city in the country then, Kolkata (New Market) in 1874.

In more recent history, Delhi’s municipal pride, the air-conditioned underground Palika Bazar was a novelty in the mid-1980s, while Bangalore’s Brigade Road saw several early pioneers with their shopping arcades in the late 1980s.

Then came the mall-mania beginning with Ansal Plaza in Delhi and Crossroads in Mumbai. Everyone started looking at malls as the new goldmine, being pushed ahead by a “retail boom”.

The early stage of any such gold rush usually has several experiments missing their mark, which is what has happened with the hundreds of mall-experiments that have been launched in the last 7-8 years.

Some of the significant and common issues are starting to be addressed, but many others remain.

Catchment-Based Planning is Needed

The top-most issue in my mind is “oversupply”. While this may sound absurd to many people, given the low figures quoted for modern retail, I am referring to the over-concentration of malls in a small geography. If 8-10 malls open 4-5 million sq. ft. of shopping in a catchment that can only support 1 million sq. ft., everyone knows that some of the malls will fail. But everyone also believes that their mall will succeed (otherwise, they would obviously not have invested in the mall).

What happens to the malls that fail? Depending on the design of the building, many of them can be repurposed into office space – another area where a lot of investment is still needed. So in the end, actually, most people win, one way or the other. Yet, there will be some losers. Does anyone “plan” on being one?

The second key issue in my mind has been that mall developers have been thinking as “property developers” rather than retail space managers. The successful shopping centre operators worldwide (now also in India), are actually as concerned about what and who is occupying that space as a retailer would be. They are concerned about the composition of the catchment, the shopping patterns, the volume of sales, the shopping experience. Therefore, the tenant mixes as well as adjacencies are factored into the earliest stages of planning the shopping centres.

In fact, if I were to identify the most critical operational problem for many of the malls, it is the lack of relevance to catchment and, therefore, the low conversion of footfall into sales for the tenants other than the food-courts. Customer flow planning within the mall is another factor that can make a tremendous impact on the success and failure of the tenant stores.

Once you start looking at these factors during the planning of a mall, another obvious aspect that jumps out is “differentiation”. Currently, there is little to choose from between malls (other than possibly the anchor store). However, with more clarity in terms of the target audience, the potential strategies for differentiation also become clearer. The visitors also become segmented accordingly, and there is a natural benefit to the tenants occupying the mall.

If, as a mall operator, you want to be in business for long, and also develop other properties in the future, the success of your tenants is probably the most critical driving factor for your business.

Integration into the Urbanscape

When we gauge malls from the perspective of integrating within the urban landscape, there are obviously some glaring errors being made. Instead of aesthetic design that reflects the heritage and culture of the location and its surroundings, or some other inspirational source for the architect, most malls that have come up are concrete and glass boxes.

Beyond the looks, some of the malls are a victim of their own success. They attract more crowds during the peak than they have planned for. Not only does the parking prove to be inadequate, there is no holding capacity for cars entering or exiting the mall. The result is a traffic nightmare – not just for general public, but even for the visitors to the mall. Someone who has spent 45 minutes stuck in a jam waiting to get into the parking of a mall will certainly not be in the best frame of mind to buy merchandise at the stores occupying the mall.

Some of the problems lie outside the mall-developer’s control – for instance land costs are a major driver of the cost of the project (and, therefore, the lease costs to the tenants), and land is a commodity which is independent. Real estate is available within the cities as brown-field sites (former industrial locations), but the regulations are convoluted and the strings are in the hands of too many different departments of the government (city, state and central). This needs joint creative thinking on the part of developers, the government and the public, if our cities are to develop in a more sane fashion than they have in the past.

Similarly, land deals are still not clean enough for foreign investors to be comfortable participating in many developments. This obviously is holding back a tremendous source of capital and domain expertise that could contribute to the growth of this sector.

Many other operational issues exist – manpower, systems, health & safety – some of them can be managed or controlled by the mall developers, and it is a question of time (and of their gaining experience). Other issues are more in the domain of the government, and need a visionary push to make “urban renewal” a true mission.

New Life for the Cities

In my opinion, one of the most interesting areas which would be in the joint interest of almost all parties (that I can think of) is the possibility of revitalizing the high streets and community markets, and reinventing them as the true centres of shopping.

Many of our markets are rotting (a strong word, but let me say it anyway). The individual stores are owned by individual owners who are not all equally capable of maintaining the same look and feel throughout. The infrastructure in and around the markets are owned or managed by several different agencies. To make matters worse, there is often no cohesiveness and no synergy in the interests of most of the members of the market association. None of these individually have the power or the mandate to recreate the shopping centre. But what if they could get together and take the help of a re-developer?

If an example is needed, New Delhi’s Connaught Place provides the example of one stage of redevelopment. Connaught Place had lost its pre-eminent position as a shopping centre, due to the spread of Delhi’s population and the new local markets that had come up. Further disruption was caused by the construction by Delhi Metro. But DMRC has reconstructed an “improved” centre, and the Metro connectivity has made the customers come back into CP, as it is affectionately known in Delhi.

There are clearly many such opportunities around India’s cities. These need to be looked at as a commercial opportunity for all concerned (revenue for the redeveloper, better sales for the store owners / tenants, more tax revenue for the government from additional sales and consumption). But it is also a broader social opportunity to breathe a new life into our cities, and to make them proud beacons of a growing India.

It would be a mission that would truly prove the worth of shopping centre developers, urban planners, regulators and the retailers themselves.
Any takers?

Are investors ready to get malled?

Devangshu Dutta

August 31, 2006

Mall Mania, Mall Madness – alliterate as you will – it’s a phenomenon that is certainly taking over the newsprint, airtime and, quite possibly, your neighbourhood.

A study published in 2005 estimated that by 2007 over 360 shopping centres would be operational around the country, with approximately 90 million square feet. A meagre increase of 0.08 sq. ft. in per capita shopping space doesn’t seem like much in a country of a billion-plus people.

But most of it is concentrated around the big cities – Delhi and Mumbai account for more than half of the total space projected, with the other metros and mini-metros such as Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad etc. taking the total up to 90% of the space.

One may argue that money (real estate development) is only following the money (consumers) – after all, there are more consumers and higher incomes in these major urban centres.

But why would mall developers expect Delhi’s consumers to suddenly switch en-masse to shopping in Gurgaon, where 6 malls are already active in a short distance of about a kilometre, 3-4 more under hectic construction in the same area and several more scattered around that suburb? Or why do Mumbai’s developers expect people to drive several kilometres from the suburbs on a regular basis to the centre of town to grace only their shopping centre? It is only such expectations that can explain the gold rush mentality that is overpopulating certain areas with shopping centres and malls.

While per-capita availability of A-grade shopping real estate looks really low, in certain areas we foresaw oversupply, with developers thinking in terms of “property” rather than as retail space managers.

Most shopping centre developers have carried out only cursory studies on the customer catchments that their tenants will be expected to live-off. As a result, conversion of footfall into sales is low for the tenants, except for food-courts, which are benefiting from the window-shoppers rounding off a day or an evening of roaming the malls with a meal. There is a lack of differentiation in product and service offer between the shopping centres and, with nothing distinctive on offer, repeat visits and – more importantly – repeat purchases are a challenge.

Developers in smaller towns seem to be following the same model, scaling up space or scaling it down based on the capital cost vs. expected capital gain and tenancy income. They are pitching for much the same brands as tenants as the developers in the bigger cities.

There is competition for customer traffic between the shopping centres and large stores (such as Mumbai’s newly opened Hypercity, across the street from InOrbit Mall, both developed by the Rahejas), between the shopping centres and the traditional high street, and between large format stores and speciality malls.

For the most part shopping centre development in India in the recent years has been seen as an aspiration to be fulfilled – hence, the most important factors have been the size of the shopping centre, quality of fixtures, marquee tenants who can provide the glamour or the legitimacy). The focus has been more on the “positioning”.

The business will begin maturing and will begin taking developmental leaps forward when centres are seen as commercial infrastructure to be planned with the end-consumer in mind, and to be serviced over a certain lifetime.

Until then, we can look forward to announcements of many hundreds of shopping centres, the launch of a few hundred, and the conversion of many of those into uses other than as shopping centres within a few months or years of their launch. And for investors also it might be a game of Roulette rather than Patience.