Why stores—like one permanent pop-up—should be designed more like Lego sets

Walls that move. Display racks and tables that can be reconfigured. How agility is becoming critical in store design today.
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Photos: John Vicory/Gif: Dianna "Mick" McDougall

· 5 min read

This story is part of our weeklong series about key trends in store design. Click here to read more.

Right across from an Amazon campus in Seattle, at 2252 7th Avenue, there’s a store.

Or is it a kaleidoscope?

At the moment, it’s a hair salon called Salon Voda. But before that, for about five weeks at the end of 2021, it was Cancelled Plans, a scented-candle shop. Since July of 2020, in fact, about 16 different brands have taken turns selling their wares there, from e-bikes (VanMoof), to women’s clothing (4Twenty4 Boutique), to organic chocolates (Theo Chocolate), to a lifestyle pet brand (Boo Oh).

In between those varied tenants, surprisingly, there were no crews of beefy carpenters knocking down walls and installing drywall, or electricians rewiring new fixtures, or entire sets of display tables and racks being hauled in and out. And yet, as if sprinkled with fairy dust by the retail deities themselves, the 1,037-square-foot space somehow seemed to be completely transformed from one occupant to the next.

Welcome to Periodic. This will sound like an oxymoron, but it’s not: It’s a permanent pop-up shop, designed for brands to set up a store for as little as two weeks—and then for another one to move in. Wash. Rinse. Retail.

  • All of the display racks and tables are completely modular, meaning they can be reconfigured like Lego pieces (and without requiring an engineering degree).
  • A dressing room, the freestanding kind with the curtain that wraps around it like a clawfoot bathtub’s shower curtain, parachutes in for clothing store tenants.
  • And a big digital screen can be used for brand messaging.

This is all handy for a revolving pop-up like Periodic, but these days, flexibility and agility in store design are top-of-mind even for retailers who’ve been rolling the awning up and down at the same address for generations.

Morph power to you

Because “the consumer has been and will continue to evolve so rapidly,” stores “have to create a store environment that can morph with them,” Melissa Gonzalez, CEO and founder of The Lionesque Group, the New York-based experiential retail agency that designed Periodic, told us.

The company also went modular for Nordstrom, when the department store hired Lionesque to design two Nordstrom Local concept stores that opened in Los Angeles in 2020; these locations focus on fulfilling BOPIS orders for customers, and offer services like alterations, contactless curbside pickup, returns, and gift-wrapping.

Naturally, the demand for some of those services ebbs and flows depending on factors like the severity of the pandemic, seasonality, and holidays, Gonzales explained. And that’s why the store was designed so that furnishings and fixtures are easy to reconfigure. Even the partition that separates the front of the store from the employee-only section in the back can be easily moved.

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“There’s certain times of the year maybe that the front of house is more of an 80/20,” said Gonzales, meaning that a store’s back room accounts for just 20% of the footprint. “But maybe,” she said, “high-volume times where you’re also dual purpose in the store as a point of fulfillment, then it becomes 50/50.”

While the Nordstrom Local stores have a specific store-pickup focus, Gonzales said it behooves any retailer to be agile in how they design their stores.

“How are you creating this flexible environment for when the store sometimes needs to modulate between being appointed discovery and appointed fulfillments?” she asked.

  • BOPIS, for example, increased more than 500% during the pandemic according to research by Kibo Commerce, requiring retailers to adapt their floorplans—or court chaos.

Let’s talk about flex: When Migros, the Swiss supermarket chain, opened a store in Zürich that was a hybrid of a grocery store and a food hall, it wanted to build flexibility in the design based on what went over best. So it’s filled with food-display units—including refrigerators and freezers—that are on wheels.

  • At its small store in Soho, Hat Club, a sports-cap retailer, has more than 400 individual display boxes, each to show off and store the inventory for a single hat style. The boxes can be stacked and arranged in innumerable ways.
  • And Japanese children’s brand Aeru Meguro has a store in Tokyo that features seven staple-shaped shelves of gradually increasing height that can either be flush against one wall, or can open out like a fan in countless configurations to form shelves, or, for the smallest two, a bench and table.

Lara Marrero, principal and global retail practice leader at Gensler, the worldwide architecture and design firm whose projects include the Saks Fifth Avenue flagship in New York and the Microsoft store in London, noted that with retailers prioritizing collaborations and limited editions nowadays, they should be able to highlight those occasions in their showrooms without a lot of fuss.

It’s important to have “that agility and that flexibility of being able to move things without hiring big crews to come in and reconstruct something,” Marrero told us. Instead, she said, reconfiguring should be “manageable with the store staff you have.”

For Gonzalez, it’s practically Darwinian.

“Store design has to have a significant level of agility and modularity built into it,” she said, “so that that brand or retailer is well equipped to evolve.”

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.