Is your storefront hot or not?
Photo by Nicholas Upton
I’m surprised I haven’t given myself whiplash on one of my trips to New York City. There’s so much to look at, especially for an ADD-fueled reporter on assignment to document the best and worst storefronts in this wonderful megacity often called the capital of the world. I go into squirrel model taking pictures, peering inside windows, jotting down notes and trying to keep my perma-grin under control as I dart down sidewalks populated by aggressive pedestrians.
My favorite exteriors are the bodegas and delis. In Chelsea, I spotted the Esposito Meat Market advertising a special on osso buco, pig toes, picnic shoulders and young ducks. It’s a storefront from the school of thought that more of everything is best: more words, more signs, more pig toes and more specials trying to attract pedestrians into the jaws of a retail flytrap.
Further north in Midtown, scampering my way down 57th Street and then Fifth Avenue, the tony fashion houses subscribe en masse to an entirely different philosophy: spare minimalism. Burberry, Chanel, Dior, Fendi and the like all have dramatic public faces with lots of windows to see into a lifestyle you probably can’t afford. Transparency is so hot right now, and the only thing to obstruct views into these artfully lit stores are the headless mannequins. Here on the south side of Central Park, less remains more.
The market plays up the old “wisdom” of listing every service or product offering for passersby.
Hailing a cab to cool down and catch my breath, I directed my driver toward the East Village where everything’s smaller and older. Squat brownstone apartments and walk-up flats dominate the streetscape. It’s a great neighborhood for its pocket parks, graffiti, sunken storefronts, dudes playing racquetball and gritty spaces that hold onto that divey vision of New York tirelessly portrayed in movies of the 1980s and ‘90s—back when every city was a thieving, steaming hellscape. This is my kind of place.
I came to grab a bite to eat at Prune, a tiny restaurant whose owner, Gabrielle Hamilton, is tasting the pros and cons of fame after being featured on the PBS show “Mind of a Chef.” This gorgeous storefront is just right with subtle, classic branding on a pair of light globes and doors opening the restaurant entirely onto the sidewalk. Transparency gives all who gaze a view of fashionable diners, charming decor, handsome bartenders and white-shirted chefs cooking up scrambled eggs with morel mushrooms, rabbit legs and lamb tongues.
Prune was designed to be a laid-back neighborhood gathering spot, and embracing the actual neighborhood nails that ambition. Should all this pique your interest, the hype is justified.
Pride and prejudice
Looking to confirm my New York prides and prejudices, I spoke with Tanya Spaulding, principal at Minneapolis-based Shea Design. She travels more than 200,000 miles a year with a goal of literally visiting every store and restaurant wherever she roams. She and her team have scads of experience designing retail and restaurant interiors and exteriors along with plenty of franchise work.
Prodded for practical advice for any brands contemplating spruce-ups or full-on concept redesigns, Spaulding suggests creating a series of well managed focal points for customers—leading their eyes right where you want them.
At the Gotham West Market, spaces spill out onto the sidewalk, which successfully lured me inside.
“There’s a delicate balance between creating a bold focal point that’s going to get attention and creating too much clutter,” she said. Asked about the trademark New York aesthetic of plastering windows with every given product and service, she said that shtick works for delis and small markets, but risks creating “visual wallpaper” for anyone else.
Showing, not telling.
“What’s going to create attention from a distance? Up close, what do you want them to see first and what do you want them to see second?” she asked. “Design is very deliberate to create that type of experience that you are actually putting visual cues in place, so the customer actually pays attention to what you want them to pay attention to.”
Of course, designing on a clean sheet of paper is easy as meat pie, but most restaurants and retailers are working within the confines of a given building, a brand’s template or restrictions from the property owner. With limitations understood, Spaulding said the next step is deciding how to react to the circumstances at hand.
Nearly every attention-getting tactic is employed on the streets of New York.
“Some of the biggest mistakes people make in design is taking something historic or something that has character and trying to directly replicate it in a contemporary fashion,” she added. “If you can contrast it with something that creates energy between the two, that’s a great solution, but trying to replicate something and pretend you’re something you’re not just comes off as being a bad fabrication.”
Behavior by design
As most cities are getting nicer, cleaner and safer, the outside world no longer needs to be cordoned off from the racks of clothes, shelves of widgets or finely set tables. Getting your store design correct, however, isn’t as simple as throwing in a set of garage doors or floor-to-ceiling glass. Creating those experiences every generational study recommends requires a serious focus on little things that make a big difference: proper, flattering lighting, breaking up large spaces into smaller, more lively modules and selecting the right windows—reflective glazing that blocks out the outside world is finally being put out to pasture.
“If you’re not using greenery, plants and color, if you’re not opening yourself up, you’re not creating the right first impression,” Spaulding said. “We say to all of our clients, the more you understand what you’re trying to be, how you’re trying to differentiate yourself on the inside and make that spill on the outside of your space, the more successful you’re going to be.”
Treat the human eye like a moth helplessly attracted to light, recommends pedestrian studies expert Peter Bruce. He seconded Spaulding’s motion, noting that retail districts in historic downtowns, for example, need brightly colored accents to stand out from the muted browns, tans and reds of old brick buildings. Pedestrians need something eye-catching in the distance to continue their journey, otherwise it’s just time to head back to the car.
Prune in the East Village is a delightful example of classic minimalism and embracing the surrounding neighborhood.
Bruce said exterior tweaks are generally the best money store and restaurant owners can spend, with impactful changes possible even on a tight budget.
“Storefront appearance improvements are generally the most cost-effective visual changes to make,” he said. “The position of the buildings in relation to busier pedestrian traffic routes will determine the priority or importance of the walking connection, which encourages pedestrians to walk 300 feet further.”
In order to be taken seriously by clients, both design specialists noted the importance of truly understanding the back-end side of a given business, so clients know you aren’t spending their precious pennies with abandon.
“You’re making money by having people sitting in seats, so you have to create that fine line between the two,” Spaulding said of competing priorities. “If you approach our business of designing for clients that we understand the business and the marketing side of it, and it’s not just ‘It will look better if you do this,’ you’ll never win that argument with a business owner.”
Back on the street on a hot summer day, I decided to walk across the southern end of Manhattan during the after-work rush. I wandered wherever my heart took me, which involved detours to examine brightly colored street art, a Crate & Barrel that advertised a discount on patio furniture I was in the market for, a fully transparent Dos Toros Taqueria and, ultimately, the Gotham West Market food hall. At my last stop, a gorgeous hipster bar lured me in with stools right on the sidewalk.
I ordered an old fashioned, but I’m just like the rest of you hungry, thirsty animals on the prowl for something cool, curious or refreshing to lure me off the prairie and into the seat of whatever looks good.
Tom Kaiser, pictured on page 54, is senior editor of Franchise Times and writes about urban tales in franchising in each issue. Send story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.