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One huge post-pandemic shift for retail workers? More comfortable stores to work in

In the pandemic age, retail spaces have to cater to customers and workers alike.

One huge post-pandemic shift for retail workers? More comfortable stores to work in
[Photo: Morley von Sternberg/courtesy Gensler]

Retail jobs are among the most common in the U.S. economy. During the pandemic, these workers have been face-to-face with the shopping masses likely to be carrying and spreading COVID-19. So when designers set out to rethink what a retail store can be in the age of a viral pandemic, they started designing with the worker in mind.

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This is one of the key trends shaping the design of retail spaces going forward, according to Gensler, which is releasing its annual design forecast today. With more than 50 offices, thousands of employees, and work underway in more than 100 countries, Gensler is the world’s biggest architecture firm, and its wide-ranging workload gives it a kind of 30,000-foot-view of how design is changing. In the retail space, where the firm has designed for stores ranging from Microsoft to JBL to Australia’s Heritage Bank, the change is that stores will begin to think not just about the people buying stuff but also the people making the sales.

[Photo: Morley von Sternberg/courtesy Gensler]
“Normally around every recession you’ll see brands start to look at reinventions, because it gives them the opportunity to take that time,” says Lara Marrero, a principal at Gensler’s London office focused on retail. “Retailers have been waiting for a cycle of reinvention.”

The pandemic, she says, has refocused retailers on how people actually use their physical stores. Over the past decade, many retailers found themselves struggling to compete with online retail. They tried pivoting to experiences—reasons for people to come into their stores when so much of what they sell could easily be bought online. “Through all of that, we lost sight of some of the basics in retail, in making sure there’s clear navigation so people can feel comfortable getting in and out,” Marrero says.

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Now retail clients are seeking designs that prioritize the clarity of the experience—simple signage and easy wayfinding, clear sight lines, and more intuitive store layouts so that customers can see where they need to go from the moment they walk in the doors. It’s about ease of use, but also about safety, Marrero says, noting that the less time a shopper needs to spend inside a store the less exposure there will be to a still-raging virus—for customers and store employees alike.

[Photo: Morley von Sternberg/courtesy Gensler]
“We know that the health-and-wellness component is incredibly important not only for consumers but even more so for those employees,” she says. “Every brand we’re working with has that as a baseline. It’s really about how do we help make these environments and these engagements feel business as usual as quickly as possible.”

This may not be a completely altruistic effort. Retail jobs, many of them low-paying and at high risk of contracting COVID-19, are not the most attractive opportunities in the current labor market. Throughout the pandemic, retail job openings climbed to historic highs. In November, the most recent month for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics has data, there were more than 963,000 retail job openings nationwide. Companies may be realizing that if they’re going to get people to work during the pandemic and beyond, the stores themselves should probably be nicer places to work.

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[Photo: Morley von Sternberg/courtesy Gensler]
That’s also resulting in designs that pay more attention to the back-of-house parts of stores that only employees see and use. Most of Gensler’s current design work falls under nondisclosure agreements, but Marrero points to the recent example of a Microsoft store in London’s Oxford Circus, which has a specially designed break room where employees can relax or even play some of the video games the store sells. Other projects have included studies on how designs can accommodate effective breaks for workers who spend long hours on their feet or mentally taxing time engaging with customers. Marrero says more retailers are beginning to build these concerns into the way their stores are designed.

“For a lot of our clients, we’ve been going through a huge shift in the way that they’re thinking,” Marrero says. “Instead of them just being hourly employees, its about saying how do we look at these people and invest in these people, we’ll train them, we’ll teach them. We’ll also look at environments that cater to their downtime.”

Though retail has struggled through the two-year pandemic, with more than 5,000 store closures in 2021 alone, Marrero says it’s hardly the end. The design approaches Gensler is applying in stores around the world seem to reflect the changing ways that both companies and workers look at the realities of retail jobs.

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“It’s the biggest test-and-learn experiment for retail known to man, quite frankly,” Marrero says. “What we’re finding is that people are still showing up.”

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