My neighborhood coffee shop owner was born in Atlanta but his family is Colombian. He would travel every summer to their place in the coffee growing region. His grandfather introduced him to coffee and his cousins taught him perfect Spanish with the local accent. When he moved to my neighborhood one year ago he already had a well known business and an established personal brand as an expert coffee roaster and barista.
Chatting with small business owners like my neighbor, getting to know them and their stories is easy. They are always happy to share their experience, eager to volunteer a trick from their trade or offer a taste of their newest product to get some feedback. Getting them to talk about investing on improvements to their storefront is more of a challenge. I even have some business owners right at home to practice but I still struggle to get that message across.
As a way to polish my communications skills and engage a few business owners who could be interested in being featured in Proud Places, I posted an offer on social media. The premise was straightforward, or so I thought: I offered a free storefront makeover for two small business owners. Those who submitted their storefront had to send a picture in its current state, a brief description of the business and the reason why they should be chosen.
The reaction to the post has been amazing. Likes, comments and shares galore. The submissions from small business owners not so much. Zero, actually.
A picture of what I meant by “makeover” would have helped, I admit it. I only posted my website for reference. The gap between reactions from experts in the field and small business owners who would have benefitted from the offer led me to think that there may be deeper reasons why no one submitted.
I’ll try to explore them here. I will then take a shot at a different way of engaging small business owners in a design conversation regarding their storefronts and, finally, I’ll explain what I mean by a storefront makeover.
A question that comes up repeatedly in my work is who would be more suited to create the design of a retail store: the owner who knows the business and his audience inside out, or the designer who takes the time to learn as much as possible about an industry and someone else’s business and audience before creating something from their own perspective and interpretation.
At Storefront Mastery we operate based on the premise that the former is more likely to bring success.
While that may be true in many cases, it does not offer any guarantees. Accepting help is hard. When things have always been a certain way it’s difficult to see the need for change. Getting the message across that there is a way to help by acknowledging that the real expert is the business owner is harder.
They have so much passion for what they do and take the time and care to learn all the nooks and crannies of their business. Ethereal aspects like design and storytelling can sometimes be a tough topic to get them to sit down around.
Despite the positive impact that those details may have on sales, more worldly parts of running a business like dealing with suppliers, making payroll and paying taxes takes up most of their attention.
Modern businesses rely on storytelling and experiences. Their success depends on how much they give back to their streets and their community, the impact they make and how much shared value they add to their ecosystem. It all boils down to story, mission and hard work.
Those that get it need little help with their design because it will evolve organically. The vast majority that needs it, though, is the group harder to reach out to.
Reflecting on the lack of submissions to the free makeover offer, I developed a small, three-question quiz as an alternative way to help small business owners find out if their storefront is on its way to become a successful Instagram staple that attracts pilgrims by the thousands or if it’s in need of some love and could use a bit of Storefront Mastery.
WORLD’S FASTEST STOREFRONT HEALTH CHECK
- Are people slowing down and looking into your storefront as they walk by?
- Do people hang out on your sidewalk, leave flyers in your store and know you on a first name basis?
- If you ask someone new, could they identify your core offer just by looking at the storefront?
If any of the answers above is no, then there is room for improvement. A store may be old or new, convenience or luxury, traditional or modern. There are great ones and not so great ones in every category. The good news is most of the time, the owner’s knowledge of their business and their passion for what they do has let them create a solid offer and tell a compelling story. And as I said before, design will come naturally after that.
To help in that quest, we developed a system to guide small business owners into finding the words to write their story, creating a mood board to guide the design and listing all the possible elements that make up an epic storefront. Below is a breakdown of what the free makeover offer would have entailed.
Let’s look first at the components of a bricks and mortar store. The interior is the stage for a performance. It has different stations and a circulation that is designed to highlight the offer, tell the story and nudge the shopper to interact.
Then there is the storefront itself or the “commercial facade”, which is an asset since it can work as a billboard, sign and business card, and makes (or loses) money even when the business is closed and the owners are sleeping. The final element is the sidewalk. Technically not part of the business but perceived as a component anyway, since the quality of the space in front of the store will grab the attention and transform pedestrian sidewalk traffic into footfall.
They are all part of the experience and they should be treated as such. Imagine an amusement park. You grab a map and walk towards the ride you want. You see the staging that marks the entrance. You go in. Then there is a line that takes you through a series of rooms designed to put you in the mood of the movie or story that the ride was inspired on. Then comes the actual ride, very short compared to the preamble. And finally you’re funneled to the gift shop where you will likely overpay for a T-shirt.
Every experience is designed as a series of steps, which are repeated in museum visits, college tours, sporting events, union meetings or any other situation where there is a sales pitch involved. The steps are the same: anticipation, performance, resolution. And there is always a predesigned path that everyone follows, with snack booths and gift shops strategically located where everyone pauses and where everyone can see them.
As in any of those situations above, a mood must be created and shared by everyone involved for it to be a successful play. The way to create it is to appeal to all five senses. Combine colors, textures, smells, sounds and also taste or at least the memories of deliciousness past. The perfect combination should suggest a happy place for the customer to interact.
Once we have established the mood then we move on to the design. There’s basic rules that every storefront must abide by:
- A clear vision and concept will tie the entire store together
- A good, epic story will guide the design, service ethics, mood and in-store experience
- The store is a stage for a performance. What matters is what customers see
- The facade and the sidewalk should create an outside room to make people feel like they already stepped in
- Design proportions are not just pretty. They create a psychological bond with the customer.
- The path through the store should feel like a parade with highlights, landmarks and pauses
- Every aspect of the store should amplify the message
- A good display window where things happen will engage people and make them look in
- A coherent brand will make the message easy to understand.
- The best thing to attract people is more people. The public space out front should be attractive, inviting and fun
The last part of the journey is putting these all together in the design of larger elements like the circulation through the store or the “entrance funnel” that include various elements designed together to nudge people into entering and following a path. Business owners can easily work their way to an epic storefront design by relying on knowledge they already have and following the simple rules that they can find in the Storefront Mastery playbook released at the end of September 2020.
A storefront makeover doesn’t mean that an expert will step in from out of nowhere and out of context to tell a business owner what to do. Rather, it’s a journey where the business owner discovers the design skills that knowing their business inside out has taught them over time, doused with the passion they feel for what they do and with their storefront master as a trusted sidekick.