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New Haven Architects Pirie Associates  recently finished two unique retail design projects, a hip urban brewery and an outdoors' retailer. We talked to principal Laura Pirie to better understand their strategy for making it in the bricks and mortar world today.

Recently local retailer Denali opened in Providence and we saw that you designed that and other Denali locations in an atypical way. What do bricks and mortar retailers have to do to in their locations to compete effectively today?

Something we recognized in doing retail years ago is we want to create an environment where people can have an experience. The catchphrase, somewhat in the industry and certainly what we use is called “experiential environments,” in retail they say experiential retail.

As more and more people have interactions in digital and electronic form, experiential environments became more meaningful in people’s lives.

Pirie Laura PirieFor restaurants it’s easy to see that in the uptick of restaurants that are available today. People go out and eat a lot more.

For retailers, we try to create an overlap between the retailer’s mission or purpose, above and beyond selling stuff. If someone just wants to buy stuff or sell stuff, then you [can] go to Amazon and list it or buy it there.

The retailers we work with tend to be “mission driven” retailers, that’s our phrase for it.

What does mission driven retailing mean?

In addition to selling their stuff, which is the way that they make money so they can create a place for people to be. They’re interested in making some other connection, with their community, with their clients or with other organizations that they feel connected to.

For example, in the case of Denali, they have a non-profit organization that takes urban students out into the woods and camps etc., to connect them to the outdoors.

We’ve been working with the Trailblazer Group [owners of Denail] since 2004. The first ten years we did “one off” locations, because they were very interested In connecting to their local community. When we worked on the New Haven location it had a certain quality, when we worked on the Branford location it was trying to pick up on the vibe of that community.

What they realized as they matured as a retailer, is they have their own mission and purpose, and that’s how they’re connecting to their local communities. They [decided to] add, uses in each location that would support the community. For example  in Old Saybrook, when we rebranded, they created a community room, that Boy Scouts use to meet in, that yoga is taught in, that other community functions can happen.

That would seem pretty expensive for a retailer to undertake.

It’s a small percentage of their square footage and it doesn’t happen in every location. In the Mohegan Sun location, clearly they don’t do that.

They don’t need yoga in Mohegan Sun?

When we first did the rebranding in 2014, with the Trumbull location, it was the first time they were going into a mall. Malls are really disconnected, they are their own environment, encapsulated. The idea was to take people out of the mall environment so when they entered the store they felt they were transported somewhere else. We helped Denali realize, that their purpose was to connect people to the outdoors. As a society we spend 90% of our time indoors, so connecting to high quality natural environments is healing.

Their mission [Denali] is to create health and well being by connecting people to the outdoors, and then to provide the materials that they need to function in the outdoors, that’s what they sell.

The way we [connect them] is to bring the outdoors in. This is finding even more relevance in our society now, where we are looking for ways to connect to others that have the same values. [We want], to create a space where people can feel connected to the outdoors, and at the same time find a little healing quality, we’re physiologically programmed to respond to nature.

Denali although it has multiple locations is still a relatively small business, we could see that it would be easy to maintain that mission oriented thinking. But what about a larger company with a lot of locations, do you think they can they create a mission driven environment?

I do, if they are willing to spend the time to connect to their mission and to think about what kind of experience they are trying to deliver to their customer.

Believe it or not I can give an example of big box stores that actually begin to do that a little bit. Think of a Target and think of a Walmart. There are some people who definitely connect to Target because of their branding and their vibe, and there are other people to Walmart. When you find groups that will go only to Walmart or only to Target, part of that is they have done a really good job of staking out who their ideal consumer is.

If you look at the environments themselves, they are not entirely different, but they are different on subtle levels. I think if Target wanted to pay even more attention to creating an environment that had a little more “stickiness” and a little bit more manifestation, [they could].

So the stores aren’t as hip as the commercials?

The stores could be even more hip and I bet they would see a direct correlation between the customer’s time spent in the store, and we know that relates to the amount of stuff they purchase. They can take lessons from creating other places within the store, they’ve done it by bringing Starbucks into their store, Starbucks and Target have an alignment.

You have to “sell” a retailer, who are for by industry design, most often “penny” oriented in terms of cost control. As an architect you have to think big to get a vision across, how do you demonstrate that the spend is really worth it?

There is a process strategy that we use that helps guide decision making. When working to develop a vision for a particular retailer or brewery or restaurant or even believe it or not a law school [ Pirie recently designed a redesign of the Yale Law School]. We’re talking about it in the context of commercial space, but honestly we use this [the process] with every project.
Part of the process is digging deep and eliciting, their own wisdom into what makes them tick. All architects ask what do you need in the store, what do you hope to do. But clients will always give us answers in terms of solutions, “I need a conference room, I want a bay window, I need 5,000 square feet.”

They are giving us solutions, we ask them to go deeper, what does that bay window do for you?

We separate and distinguish ideas versus solutions, solutions are really a surrogate of the core idea. By getting to the core idea we can help them go forward to a solution that is appropriate for them. And here is the key – for every idea there are an infinite number of solutions at several different cost points. If we get hooked into “I have to have a bay window,” maybe they can’t afford a bay window but they can afford something that connects the indoors to the outdoors more.

One thing that drew us to this interview was reading about a craft brewery you designed. How do you apply your approach in this market and in such a highly competitive space?

The brewer Dos Luces [] is located in Denver, Judd Belstock is a college friend of Melissa Kops who works here as a collaborator, [design team leader]. He’s been in the brewing industry in different facets for fifteen years, and always said to Melissa “I’m going to have my own brewery one day,” and Melissa would say, “I’m going to be your architect.” When Judd was ready, he reached out to Melissa.

Judd described to us that he’s making modern interpretations of an ancient Mexican beverage, Pulque and an ancient Peruvian beverage, Chicha. His mission is what would our beer would look like if we weren’t so influenced by German beers. The brews are like sour beers, and right now the newest craze in beer is sour beer. Judd uses corn to brew these beers instead of barley, wheat or hops.

Our [desgn] thesis is that owners of buildings can amplify their reach when their environments are built to support their intentions. We looked to the ancient mythologies of Peru and Mexico and where there were overlaps, we used those to design the space.

Dos Luces opened at the end of August, and they’re doing great.

The brewers core purpose in making Dos Luces was making a place for community, through sharing these modern interpretations of these ancient beverages. There are these radiating lights in the front of the store. The brightest day of the year those lights are brighter, people are like “what is that?” The energy bursts forward, and that was our intention.

The front of the store is like the Zucolo or plaza like in any Mexican village. In the back of the space we developed the “brewers table,” it’s a rift on the chef’s table., Brewing geeks can learn about the unique brewing process or the flavors and they’re going to do demos as well. It’s also a place where families or groups can rent the table, the've even been renting them to do painting classes.

Trends change, how does that effect a space that can’t so easily change?

That’s why we start with their vision and mission. This is a strategy of creating places where people can come together because of a common interest. Although the expression of their purpose can change with the times, their core purpose will not.