Store tone – is yours right?

The tone of a retail store can make or break the customer relationship, writes Adrian Black.

We’ve all been there. You’re in a high pressure situation when a curly question is thrown at you requiring a cool and calm response (think job interview or pay review).

The tone of your response can determine the outcome in an instant. Say the wrong thing and you won’t get that sale or pay rise. It is this style of immediate communication that often attracts many of us to retail at various levels.

So why is tone so important and how does it relate to retail, or does it?

Tone is one of those areas in retail that is hard to define – it’s a combination of tangible elements that when joined together, send an intrinsic message to the viewer, shopper or reader. One dictionary defines it as being “a particular mental state or disposition; spirit or character”.

You only need to look at successful international brands to see they have one common thread. They have a consistency in their core brand ‘handwriting’ that is unmistakably theirs. The average consumer may not be able to define what that is, but the messages sent by their store design, product range, pricing and marketing material and customer service are all aligned and consistent. This applies to premium brands, discount brands and everything in between. Successful retailers respect the importance and role of getting the tone right, and take steps to do so.

Like many of you reading, I am regularly in shopping malls looking at who is doing what, who is on sale, who is (and who isn’t) staying on top of their store development program; who is introducing new product and ranges, and who is opening new store concepts. In visiting mall after mall, it is easy to pick who has a consistent tone and who does not.

For clarity, I think it is important to explain what ‘tone’ is not. Tone is not using the same cookie cutter design for your store design unless you are a discount brand, where that style of design fits. It is not about selling the same product range in every store unless you are selling encyclopedias. For me, tone is about getting a consistent message through every aspect of your portfolio that reflects your status and goals.

Take a 7-Eleven store for example; site selection is critical as it is a convenience purchase. Put the store in an obscure, low traffic location and the turnover won’t support the range of products a consumer expects in a convenience store.

Look at high end fashion and on the whole, you are unlikely to find much chipboard or neon. More often than not you’ll find sleek lines, clean finishes, great lighting and contrasting features. As a rule, the better the quality of garments or products, the sharper the store design and visual merchandising.

Banks are a good ‘tone’ reference guide too. All banks want to attract different areas of the consumer and business market and their bank size, location, design and facilities reflect this.

Is it just me or have you noticed a change at your local supermarket recently? Coles is my local supermarket and around six months ago, head office must have implemented a policy to ‘engage with customers’. I cannot get out of my local Coles without connecting with the cashier on some human and real level – a good example of cultural tone in action.

For the most part, retailers either don’t understand or appreciate the importance of getting tone right for their brand and stores. It was on a walk through Westfield Bondi Junction that recently illustrated this to me clearly. In the past six months, three separate stores at the centre had undergone a refurbishment or relocation. Each store is from an established brand with shops in every A and B grade centre in Australia (as a minimum). All were from different retail segments – one from fashion, another from apparel and the last in a service category. Each store had invested money in their brand.

It is generally acknowledged that Westfield Bondi Junction is in the top two in Australia. Why then if the centre is so successful, would these brands reopen with sub-standard off brand stores? Do they know the message they are sending to their customer? Do they care?

In fairness, every brand has a store somewhere they’d prefer to forget, but it’s often justified by its low grade location or sales performance.

Bondi Junction falls into neither category.

Shopping centres try to avoid potential retail train wrecks through appointed retail design managers who review and approve all design documentation. This concept is a good one but is limited by the focus being on whether the submitted design meets the centre design guidelines. Is it possible for a company outsider to gauge whether a design is ‘on brand’ or represents the brand effectively? No.

Jurlique gets it right
By contrast, there are other brands that get the tone of their brand spot on, every time. For me, a great example of superior store development consistency is Jurlique. My grandmother always spoke highly of the product but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I really took any notice of the brand.

I spoke with CEO Sam McKay recently to learn what steps were taken to deliver such impressive store atmospheres. McKay is a disarmingly young CEO who has led the Jurlique team for three years and who hand selected partners to work with who ‘got’ the Jurlique story and vision, both internally and externally.

The store design was managed in house by Mick Glenn who appears to have developed an intelligent library of finishes and form that reflects Jurlique’s ‘karma’ or ‘DNA’. In a time when the skincare and cosmetics industry was fixated on white gloss fixtures, Glenn selected rough sawn timbers and industrial aluminium stands that reflected the essence and natural ingredients of the product. The ambiance of the lighting and warmth of the timber fixtures give a clean, calm focus while the floor finishes provide a genuine but understated presence. The packaging, ticketing and collateral pieces all support the Jurlique message as if the one person was responsible for developing the lot – consistent handwriting and tone from top to bottom.

Speak to McKay about the transformation of the brand and he’ll suggest that the success of the retail concept has led to double digit growth for the company, year on year on year. Next time you are in a mall, seek out any new or refurbished Jurlique store and try to fault it.

For me, most retailers under-prioritise the need for attention in store development, providing a real life example of confusing the urgent with the important. For other retailers, the store design and construction process plays only a small part on the success of their business. For everyone else, getting the tone right in your store environment and business should be priority number one in every piece of your company handwriting.

* Adrian Black is a retail consultant at Black Line and can be contacted by email on

This feature first appeared in Inside Retailing Magazine. Click here to subscribe.


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