Take a stroll through any mall in the nation and you’ll quickly notice that retail is changing. Today’s sophisticated stores are being designed in response to how bricks and mortar consumer brands are reinventing themselves against competition from online retailers. Design is being used as an essential and potent weapon in that battle, and one of the places where you might see that in action is on the college campus. Catering to a unique retail experience and discerning, savvy customers, how the college bookstore is constructed and the shopping experience it provides can be essential to creating a crucial focal point on campus.
“The college bookstore design is in transition,” explains Greg Candee, Director, Design & Construction for Barnes & Noble College. “It used to be just a space for putting the textbook in customers’ hands, but it’s evolved over time to a greater shopping experience, with a wider variety of products while becoming a hub – a meeting place where students can feel comfortable interacting with each other,” he adds. It’s what Barnes & Noble College staffers often describe as a ‘sense of space,’ to define a store that transcends a purely transactional experience into an individual sense of welcome. “Our mission is to support our 700 plus stores and create great retail spaces for our college communities, but every college and university has its own campus identity – the thing that makes it unique – and what we try to do is understand that uniqueness and create a store that best fits with that campus,” Candee explains.
Perhaps that is why the 25-year design veteran insists he doesn’t design cookie-cutter Barnes & Noble branded stores. “We try instinctively to design the store to the very campus we’re serving. We want our customers to know they’re in their campus bookstore,” he says. Part of that process involves extensive meetings and consultations with all of the bookstores’ stakeholders, ranging from the student body and administration to the college president’s office. “Typically, everyone has a vision of what their store will look like, and our job is to help them navigate through those discussions and deliver on their vision,” he explains.
Despite the impressive design of some of the large, multi-level superstores Barnes & Noble College has built on campuses such as LSU and Georgia Tech, Candee loves the challenge of helping deliver on his client’s vision with whatever footprint is available. “Perhaps the challenge of location, or available space or even building codes doesn’t always allow you to execute on all the requests a client may have, so through our discussions and design efforts, we work very closely with the campus to try and accommodate the mission.” He reveals that his design and construction teams have created some great stores from converted classrooms and smaller spaces, but whether it’s a 500 or 50,000 square-foot space, it’s still the mission that is key. While retailers traditionally covet every inch of retail space for revenue generation, on the college campus, a design sense allowing students to gather around shared events and experiences, a place to linger and mingle, is equally important.
Despite the threat from online retailing, the spaces Candee and his team design and build provide something an online experience cannot; the kind of browsing and discovery experiences that create that very ‘sense of place.’ “We have to look at (the retail landscape) and ask ourselves how we continue to differentiate ourselves,” he insists. “If we provide a hub for the campus – a space our customers feel part of – then that creates a stronger tie to their college community and they’re going to support it,” he says. Despite the care and expertise Candee brings to help realize his client’s expectations, he sees his role as going beyond design for design’s sake, with the greater challenge being to create a seamless shopping experience for students. “Design is just one part of a much bigger process that includes good pricing, product choice and amazing customer service,” he says. “When our customers walk through the threshold for the first time, we want them not just to feel the design mission; we really want them to be part of a total experience.”