The Golden Rules of Retail

by  — 17 June 2013

The masterplan architect of Doha’s Msheireb regeneration project, eminent British architect Tim Makower is always thinking about city spaces. In this special feature, Makower offers The Edge what he calls his ‘Golden Rules of Retail’ on how retailers and developers of the Qatari capital could and should adopt a more holistic approach to planning the city’s shopping spaces.

Exploring the aesthetics of Qatar’s shopping spaces

There is a small shop in old Doha, in a rough old alleyway in Al Asmakh, just south of Msheireb and only a few hundred yards from the Souk Waqif, which sells thread. Every kind of thread you could ever want, in every colour, every thickness. It is all laid out beautifully from floor to ceiling, as if a library of colour. As well as holding the best stock of thread in the whole of Qatar, this is a place full of character and evokes a sense of a bygone era, when shopping was a far more visceral experience than it often is today.

Yet apart from the intrinsic value of this shop, as with all of the urban fabric of Doha’s history, its very future is under threat due to the forever increasing speed of redevelopment across the city - which can often replace warm, welcoming retail spaces such as this humble thread shop, with unwelcoming environments made of concrete, glass and steel.

So what can it teach us about retail in Qatar for now and for the future? A walk from this shop to Souk Waqif, and a look at the plans for Msheireb, now emerging fast out of the ground in the area, reveals certain principles, which could be called the ‘Golden Rules of Retail’. The idea that they are made of gold reminds us of the ancient traditions of these marketplaces, barter and exchange, and the value of precious things. Certainly, making sense and a success of retail has value – long-term value – for the health and sustainability of communities.

Inside outside

The best retail environment, whether it is outside in the sunshine or the rain, or part of an internal mall, should have the qualities of our favourite city streets and spaces.

Doha’s Souq Waqif is a combination of urban and old city elements and the author, noted architect Tim Makower, writes that mall developers shoulld use it as a good example of retail space design. (Image Corbis)

The great 15th century Italian architect, Leon Battista Alberti, said that “a city is like a large house and a house is like a small city.” This is certainly as true today as it was then, especially when you consider that both are made up of rooms – outdoors and indoors - which we humans inhabit. The feeling of being ‘at home in a city’ is something difficult to define, but whatever it means for different people, it involves being comfortable, both in the privacy of your house and out on the street, and retail is the heartbeat of the street.

The ‘outdoor rooms’ of the city are generally made of stone, concrete, clay or render; perforated and illuminated with openings. The most effective city spaces feel permanent, and improve with age. The permanence of the well-made city street is complemented by the dynamic transience of retail, its changing displays and the diverse parade of characters it attracts. A walk down London’s New Bond Street, across Piccadilly and into the open arcades of St. James’ reveals a prime example of this urban collage.

“The nature of shopping is linear. To achieve the right balance between clear directionality and freedom of choice, between interconnectivity and focus, is a fine art.”

Whether we are inside a mall or out in the street, when we are shopping, we are ‘out’. We are playing our part. The stage set is the street. Lessons could be learnt for so many internal malls, such as Landmark or Villaggio in Doha, which lack the humanising qualities of a real piece of city, feeling more like large spaceships, with wide concourses and walkways inside, and a sense of being disconnected from their surroundings.

Conversely, Souk Waqif is a paradigm, albeit on a scale which is very different from the retail needs and expectations of 21st century Doha. Its buildings are a continuum, all made of similar materials, whether covered or not. It is roofed in places, to provide shade, but the exterior facades continue. But none of Souq Waqif  is fully indoors and this is benefit to its urban feel. It is indeed warm in the Souq in high summer, but certain areas benefit from cool air spilling out of the wide-open shop-fronts within, and shade is plentiful.

But this ‘feel of the street’ can be achieved in a fully enclosed mall also. The qualities of daylight and material can simply emulate the exterior world and in so doing, they can bind the environment of a mall into its wider context. Whether indoors or outdoors, shopping streets are public spaces and today, with an increasing percentage of shopping done from the privacy of home via the Internet, the benefit of being out on the street as part of enhancing a sense of community will only increase.

Stream of life

Retail is like plumbing; the connecting of flows. Like water (or blood), retail brings life. Like water, it can rush fast in some places and create quiet eddies in others; it makes vibrant places for people, both to enliven and relax.

The nature of shopping is linear. To achieve the right balance between clear directionality and freedom of choice, between interconnectivity and focus, is a fine art. Of course it is in the interests of every shopkeeper and every retail landlord, to pump as many people past as many shops as possible, while being sure to make the experience enjoyable and satisfying.

One obvious environmental need in Doha is to create shade. Arcades work well but all too often they are not wide enough. But generous single arcades in Doha can make a street walkable for all but two months of the year. Even better, particularly in the case of cafes and restaurants, is a double arcade or ‘liwan’; the inner arcade can be for walking, the outer one for café tables, for example on the main square of the new Sidra Village in Doha.

At Msheireb, the main shopping galleria, whilst being internal, has been designed to be a truly integrated piece of the city. Not only does it connect the natural lines of flow from Souq Waqif up into Msheireb’s main square, the exterior feel and character of the facades continue through the interior of the galleria, even though it is indoors

Opening the lens

Shop windows are like lenses. Their contents are projected outwards, via the window, and the view is focused in. They are also like a funnel. People flood in and goods spill out.

Colourful goods spilling from spacious store frontages onto walkways and/or streets embody the spirit of a retail environment that is a pleasure for shoppers and can increase profits, explains Makower. (Image Corbis)

If we turn now and look perpendicular to the line of flow, we are looking at, and into, the shop window. Shop windows do much for the character of a street. They want to draw the eye to the contents within and some do this by being eye-catching in their own right. 

This blurring of the boundaries between inside and outside lies at the heart of successful retail frontage, whether it involves foldaway glazing or not. To allow the shop interior to spill out onto the street is made easy in covered shopping spaces such as the Gallerie des Panorames in Paris and is of course traditional in the Middle East region’s souqs. The extrovert nature of goods displayed out on the pavement goes hand in hand with the typical use of awnings to protect goods, and to some extent, shoppers from the sun.

Jewellery and jazz

Shop signage is the jewellery of the street and every shop should wear what suits it best, but it will only enhance the city if it is well designed and well made.

Well-crafted streets - built to mature over generations - make successful cities. However, without the ephemera of shop windows and signage, an overtly handsome retail street can be sterile. Every retailer carries its own brand, and it is right that they should be encouraged to celebrate this. However, this can be manifested in many ways, ranging from garish illuminated fascia panels to exquisite sculptural forms with sophisticated lighting.  

Makower also writes that street signage, If not executed creatively and with some sort of common purpose, can damage the aesthetic potential of a city. (Image Photosbymilo)

Therefore, some aesthetic guidance for retail signage is good; not to lessen the individuality of the shops but to raise the quality of the whole to a higher level. Yet signage is often over-controlled. Buildings should be created with confidence that they will be able to host a wide variety of signage designs – shapes, sizes, and colours – to enrich rather than detract from their character. Retail is organic and should be allowed to have a life of its own.

In Doha, there is a strong tradition of calligraphic signage, some hand-painted and much of it in neon. This could become one of Doha’s identifying features – that all retail signage should be innovative, fresh and beautifully honed. Kharaba Street at Msheireb (Electricity Street) which was Doha’s first illuminated shopping street, described as the ‘Champs Elysees of Doha’ in its heyday through the sixties – is an example of strong, flamboyant and harmonious signage; both of past and future.

“The qualities of daylight and material can emulate the exterior world and in so doing, they can bind the environment of a mall into its wider context.”

Good retail is like jazz. Each individual should be free to play his own instrument but without a tune and a beat – something to hold the band together – it will not be music. Similarly, successful retail balances unity and diversity, with its elements in the architecture of the street or binding themes within the shopfront and signage design itself.

Body and bones

For healthy retail, the ‘organs and bone structure of the body’ need to function well. The right mix, the right relationships and the ability to adapt, are essential to a successful shopping cluster.

Some shopping areas are designed as a single piece and some grow organically, but in either case a degree of designed-mix will be of benefit. This may take the form of a development framework by a local authority, or a masterplan by a large-scale landowner. There are many technical orthodoxies of critical mass, destination planning and footfall which are essential to the design of a successful retail engine.

Like Souq Waqif and other Middle East markets, the cafes and shops of Gallerie des Panorames in Paris spill from the confines of conventional retail, making it one of the author’s all time world shopping and dining spaces.

However, if retail planning is treated merely as the design of an economic machine, rather than the creation of a real piece of a city, then it will never fulfil its potential.

Instead, the rhythms of retail from day to night, and the other activities that surround it, must be fundamental to its character and longevity.

Like an ecosystem, people living and working near shops create a natural balance; symbiotic relationships develop which make shopping and dining more than just the act of purchasing goods or eating out. More than an act of buying, shopping or even visiting the thread shop in the Souq is a visceral experience. 

Retail is like a living, breathing body; it has a pulse and a heartbeat; it needs air in its lungs. The central ‘organ’ will often be a marketplace or souq, as is found in the majority of towns through history. The ‘parts of the body’ are public spaces, just as much as they are units of retail space; the spatial qualities of courtyards, narrow lanes, sometimes on more than one level, create the richness of experience which is so much part of feeling being at home in the city.

But there is also the unseen to consider, the ‘back of house’ worlds of retail are generally invisible although many shops are serviced from the street, out of hours, however there are many supply, access and other logistical considerations that are as important as the less tangible issues of character and feel, for the long-term success of retail estates.

It is, therefore, essential to build a solid base of human knowledge, skill and commitment in support of the retail economy. For a fast-changing country such as Qatar, this will be essential for it to meet its high aspirations, and to deliver a quality of service in a pleasant, safe, environment, which enables shoppers to go away happy and return for more. It is about seeing urban retail development as building communities, not just the creation of commodities.

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