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How to Make Sure Your Environmental Design Delivers ROI

It’s common for environmental design conversations to start with structures and spaces. But when banking clients asked us to figure out how to set up branches in grocery stores, we started with people. If people were grocery shopping, we knew that mindset was different than the safety and privacy assumed with banking. So, we started with questions that led us to answer not only the structural integration questions, but also the intangible ones that would guide the design—and ultimately contribute to the success of the branches.

Great environmental design delights customers. It optimizes multiple, interconnected paths to purchase and eases pain points for shoppers and associates. It fosters loyalty and showcases your brand at its aspirational best.

It’s also not easy to create, particularly when the customer wants and needs are rapidly evolving and often unpredictable.

That’s why thorough research is the foundation for the environmental design process, whether the space in question belongs to a retailer, bank, restaurant, sports arena or collegiate facility.

Further, as recently noted in the Wall Street Journal, research isn’t just about collecting data.


"In an age when big data, or quantitative research, has seduced many companies into thinking they know their customers better than their customers know themselves, there is a growing realization that even if the numbers don’t lie, they can be seriously misleading."


Miller Zell’s design process doesn’t start with sketches or a handful of data points. It starts with questions. We want to cultivate a deep understanding of the brand, its spaces, its associates and its customers.

Great design starts with strategic research

Issues and challenges need to be holistically examined and clearly understood to develop a deep understanding of the retailers’ operational, customer and staff choreography. This means observing the shopper's journey as well as interviewing customers and associates about their experiences.

  • What did they like?

  • What didn’t they like?

  • What barriers to purchase need to be addressed?

  • How did existing in-store messaging impact shoppers?

  • What customer needs are not met?

  • How is merchandising perceived?

  • How well did digital displays and the branded app integrate into the experience?

The path to answering these questions isn’t always straightforward. Miller Zell employs a variety of methodologies and customized programs designed around client needs that address gaps in understanding.

  • Focus groups

  • On-line surveys

  • Shopper intercepts

  • Concept testing

  • Shop-alongs

  • In-depth staff interviews

  • Pre-shop assignments

  • Exit interviews

Optimized environments serve the brand and its customers

Thorough research also incorporates first-hand experiences that can be gained only when researchers themselves complete the customer and associate journey. More than a few times, Miller Zell’s embedded researchers discovered critical but straightforward issues, such as a perceived lack of privacy that was causing shopper anxiety and impending sales.

Such insights are invaluable to our design team. They strategically incorporate these learnings into the customer journey and create more alluring and informative messaging to draw in customers with functional engagement through signage, fixtures, furniture, lighting, wayfinding, space planning and color choices.

This collaborative effort focuses on impacting shopper behavior through the five keys of the sales process: attraction, invitation, discovery, engagement and decision/closure.

Engagement is mission-critical for environmental design

It requires continuous study, even when it’s not for a specific client.

Miller Zell researchers recently completed a study, “The Post Pandemic Health & Wellness Shopper: Supermarket Implications.” We found the pandemic caused more people to think about how their personal choices impacted their health and the health of their community, and that specifically supermarkets were well-positioned to benefit from these shifting attitudes. The study included “5 Key Attitude/Behavior Shifts and Implications for Shopper Wants & Needs.”

Another study, “A Shopper’s Eye View of Point-of-Sale,” examined the appeal and usage of different in-store signage, comparing printed signs to digital displays – both interactive and static — as well as in-store mobile app use. Miller Zell’s findings were organized by product categories, type of store (specialty, department, etc.) and generations and included portions on staff-customer interaction.

To Get Started

For a design to be purposeful and provide ROI, it requires a foundation of strategic insights into what will optimize a branded environment and its customer experience. A good place to start is with a comprehensive look at customer attitudinal and behavioral data to create a strategic roadmap on your way to great design.

  • Immerse yourself into your brand from your customers’ point-of-view
  • Fully understand the flow between your operations, staff and customers
  • Observe how they use the space now

In summary, for great design, start with research before you think of structures and spaces.

Actionable insights that inspire innovative solutions and generate measurable results are not easy to find. Customers are always evolving, so there is no finish line for understanding them.

While research and the resulting design are often tethered to the best possible solutions at scale, strategic and engaging design is important for any public environment.

Whether the client is a retailer, bank, QSR or university, quality research is an immersion in both the brand and its customers’ wants and needs. This is particularly important when you want to upgrade an environment from transactional into one that feels like a modern and comfortable destination.

Ultimately, research points designers toward environmental designs that weave together brand goals and their customer wants and needs, for a one-off flagship or thousands of stores.