5 designers on what to keep in mind while designing retail in the Middle East

Interior design plays an unsung role in the appeal of any retail store or brand. It can first draw customers in and, second, keep them engaged. Retailers worldwide realise this and work with interior designers to create a trendy, relatable space that reflects their brand’s ethos.

Consequently, retail interior design is a constantly evolving field. Knowing the Middle East’s love for luxury, we reached out to five designers and asked them what to keep in mind while designing retail spaces in the Middle East, and what the retailers in region ask for in a retail brief. Here’s a glimpse into their perspectives….


Hasan Roomi, Co-Founder of H2R Design

On context and placement of products

“Ultimately, the biggest thing to remember is what type of product the retail space sells. For example, our design approach to the high-end luxury jewellery shop Asma AlShaya was very different from the vibrancy and playfulness we used in Candylicious – this is the fun of creating spaces that are so different.

One common aspect, however, is product visibility. It is no good to have a beautifully designed space if the products it displays aren’t easily accessible to guests in the shop as it simply won’t convert commercially. Creating a space that’s as practical as visual is an important consideration. So products must be well spaced with clear eyesight, promoting a sense of comfort and hospitality – especially in the high-end stores.”

Carla Conte, Founder & Creative Director, Brand Creative

On experiential design and brandscaping

With high emotional abilities and an innate understanding of aesthetics, designers can represent the voice of customers in a way that organisations often overlook. A 2014 DMI (Design Value Index) study showed that experiential design-led companies outperform their counterparts by 228%.

Experiential design embraces interior design, architecture, landscape, industrial design and graphic design. It uses the built environment and visual communications to communicate identity and information effectively. It creates experiences that connect people to places.  

“Brandscaping” – the term used for turning a brand into a 3-dimensional space is the foundation to connect with the target market. Every element of the business must reflect the brand message – environmental design, campaigns, digital platforms, social media, the tone of voice used in copy, and even the way staff interact with customers and partners. The consumer’s perception should be that “this brand cares and has taken the time to deliver a message and product that speaks to me directly.” 

A good designer will analyse how a company operates, identify when the user experience has not been effective and create inventive ways to remedy these shortcomings by working closely with other departments. As Ian Callum, Director of Design at Jaguar put it ‘To me, the design tells the story of the brand, of the customer and the people who make it. Get it wrong and your brand equity will suffer, the competition will devour you and the slippery slope begins to be unavoidable.’  

One of the fundamental differences between traditional interiors projects briefs and a project that begins from a brand-centric point of view is the role the marketing department now plays as opposed to one from an owner solely interested in an aesthetic change. 

Our UAE-based retail clients are emphasising the vital role that social media and our addictive relationships to personal devices are having on their sales. The young Emirati generation compresses a spatial experience into a tablet or phone and demands information before fully engaging people with the built environment – this has called for a revamp in design training. Across the world, universities are embracing a New Media era to address the needs of humanity. It’s making us better thinkers. 

As a multidisciplinary design agency, we also include the graphic designer’s role at critical design process stages such as strategy and planning to ensure that we’re all connecting every design decision to a brand’s attributes.

Robin Rossi, Head of Studio, altavia.odg

On digital technologies and customer journey

“From sensory experiences to in-store events, the challenge is to design memorable and engaging shopping experiences. Retail design today is more focused on immersive experiences, especially in the Middle East. Another layer is incorporating digital technologies that take the retail experience beyond the store by educating customers on products or services within the environment. Data and analytics from this further aid in understanding customers’ preferences leading to more personalised services and recommendations. Sustainable design methods (flexibility, modular design, reconfigurable displays etc.) and materiality (eco-friendly materials, green technologies etc.) are also key factors.

The UAE is known for its luxurious lifestyle; retailers tap into this market with high-end offerings. The store design should reflect this luxury – from the obvious ones like materiality and form to the not-so-obvious but pivotal customer journey that dictates how the store will be experienced. Understanding the customer in UAE and nailing down their in-store journey from the beginning is vital. Hospitality is also a crucial aspect of retail in the UAE. Many retailers are increasing customer dwell time by incorporating seating areas, cafes, and rest areas into their stores for a welcoming and relaxed shopping environment.”

Mihir Sanganee, Design Director, DESIGNSMITH

On augmented and virtual reality, and staying one step ahead

“Digital technology like interactive displays and augmented reality experiences to create an immersive shopping experience is popular amongst UAE retailers. Another tiny but mighty request is to incorporate virtual reality for novel shopping experiences – sometimes to allow customers to see how products look before buying them or to have collections in a 360-degree view for shoppers to move around and explore items in a sensory environment. Multi-sensory elements, such as zonal lighting, brand-linked music selections, and scents, curate an arresting and impressionable shopping experience and are also on the rise.

Online and offline shopping becoming synchronous has forced brands to combine both in-store. Designers need to consider how customers can use their phones and tablets to browse products in-store and order them online after getting a feel for what’s available and at what cost. On the other hand, luxury brands are more focused on a personalised shopper experience. Think Fendi Casa within Fendi – a boutique-in-boutique concept and private client and trial rooms.”

On balancing customer and owner satisfaction

“Customer satisfaction is critical for returning clientele, and shoppers prefer a hustle-free shopping experience over an overpowering and confusing one. Think of how you would like them to walk around and experience the space you have created – give them a set circulation space and create drama within the unit. The design, layout and interior aesthetics can register the experience in their minds. 

When most retailers open a new store, they think of it as the first of many to come – this demands us to create something unique to the brand and makes it easier to spot. It is also essential to know the location and the kind of audience of the store to design effectively – for both budget and business. Adequate lighting should be provided to highlight the products displayed.”

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Date added:

23 February, 2023

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