A Trade Magazine for New Age Retailers

Retail Design Trends for 2020

Decisions about what merchandise to sell is an important component of gift shop ownership, but perhaps equally crucial is store design, followed by product placement. After all, shop owners are storytellers, and the goal should be to convey that story in an understandable and memorable way.

Joanne Rossman is the owner of a gift shop of the same name, with the tagline: purveyor of the unnecessary and irresistible. The Roslindale, Massachusetts business is in a cozy 405-square-foot Victorian storefront. Rossman is purposeful in the items she carries, such as items that give back and Fair Trade items. “I try hard to have them have some kind of message,” she said.

That message is clear from the outset, and she has lots of stories to tell…literally. “I sell a number of books, and the books become part of the story of whatever I’m selling,” she said. And that is the point: incorporating key design elements in a store design will better enable a store owner to relay that story while taking the customer on a specific journey.


Trending currently is sustainable design, which seeks to reduce the impact on the environment. It also encompasses utilizing reclaimed materials.

Sarah Jo Sautter is director of marketing with JGA Designs, a global design firm based in Southfield, Michigan that does everything from strategic planning of a store, to prototyping, to construction service.

To illustrate sustainable design, Sautter said that her firm re-purposed reclaimed wood for a gift shop client. “We were doing a new building from the ground up and tore another building down on site, we used some of the wood from that building and reused it to make some of the tables that we built in the gift shop,” she said.

Another retail client was moving into an old space, but wanted to maintain the historic integrity of the building. The client chose to keep an old staircase intact and made it the focal point of the store.

Sautter said that while sustainability has been a buzzword in design for a while, the industry is seeing it more and more. “Some clients are trying to figure that out not just with materials, but with how they’re relaying their message; that social responsibility and what they are doing to impact the community. We’re showcasing that in not only the way we’re designing the store, but in the message of the store and the displays,” she said.

Brian Weltman, CEO and creative director of Retail Habitats Design headquartered in San Diego said, “On the sustainability front, we’ve been seeing more materials made from reclaimed waste such as ocean plastic, cardboard, and textile fibers. We’ve been kicking it kind of ‘old school’ lately and sticking to simple, raw materials such as plywood, concrete, and terracotta,” he said.

Smart Technology

There is a demand for smart technology in retail spaces, though this can be limited by budget and by space.

Weltman said that more and more retailers are turning to in-store analytics and radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology to measure traffic, target customer messaging and track inventory. “LED lighting technology and controls also seem to improve each year which can have a big impact on the overall store environment as well as energy efficiency. Some of our bolder clients have recently asked us to explore AR or VR solutions to further enhance the in-store customer experience as well,” he explained.

Color and Shape

Color is a very personalized design element. Depending on the store, color can be utilized in a myriad of ways. Rossman, for example, always merchandises her products in a colorful theme, perhaps putting an indigo scarf on the same table as a book that has an indigo cover. “I don’t always just do color, but I try to do things that you would not necessarily find next to each other. It’s a surprise. So many people shop online, so when they come in, they like to make a discovery,” said Rossman. “We all know money is tight, and there is a variety of places a shopper can put their funds, but if they get intrigued and charmed by a product, that is often what they’ll buy.”

Still, Sautter said that she is seeing neutral tones that are a bit richer, specifically, colors that can work with various other colors. “A lot of what we’re seeing is simplified design. We don’t want a lot of color because we want the products to speak for the color and don’t want to fight with that,” she said.

What goes around comes around, and in some retail spaces, it’s the ‘80s and ‘90s all over again. “I’ve been seeing a lot of emerald or hunter green color palettes with brass and gold accents and very dramatic marble patterns. I’ve also seen more pink hues, large floral patterns, terrazzo surfaces, and curved furniture lines lately,” said Weltman.

Engaging the Senses

As much as possible, it is important to engage the customers’ senses so that shopping becomes an experience, one that can outcompete the inherently impersonal nature of shopping online. In a retail setting, perhaps sight is most important. “A beautifully designed and well-planned store is proven to cause customers to dwell longer and spend more,” said Weltman.

Music also can translate into beautiful sounds at the cash register. “Music should align with the brand P.O.V. and the overall vibe of the environment,” he added.

Sautter reported that she is seeing more shop owners develop signature scents and changing them out with the seasons so that it always feels fresh, though Weltman cautions that this can be risky, as everyone experiences scent different.

For a tactile experience, Sautter said that stores are offering more opportunities to engage, such as having a separate area for the customer to actually work on personalizing a gift item. “One client asked for a separate workspace to host events, where groups could come in and work on a project,” she said. Rossman also encourages the tactile sense, putting out items that beg to be touched, such as cashmere scarves, throws, and soft slippers.

Most customers welcome the opportunity to taste free samples. Rossman offers samplers of food that she sells in the store, such as jams from Upstate New York, licorice from Denmark, or honey from the Carolinas.


There’s a wellness movement afoot, and retailers are capitalizing on this. Sautter said she has put in coffee bars or other hospitality-type features so customers will not only have an experience, but feel comfortable and want to stay even longer.

“We often add a ‘natural touch’ to our designs. No matter if it is a spa, restaurant, or gift shop, a sense of wellness and relaxation always feels like a welcome respite. Living walls make great brand accent walls, and potted plants can spruce up dead corners to provide an added sense of comfort,” said Weltman.

Space Planning/Layout

Weltman said that there is no ‘best’ way to lay out a gift shop, but the layout should be guided by two components: the retailer’s goals, and the confines of the space. For example, a higher end gift shop might focus on aesthetics, while an ‘exit through the gift shop’ type place should focus on traffic flow so customers can walk past as many pieces as possible.

“Think of this as an investment in your business and hire a professional to design and plan your store – it’ll pay dividends in the end. The single most important thing is how the store functions, and that starts with proper space planning. If the store is not properly laid out, you could be missing out on sales and not even know it,” he said. But even small changes can help, and you don’t have to break the bank. Things like a fresh coat of paint, better lighting and new floors can help refresh a look, said Weltman.

“It’s hard to change out the layout, but we certainly change the design frequently. We need to move things around to change the energy in the store. A large percentage of our customers are repeat customers, so we have to make things look different constantly even if the items are not new. We make them look new by changing their position,” said Leslie Gera, owner of Mother Earth Gallery in New Milford, CT, a crystals and minerals shop housed in an 1800s building that also carries candles, sterling silver gemstone jewelry, and more.

“The layout of the store is designed to draw customers to particular areas (candles, singing bowls, jewelry, etc.) but keeping the areas as open as possible. We have beautiful glass cube shelves when you first walk into the shop and, for whatever reason, everyone tends to turn right upon entering,” she added.

Weltman said that it’s expensive to remove big built-in displays and counters. However, he said, “Freestanding floor displays can always be updated and moved around pretty easily to increase traffic flow and improve the look of your store. Ditch the old garment racks, cheap spinners, and beat up slat wall fixtures for something a little nicer.”

Social Media

Creating an Instagrammable location or two to capture moments within the store, like a selfie station or a cool display, can go a long way toward business. Customer almost expect to find something Instagram-worthy. This is especially true if your store attracts Gen Z’ers, as they are the ones most likely to use Instagram when they are out shopping, even more than Millennials. To illustrate, Rossman has a wall of cards in her store, and within minutes of someone Instagramming that, she picked up 140 additional followers.


Staying within a budget is critical when designing your store. Your shop does not have to have every bell and whistle to make an impact.

Rossman plans to do more workshops in the store just after the holidays, including writers’ workshops, cocktail parties, collage workshops, and journaling. The purpose is mainly “…to generate a different kind of audience who isn’t shopping, but who might want to take a class.”

“Everyone is basically competing with Amazon nowadays, so retailers are having to find new ways to engage and compel customers with in-store experiences,” said Weltman.

For Sautter, the most important element is the customer journey. She said to ask yourself, “What is it you want the customer to take away, and how can you bring them back? If it’s a place where you might get repeat visitors, what is going to bring them back into the store?”


Hilary Daninhirsch
Author: Hilary Daninhirsch

Hilary Daninhirsch is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. She has written features and business profiles for dozens of trade and lifestyle publications.

Website: https://hilarydaninhirsch.journoportfolio.com