UHasselt puts the science into shopping


Targeting students, designers and shop-owners, Hasselt University’s new Retail Design Lab harnesses scientific studies to boost the customer shopping experience

Retailer therapy

Hasselt University’s faculty of architecture and art has launched a dedicated research hub to help retailers improve customer experience in their stores.

The Retail Design Lab stems from a two-year-project to gather scientific data from around the world on consumer-oriented topics such as trendwatching and environmental psychology, and help retailers put them into practice.

A new website is the first tangible outcome of the project, which was funded by Vlajo, a Flemish government-affiliated group that promotes “learning by doing” initiatives among young entrepreneurs.

Although mainly aimed at struggling shop-owners, the centre also targets students and retail designers in the early stages of their careers.

Emotional connection

The plan is to share insights about how consumers respond to environmental stimuli like lighting, smell and textiles, allowing retailers to make informed decisions to appeal to their target audience and enhance shoppers’ moods.

“What we are trying to do is help stores establish an emotional connection with the consumer,” the lab’s academic director, Dr Katelijn Quartier, explains. “Consumers today are not very loyal – they move on quickly, and online shopping is another barrier. But if you can offer them a really rich experience in the store, it’s much more likely they will come back.”

Until now, most scientific papers on the subject have been published in prohibitively expensive databases. “If you have 20 years’ experience in retail design you probably know the things we know from science, but if you’re a budding designer or retailer then you have a problem, and we want to bridge that gap,” says Quartier.

If you can offer customers a really rich experience in the store, it’s much more likely they will come back

- Dr Katelijn Quartier

“The idea is that you use design to tell your story, and let the consumer smell, feel and taste what you are about,” she adds. “A store should be much more than a simple warehouse for products.”

The research lab is closely linked to the faculty’s existing study programmes. It has offered classes in retail design for a decade, and currently proposes bachelor and master’s programmes, a summer school, and advanced master classes for professionals. A postgraduate course will kick off next year.

While several other universities offer retail design degrees, including in Barcelona and Norway, the Hasselt faculty’s main point of difference is that it operates in English – and is determinedly international in its scope. 

Sophisticated tactics

According to Quartier, however, Flanders itself has been slow to profit from retail design insights – lagging behind neighbours like the Netherlands, whose shops showcase more sophisticated tactics.

“The problem is that we have a lot of family businesses passing from one generation to the next,” she says. “They have authenticity and trust, but in terms of being innovative and trying to change things it’s very difficult.”  

The problem is that we have a lot of family businesses passing from one generation to the next

- Dr Katelijn Quartier

Those businesses that are seeking change can use the lab’s website to contact experts in the fields of marketing, communications and environmental psychology, among others, or profit from several free interactive tools.

A DIY fashion store audit uses 20 questions to help retailers score their own shopping experience. There are also guidelines about good retail design formulated from scientific literature: brief items concerning the ideal temperature for promotion, say, or more heavyweight abstracts from papers.

“Our case studies are also very educational in the way they have been set up,” says Quartier. “You have an objective description of a store, and then you have the story of the retailer.” After a trip through the space in the retailer’s company, the studies conclude with a summary applying the relevant literature to the premises – and highlighting both positives and negatives. 

Thorough overhaul

“The idea is that people who are reading the case study really get the total experience and story behind the store so they can learn from it, and see how to use it for their benefit,” says Quartier.

The Lab is currently developing a tool that will help retailers to map customers’ perceptions of their shop. So far three stores have signed up for the lab’s audits, with the results due to be revealed in September.

While increased profits are one of the scheme’s aims, apparently most retailers participating in the project – there are six in total – approach retail design as just one element in a thorough overhaul.

Quartier is keen to disabuse those wary of the potential costs involved. “Retailers imagine that asking for a consultant like us is really expensive,” she says. “They are scared of high prices, and they think they can’t afford to have a professional look at their store. But actually it’s really very affordable to have us over for a couple of hours.”

Photo: Hasselt concept store La Bottega, one of the Lab’s case studies

Courtesy Retail Design Lab