Constructing the 21st Century Retail Experience


By Ben Westra

When WDS Construction first opened our doors, we did so to serve a specific national retail client. Built to Build Better: Leadership Lessons from Building WDS Construction Before the end of year one, we were building for several national retail and retail development clients. Seventeen years later, we’ve evolved, branched out into new market sectors and added service lines, but retail construction is still one of our core markets.

It is because of this close relationship with the retail market that I always chuckle when I hear that “retail is dead.” Clearly, it is not even close to dead, nor anywhere near needing life support.

However, the model has certainly shifted. If you are like most Americans, your shopping habits have changed over the past decade. You probably buy a lot online and have merchandise delivered to your home or office. Or maybe you order ahead of time and go pick it up.

Retail has and will continue to evolve. It is not only changing online, but also in stores. Consumer are demanding a different model. Retailers that continue using the 20th century model as only a physical place to go buy “stuff” are suffering. Savvy retailers know that consumers aren’t looking to just purchase; they are looking for an experience.

In a landmark 1998 Harvard Business Review article, “Welcome to the Experience Economy,” (and subsequent book), authors B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore identified the importance of creating experiences for customers, across all types of businesses. They further broke out experiences as the dimensions of customer participation and connection. Customer participation entails playing a role while connection refers to having an environmental relationship.

This is the essence of the retail experience: connecting the consumers with the products they are considering purchasing, but in ways far beyond taking a product off a shelf and looking at the packaging.

The future of brick-and-mortar retail, as well as dining and entertainment venues, is all about creating this experience.

Take, for instance, Dick’s House of Sport, an innovative new retail concept that marries customer participation with a connection to the venue and products, which engage consumers directly with the products they are interested in purchasing. The prototype DICK’s House of Sport opened last year in Victor, New York, featuring the usual inventory of a typical DICK’s Sporting Goods store as well as interactive space where you can experience climbing a rock wall, swinging a new bat in the batting cage, trying out a new club in the golf simulator bay, or checking out the track or football field.

The 32-foot climbing wall at DICK’s House of Sport in Victor, NY is just one of many experience-related amenities for customers to enjoy year-round.

Athletes can climb a 32-foot rock-climbing wall. Or run around the track at the 17,000 sq. ft. outdoor field – which becomes an ice-skating rink in winter.  It also serves as home to clinics, tournaments, and summer camps. Golfers can “play” around the world at one of the three virtual golf bays. Baseball players can test their skills in the batting cage.

DICK’s House of Sport is not yesterday’s retail store, it is an experience and a destination for athletes and families alike. And it is no coincidence that many of these retail-experience projects we’ve built have replaced retailers who experienced success using the 20th century model but are now teetering on irrelevance and closure.

A 17,000 sq. ft. outdoor track at DICK’s House of Sports hosts tournaments and summer camps during the warmer months, then transforms to an ice skating rink during winter.

The Experiential Construction Mindset

Although WDS Construction strives to deliver a phenomenal construction experience on every project, “construction experience” is different from “experiential construction.” Here I’m referring to the unique challenges of constructing a prototype retail experience, which is very distinct from a typical retail store.

In fact, when constructing experiential retail, nothing is set in stone or guaranteed until the keys are handed over. If a builder can’t accept that, this type of project is not for them.

A high-level of trust is required as the contractor needs to be an integral part of the team throughout the project. WDS embeds our project manager and chief estimator with the client’s customer experience team, merchandise team, and visual team, as well as the design team, early in the process.

During the ideation stage, we serve as a check and balance to the many “What if we did this…?” questions that arise. Conceptual budgeting and scheduling are critical at this stage, but we work backwards. If we know the schedule and budget, we work to figure out how to make these “What if” ideas reality within the defined project parameters.

Experiential construction is not just for retail; the Coastland Center in Naples, FL features a CMX CineBistro – a 38,000 sq. ft. entertainment venue featuring six theaters with oversize recliners, full-service kitchen and bar for a dine-in experience.

The key attributes for a successful construction team are flexibility and agility. Things change. All. The. Time. The contractor needs to be adapting to the decisions and new ideas in real time – while never budging on the scheduled completion date.

When I wrote the original draft for this blog, WDS was getting ready to host executives from a retail client at a walkthrough for an experiential facility under construction. It was not our first rodeo, and we were fully expecting changes as original ideas evolved and new ideas took hold. Our predictions were accurate, and we embraced agility to adjust to the changes on the fly to create the retail experience that our client had envisioned. And re-envisioned. And even re-re-envisioned!

Since I originally wrote this blog, the store was handed over to merchandising and the grand opening came and went, with WDS making real-time owner-initiated changes up to and including on the actual day of turnover. That’s just the nature of the beast with this type of project.

The WDS Construction slogan is Built to Build Better, and nowhere is this better evidenced than with our Experiential Construction mindset.

Brick-and-mortar retail is not dead. But it is morphing into something at the intersection of customer participation and connection. Experience is the future of retail. If you’re looking to for a construction partner to build your next experience, reach out to me to discuss how to make your vision a reality.