New York City and Retail – New Beginnings, New Opportunities

David Asfour May 21, 2020

Featured image: Nike Foot Locker House of Hoops (Harlem, NYC, NY). CRTKL was Architect of Record (not design) for this project.

Every time NYC faces a crisis, we reflect, we learn, we innovate and evolve, and we emerge stronger than before. That’s what we do.  New Yorkers are the definition of resiliency. Nineteen years after 9/11, and just eight years after Superstorm Sandy, New York is facing yet another crisis, which this time, is global in scale.

Now given the unfortunate mantle as the nation’s epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic, all eyes are, again, on New York. That resiliency that runs through the veins of those who live and work in NYC is once again on display for all to see. The most admirable qualities of humankind emerge, helping those in need, protecting our loved ones, and supporting our incredible first responders and front-line workers. Heroes take many forms in New York, and are often elevated to platforms they never dreamed they would find themselves upon, this time, including our tireless hospital and healthcare professionals on the front lines, our incredible teachers and educators, or essential business owners and employees, our sanitation workers, city officials, delivery servicemen and women, and of course, law enforcement officers across the state, putting the needs of the community ahead of their own personal health and safety.  Leaders in all industries emerge in times of crisis, and this pandemic has brought out some of our best.

YSL SoHo pop-up store at 490 Broadway, New York, NY. CRTKL was Architect of Record for this project.

Not the New Normal

Great leaders in times of crisis view problems at hand as challenges and opportunities for future growth and improvement. This can translate into our behaviors, health and wellness, our relationships, the environments we live and work in, and how we treat our employees, our clients and our industry colleagues. People have defined the current status of the world as the “new normal.” But it is not.

There is nothing normal about the current state of the world during this pandemic. But, to expect that we will just return to the “normal” that we had come to know prior to Covid-19 would be irresponsible and untrue. We have this incredible opportunity now to truly shape what our lives, interactions and experiences can — and will be — when we are through this pandemic. And it is our responsibility as leaders in our respective industries to do just that.

Taking Inventory

Over the last few months, NYC has been one of the most significantly impacted cities – both in terms of personal loss and financial loss. Seeing images of an empty Times Square, a dark Madison Square Garden, or shuttered Fifth Avenue storefronts is as eerie as it is disheartening. What will life look like and what form will it take when people fill the streets, the parks, the theaters and the stores again?

The retail industry came to a screeching halt a few weeks ago and for one of the first times, the “city that never sleeps” went silent. The faucet turned off seemingly overnight. With stores shuttering and revenue streams cut off, the planning of future store openings, renovations, and capital improvement projects stopped too. Across the industry, workers were furloughed in the thousands including staff employees, sales associates, corporate planners, designers, and facilities and operations managers. What was recently an incredibly warm market for architects and engineers turned to vast uncertainty for the future, especially surrounding the retail industry that many of us have built our careers within. So what happens next?

As leaders in this industry, we have a new mission. We stop, we take a breath and reflect, and with clear heads, take this terrible worldwide crisis and look at it the only way we know how to, as a design challenge…an incredible opportunity to reboot the retail world as we know it. We innovate. We evolve our thinking, not just to get through a crisis, but to emerge even stronger with all we do when designing, planning, constructing, and operating our retail world.

We partner with our colleagues in our healthcare industry to learn how we can plan to keep the customers and the employees safe. We partner with our engineers to develop new ways of designing frequent clean air changes and isolated filtration systems within our stores. And most importantly, we partner with our clients, as we always have, to truly understand the evolving customers’ needs, experience, behaviors, insecurities and concerns as they prepare to physically re-enter the retail industry.

We answer the questions as to why people should continue to shop in stores, and what can they get in a physical location that they cannot get online? And most importantly, what can we learn from this pandemic that can pave the way for how we consider consumerism in the future?

BALLY New York Madison Avenue store. CRTKL was Architect of Record for this project. Bally’s design architect was David Chipperfield.

Re-Imagining Retail

The retail market was confused before the pandemic. Having somewhat of an “identity crisis,” retail started playing in the sandbox with all other markets. Retail and wellness starting merging as did retail with entertainment, retail with hospitality and retail with co-working spaces. The blurring of these lines was — and still is — exciting, as the experiences for the customer, the employee, the patient, and the guest emerged to be front and center, seamlessly. Those experiences must continue to evolve if we are to maintain consumer confidence, create healthy spaces with meaningful experiences, while still offering something unique and different.

There are many industry professionals offering ideas for a retail evolution post-pandemic. The few essential businesses still operating have been forced to innovate their store operations out of necessity. Many have transformed their businesses into a buy-online, pick-up-curbside model with contactless transactions, and grocery stores are experimenting with one-way foot-traffic aisles and social distancing screens and queue lines.

But this is just the beginning. We will see an even larger increase in omnichannel retail, as the multichannel approach to sales for a consumer’s seamless shopping experience will become a must-have as e-commerce has increased exponentially at a much more rapid pace due to the pandemic. The role of the brick-and-mortar store will forever be re-defined. Shorter leases and slimmer operations will allow for less exposure, yet also ultimate flexibility in how we sell, what we sell and why we sell. We may see some stores becoming perfect showrooms with personal shopping appointments and experiences while others begin to double as distribution centers for coordinated and seamless in-store or curbside pickup. Contactless transactions will be a must, and customer safety will be paramount.

Armani pop-up store at 490 Broadway, New York, NY. CRTKL was Architect of Record for this project.

What Will NYC Look Like?

The shopping experience along Fifth Avenue in New York City will inevitably be different. But the luxury retail world is ready for this. The doormen and doorwomen take on a higher purpose, the “white glove” service that patrons have come to expect will evolve both figuratively — and literally — with customers’ safety in mind and limited social interactions built-in. Online appointments will sync with in-store personalized shopping experiences in showroom-like settings complete with single-use sanitized luxury try-on rooms ending in contactless transactions. Retail will live on, albeit a bit differently, but also for the better, with the customers we care so deeply about remaining front and center. It is up to us to help define what that experience becomes, and approach it as the ultimate design challenge, with care, thoughtfulness and innovation. Be excited for what’s to come, be inspired by innovative thinkers and great leaders, be appreciative of the opportunities to collaborate and evolve, and expect to emerge from this crisis stronger than ever.  That’s what we do.


Author Spotlight

David Asfour
AIA, LEED AP Vice President; Office Leader, New York City With nearly two decades of experience in the industry, David is part of CallisonRTKL’s New York retail practice group, where he thrives on managing luxury and specialty retail projects. David’s project experience also includes workplace and residential architecture. As an account manager for several prestigious global retail brands, David successfully manages teams, leads the office’s staffing and resource allocation efforts and is instrumental in helping the firm attract new clients.