Unlocking the Power of Retail Space in China

25 Mar 2016|Added Value China

Tradition Meets Contemporary in Chinese Retail
Digital technology has changed the shopping experience for ever. However, this does not mean the end of physical retail space. Ironically enough, it was the world’s most popular digital brand…Apple…that led the way. What the Apple store phenomenon demonstrated is that retail space is being transformed into something new. Ultimately, the retail space has become a place where consumers can celebrate the authenticity of reality, the intimacy of physical experience and of course, the brand.

Cultural Insight looks at patterns of change across culture and takes advantage of its interconnectivity transferring meaning from one area to another. For example, inspiring insight can come from comparing retail with theatre. Imagine retail space as the stage for a theatrical play/performance in which consumers can walk in and be immersed into a powerful storytelling environment directed by your brand. Brand values and strategies should define the story being told and like in a theatre stage, every element of the environment should be directed to deliver this story.

Innovative design that draws inspiration from Chinese aesthetics is a newly found style trends in retail. These spaces either refresh traditional aesthetics or borrow symbolic traditional elements to upgrade their contemporary feel. Behind this phenomenon lies the Chinese search for a cultural identity that could connect the past and present, external (Western) influences and internal (local) identity driven by growing economical flourishing and revived pride of their own culture. They recognize the need to blossom traditional art and enhance its continuity; to do so, they keep the essence of traditional culture but present it in a way that aligns better with contemporary aesthetics.

In the past, traditional Chinese aesthetics emphasized a symmetric structure with equivalent binary opposing elements (a signifier of balance) such as enclosed spaces and naturally sourced materials (e.g. blue bricks, smooth stone, polished rosewood, bamboo, and etc.), complex details and furniture (e.g. folding screens, antique shelf, shelves, beds) in simple compositions. Hierarchy and order were reflected via strict placement of spaces, furniture, and decorative items (e.g. the ordering of furniture and the directions they face). In terms of colours, red, brown, black were used, signifying sedateness and maturity, while neutral colors like grey, black, and white expressed modesty and an alignment with nature.

We see some of these elements preserved in the neo-Chinese style (see space 1), such as the symmetric structure, rosewood furniture, and complex decoration. While succeeded in keeping the dignity and gracefulness of past, for younger generations, such a space is still too serious. Now in China, people desire a more relaxed attitude and like seeing that reflected in retail with less confined spaces providing an escape from the busy urban life. The continuous exposure to foreign culture also makes them expect western elements in their living environment. Thus, neo-Chinese style must fit people’s changing needs, both functionally and emotionally, in order to flourish itself.

space1Space 1

3 Ways Brands Can Tap into This Trend Using Cultural Insight
1) Simplification of the Traditional Style
We first notice a simplification of traditional style in neo-Chinese design fitting with the broader trend around minimal design. Compared to the dark-red color dominance in space 1, colors in spaces 2-3 are earthy and light, making the ambiance brighter, tranquil, and elegant. There are fewer lines in the space, less decoration and carved patterns on walls. Seats apply a contemporary, non-hierarchical logic of placement, and furniture (lamps, cabinets and antique shelves) utilize only the key features of traditional furniture to decorate and display. In this way, the neo-Chinese style turns towards a minimal direction, using understated ambience to convey liberal sophistication.

space2Space 2


space3Space 3

2) Fusion of Past and Present
Apart from simplifying the traditional style, other spaces borrow contemporary material, products, and concepts to refresh the look of traditional ones. Items in space 4 (retail space of Weixi) adopt the structure of traditional Chinese furniture while changing the texture, function, and placement. Compared to space 1, products here emphasize softness and feel more suitable for personal relaxation. The sofa material, the curvy lines, and the standing lamp changed the perception that Chinese furniture should be hard and cold, not allowing interaction between human and the surrounding. Space 5 (GUCCI, Taikoo Li in Chengdu) has a similar logic as it keeps the triangular shape of traditional buildings to reinforce cultural relevance while using glass walls to denote modernity and reflect the opening of China. There are other examples. Space 7 proves that, by breaking the structure and changing the color pattern, Chinese antique shelf could bring contemporary energy, playfulness, and vitality to consumers. Summing up, design in this category is tapping into cultural root/local relevance while reflecting open-mindedness, freedom, and creativity adored by the contemporaries.


Space 4


Spaces 5-6


Space 7

3) Contemporary with Traditional Twist
Following an opposite logic, some other spaces start from a completely contemporary look but absorb traditional elements to bestow their contemporary style and products with local meaning. We find retail using traditional material, patterns, and items to complement the contemporary design, creating a new aesthetics. For instance, the ricenoodle restaurant Rong Xiao Bao in Changsha (space 8) have decorated their cement wall with bamboo and painted them grey. While the colour grey is to keep consistent with the restaurant’s industrial design, the raw purity the bamboo wall expresses reminds people of the modesty and artisanship associated with bamboo as a cultural symbol. Similarly, the premium fashion brand Shang Xia (space 9) puts a couple of Chinese wooden chairs in its modern boutique in Shanghai. In this case, chairs with a traditional look but simplified lines and minimal details are put in three levels of shelves rather than on the ground. Functionality comes second, and chairs lose the original association with hierachy and integrity. Now, seen primarily as as object of aesthetic appreciation and symbol of Chinese postmodernism than an object to sit on, the chair represents the Chinese culture the brand want to resonate with.


Space 8


Space 9

In the current context of neo cultural renaissance (‘cultural pride’ as we used to say or ‘modern patriotism’ claimed by many), it is important for brands and products to refresh their Chinese style or use Chinese elements to inspire its contemporary aesthetics. Apart from packages and communications, retail space is an ideal place to start with. It would help foreign brands exhibit local awareness, respect, and sensitivity, and support local brands to stay relevant, fresh, and in touch with contemporary cultural evolution.

Semiotics is the Key to Understanding the Evolving Retail Trends
The relationship between brands and consumers is constantly being renegotiated to fit new conditions. These are related to changing socio-economic and political parameters, shifting perceptions of the role of consumerism as well as increasing competition from a growing number of brands but also consumers’ familiarity and thus ‘immunity’ to promotional messages. So how can brands adapt to these new conditions and maintain loyalty and growth in such a fluctuating and demanding environment?

Semiotics takes a prominent place in research as one of the most effective tools of understanding communication and culture and their effects in shaping consumers’ perceptions and understanding. It treats all that it analyses as equal cultural texts: forms of communication conveying cultural meanings. In this way, branding can effortlessly blend in with culture: advertising can be easily inspired by animation, packaging can simply be guided by architectural design, retail spaces can simulate art gallery spaces and so on.

Using such different point of views as well as various innovative methods of analysis, Cultural Insight helps your brand create an immersive consumer retail experience that stands out. By collecting a large amount of related retail design examples and using semiotics, cultural analysis and proxemics to identify how retail design components tell different stories, Cultural Insight can provide detailed recommendations, weaving together the right components to communicate your brand’s story in a consistent and powerful way.

Written by Alison Ni, Project Executive, Cultural Insight, with support from the Added Value China Cultural Insight team
Contact: Added Value Shanghai Office, T: +86 (21) 3612 6666, Email: cninfo@added-value.com

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