Retail 101 with Michael Gatti

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Picture an Apple Store: the image that surfaces to most people’s mind is white, sleek, and modern. Picture a Hollister store: you probably think of a dark, cool, SoCal lifestyle store. Now pick any other brand and picture what its store might look like. Usually, the image that surfaces is an accurate replica of the brand and the image they are trying to portray.

This is a vital factor for the designers and architects planning a store. They have an “image” to achieve and a “feeling” to communicate. Their job is to make sure when customers walk into an Apple store, they KNOW they are in an Apple store. The stores can look and feel very different but you will always know the brand.

This is a key component for Michael Gatti, AIA NCAB, Studio Director and retail architect at Gensler. To design and produce a store successfully, Michael focuses on who the client is, who they want to be, and who they want to attract. A keen eye for retail, Michael has a knack for scoping out the ins and outs of retail design and architecture. His classical style has proven prolific over the years and flourishes in the in-store experience.


When did you decide you wanted to be an architect? Who or what influenced you?

MICHAEL GATTI: The way I got into architecture was a bit unique. When I was a child, I liked to build models of airplanes, boats, and cars… but what intrigued me the most were the drawings on the instructions on how to build the models. Back then, the manufacturers would draw axonometric sketches, three dimensional drawings of the pieces and how they fit into the model. I remember thinking, “Wow that’s pretty cool – somebody actually gets to draw that.” When I was 10 years old, I remember telling my father that I wanted to be the one that drew those instructions. He looked at me and said, “Well, I don’t know if there is a business out there for that, but architects draw the instructions for building a building.” That was the precise moment I knew I wanted to be an architect. In school, I was always a little bit better at math than the other subjects; I liked 3D stuff and I could draw. Through high school I started pursue my interests in architecture and made sure to continue pursuing that interest in college and beyond.


Given your extensive background in retail, was it a natural progression into retail architecture and design?

MICHAEL GATTI:  It wasn’t really a natural progression in any way. When I graduated from college, I looked at a number of different places to work. I grew up in New Jersey so I interviewed at a lot of architectural firms in New York City. It just so happened that I joined a firm that specialized in retail and they were doing a lot of ground-up work which I was very interested in. My clients included Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s and some shopping malls throughout the country. From there, I joined my future business partner and we had a good run together for over 20 years. It was a very good business where we specialized in luxury retail. A good portion of our work was with Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus which spawned a lot of jobs with the internal vendors, like Burberry, Chanel, and Cartier. You know, it’s funny; the retail business is very incestuous – once you get into that mix, everybody knows everybody and you develop a network of clients that, as long as you produce great projects can result in repeat business and a lot of work.

Retail is definitely something I have become very attached to, and I find it very interesting – it’s always changing, it‘s constantly a challenge, and each client and each customer is unique. This in turn, forces designers to keep the designs fresh. As trends change in retail, and the products they are selling also change, the designs must keep up with that progress. You won’t get 10-15 years out of a store design because there’s constant movement, whether it’s the fashion or the style. And once one store does something innovative and different and it becomes successful, then other stores will either follow or try to make it better. Retail is fast paced, interesting, and ever-changing – it never gets stale.

Michael Gatti

Can you tell me a little about your architectural style? What type of projects do you enjoy working on the most?

MICHAEL GATTI: I studied architecture at the University of Notre Dame and it greatly influenced me in the areas of symmetry and classicism. The program there stresses the classical side of architecture. One of the most important aspects of this is the idea of balance. Balance and symmetry is something I feel strongly about in architecture. I believe there are certain rules in architecture that are not meant to be broken, not to say that they can’t be broken because architects do that all the time and do it very successfully. But personally I like to make sure the design creates a feeling of balance and results in a comfortable experience for the person using the space.

So it’s just my personal style. And depending on the demographics or whom I am designing for or working with, I simply adjust that to meet the specific needs of the client.

“Identity and magnetism is what gets people inside the space.”

What is the collaborative effort like with your clients?

MICHAEL GATTI: Our challenge as retail designers is to make sure we are designing for our clients’ needs. So, our individual style sometimes has to be sacrificed – but not in the negative sense. We have to first make sure that the client understands that we understand them and who their customer is. Obviously, if I am designing a store for the jewelry brand Van Cleef and Arpels, it is a very different customer than who is going to shop at Diesel to buy jeans.

What we do at Gensler, with our diverse group of designers, is match the right team with the right brand. An important part of this process is our Visioning Session, where we sit down with our clients at the beginning of the project to understand who they are, who they want to be, who their competition is. At times it is more of an aspirational thing, or who they want to be, and in some cases, stores come to us because they want a bit of a change; they want to mix it up a bit. Maybe what they are doing now isn’t working or it‘s working fine and they just want to keep things moving forward. It is really about the customer, it’s about who you are trying to pull into the store. Retail 101 is to design something that gets somebody through that front door. Once you do that, you have won half the battle – especially challenging when you are designing a space inside a shopping mall that might have over 150 stores. When I visit a shopping mall, it’s easy to notice the stores that ‘customer’s heads’. You know that that brand has accomplished their goal of creating interest and getting attention. And like I said, that is step one. The brand identity and the magnetism you create is what gets people inside the space.

“Online and technology are creating a more knowledgeable consumer.”

There are many store details that can never be replicated online. However stores are slowly becoming more and more digital. What is the secret to successfully integrate technologies in store?

MICHAEL GATTI:  You can’t be in business right now without thinking about technology, especially in retail. I don’t think any retailer is going to survive without it, except some of those ‘mom and pop’ shops that are really neighborhood-based companies. But anybody who wants to be globally or internationally successful has to embrace the digital aspect. So, as architects, that is a huge component for us.

There is this concept that everyone is talking about now: Omni-channel retail. Basically it is a merging of all touch points – creating a seamless integration of all the touch points that are available now for customers. A website has a certain look and feel and a certain brand identity. That identity should carry through when somebody walks into a store, or uses their iPhone or any other application they might be using to purchase the merchandise. Even if it goes through another avenue, like Amazon, it’s still needs to have that same brand recognition. As a designer, you try to achieve that seamless integration with a store or a brand.
I think one of the interesting things that is happening now with technology and all the information online is that we are creating a more knowledgeable consumer. They are more informed. They know what’s out there. They know who the competition is. They know pricing. Today’s consumers know everything; but you’re not going to fool anybody anymore…not that we ever tried to (laughs). Stores cannot offer just a product, they definitely need more.

Many brands are using technology for the sake of using technology. How do you handle digital platforms and technology with your clients? 

MICHAEL GATTI:  One of the things we say to our clients often is that we will not utilize technology just for technology’s sake. Unfortunately we see a lot of retailers doing just that… you can walk around NY and immediately see that a piece of technology seems out of place or a LED screen showing an image doesn’t fit – it’s not integrated with the rest of the store. You need to make technology something that seems like it was intended for a specific purpose and seamlessly incorporated.

A good example of this a while back was in the original Nike stores. In one of the stores I visited, they designed into the space a wall of informational touch screens – right at the time when touch screens were becoming popular. A customer could touch the screen and navigate on his/her own and see all of the Air Jordon sneakers that were made over the years. It was a great history lesson of the Air Jordon product itself. Then when you clicked on a particular shoe, it told you all about the shoe, who designed it, and the quality of the manufacturing. In fact, it went all the way back to the first Air Jordon commercial. It communicated the entire history and I was totally intrigued by it – not only because it was new technology, but because I was actually learning from it. Nike is this great product that has an incredible history and suddenly now I was more knowledgeable about the Nike brand. That was a perfect integration of technology.
There is so much technology being developed for retailers – it’s almost scary to think about where it’s all going. There’s that whole ‘big brother’ fear where retailers can track us in stores and know when we lift a certain shirt off the rack to try it on, or how long we were in the men’s shoe department. But for the retailers, it allows them to have the metrics they need to learn from and to ultimately to design a better store as a result.


You have a history of working successfully with many retail brands? Who have you worked with and what has the experience been like?

MICHAEL GATTI:  In addition to the brands I mentioned earlier, I’ve also had a very solid relationship with the Richemont Group, a very high end jewelry brand that owns Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Piaget, and Montblanc, among others. They have European designers that were designing the prototype stores and we were implementing them here in the US. It helped me and my teams to learn about what was happening in Europe, usually on the forefront of fashion and design. A lot of the projects I am extremely proud of stemmed from working with the Richemont Group.

One example, Cartier, where the product is all about timeless beauty and precision. They expect the design and execution of their stores to be the same way. The jewelry cases for Cartier are designed like the watches they display. Everything is perfect, all the parts are intricately detailed, which, for an architect, is a great challenge. Details ranging from how to minimize the size of the lighting and how the drawers operate to how the security is going to work with each of the cases. In the end, it was a great opportunity to learn about the very detailed ways that people design.
I have also done a lot of work with Diesel. It is certainly a younger demographic but they really highlight the artisanal nature of Italian craftsmanship. Their design style (right now) is more industrial. If you have been to the Diesel on 5th Avenue or any of the Diesel stores in Manhattan, you notice the look and feel. Working with their designers was unique as we highlighted the cool, Italian, hip design direction that they were headed – certainly a big departure from the designs that I was doing with the Richemont Group.
Here at Gensler, I have the privilege to be working with the department store chain El Palacio de Hierro in Mexico. We designed a store for them in Querétaro, Mexico – two hours north of Mexico City and we are in the process of designing their flagship store in Polanco, Mexico City. It is an amazing opportunity that not a lot of retailers give a design team – to basically take their flagship store, which is going to be close to 600,000sq ft. and start from scratch. We are designing the entire store from top to bottom and the only direction they gave us was to create the greatest shopping experience, not only in Latin America, but in the world. A pretty good challenge [laughs]. They are a great client, a well-respected, strongly established brand; it’s the type of thing that if you show up at a party with El Palacio de Hierro merchandise, you have brought a great gift – it’s automatic. That is the strength of this brand in Mexico. It is definitely a project I am very proud to be working on and even more proud of the results thus far.

“El Palacio de Hierro is a dream job for a retail architect.”

Have you seen any stores recently (or worked on any projects) that are engaging customers by creating a great in-store experience?

MICHAEL GATTI:  I got excited when I saw this question because I have an eleven year old daughter and two weeks ago, we were at the Converse store in Garden State Plaza in New Jersey. Converse is a brand that was very popular many years ago and then sort of lost its luster. But now it’s come back and has become a bit of a fashion icon. When I brought my daughter there with her friends for her birthday, they were able to sit down at ‘workstations’ in the middle of the store. Then they drew sketches of exactly what they wanted if they were going to custom build a shoe. From there, they went to computer touchpads and custom built their own shoes. They were able to choose the grommets for their individual shoes, the base color, and the patterns – almost like tattoos – that would be put on the shoes. You can actually sign your name on it too. By the end, it was a fully customized shoe, which was delivered to you within the next few days.

Behind the touchpads, they also showed the process of the shoes being made – from the printing to how the actual Converse shoes come together.
I sat there and thought, “Ok there are people around us shopping, and in the middle of the floor there is a birthday party going on.” There were people watching the birthday party because it was intriguing and everyone was learning a lot about this brand. Converse has done a really great job. Customization has always been around but to go to that extent creatively as part of the in store experience, truly made an impact with me.
Stores in general are realizing that customers like the convenience of online shopping but also want to touch and feel the products once in a while. There are many different ways to engage all different people and that’s one of our challenges – finding out the best – most creative – way to do that.

Architecture is a very time consuming profession. How do you deal with the hours and what are doing when you are not working?

MICHAEL GATTI:  Architecture is such an interesting business and in a lot of ways I feel very lucky that I found it. Most people who enter this profession, stick with it; there is a true passion for the work. It’s not really a job, it’s more of a career and a calling. You want to make a difference and create something beautiful and wonderful. You spend most of your time thinking about that. Everywhere we go and everything we do, architecture surrounds us.

When I am not working, I have a great time playing with my two children. I snowboard, play the guitar, and enjoy anything outdoors.

What makes Gensler so unique when brands are looking to revamp their store?

MICHAEL GATTI: One of the most unique things about the Retail practice at Gensler centers around the synergy between the Retail Group and our talented Brand Design Group. Together with the two groups, we join forces to come up with a whole brand strategy for a particular company.

Having the Brand Design group ‘in house’ is a great asset for us. Retail architects and designers have to ‘understand’ brand design, but here we actually have a team of graphic designers and creative directors who understand how to enhance a strong existing brand and/or how to actually create a new brand. We are storytellers…  Some of the companies that hire us are up and coming retailers who want to design the initial prototype of their first store. They are happy to see that Gensler truly understands the connection between the brand and the brand identity. We create spaces that produce a comfort level and an understanding of the brand, which enhances each customer’s own experience.
Gensler is the perfect one-stop shop to create a flawless retail in-store experience.