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Eric Kuhn of Bergmeyer: “Price is not a new struggle”

When we think about customers coming back to stores, there is a need to layout customer journeys that instill a sense of safety. That may require some retailers to make wholesale changes to their layouts. From increasing aisle, to will-call zones easily accessed towards the shop front to a complete rethink of the fitting room […]

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When we think about customers coming back to stores, there is a need to layout customer journeys that instill a sense of safety. That may require some retailers to make wholesale changes to their layouts. From increasing aisle, to will-call zones easily accessed towards the shop front to a complete rethink of the fitting room experience. And in situations like that, solutions like UV lighting is an approach gaining some traction. We are working with new materials that are more easily cleaned and less susceptible concerning elements in the environment. All that said, the most powerful tool in the chest is communication. With a strong communication protocol, operators can put customers at ease assuring they are doing everything they can to ensure their safety. A heartfelt message goes a long way to build empathy and connection.


As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Kuhn, Design Practice Leader and Associate at Design Collaborative, Bergmeyer.

Throughout his career, Eric has always appreciated the complexities of retail & restaurant design and the challenges each individual engagement offers. With nearly 30 years of design experience in consumer environments working with brands an array of brands from Moncler and Bose to Chick-fil-A and Circle K, Eric’s passion is to guide both design and client teams through the inception, development and manifestation of highly innovative solutions for strategically driven projects.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

For me it was because of my best friend growing up who lived next door. His father was an architect. And he had a home studio filled with blueprints and scale models of homes and buildings. It was absolutely captivating to me. I would pour over those prints and study the models constantly. From then on, I knew I wanted to do something that allowed me to create the way Mr. Fisher did.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I can’t single one specific incident but rather a collection of experiences gathered while traveling to some of the most remarkable places on this planet. In every instance, work was the catalyst. Whether it be Cape Town South Africa, Shanghai China or Mumbai India; the settings, the people, the culture… it’s all incredibly interesting and ultimately influential to my work.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

A good tie in to the above…

While working with a client in Cape Town South Africa (in January I might add, their high Summer), the assignment was for nearly a month over which I had some time to myself to explore and see the sites. One of which involved climbing a mountain landmark close to the city — a 5-hour excursion that I failed to sunscreen up for, resulting in a severe case of sun poisoning the day before a presentation to the CEO of the company I was working for. I rallied my self to the meeting but with the most ridiculous crimson color and swollen face and presented in that state (successfully I must add). No mention was made of my state before or during the presentation, but only after which the CEO applauded then turned to me and said in his very British accent, “Well done, but you must always remember Mr. Kuhn, South Africa in the Southern hemisphere.”

Take away? Always travel on business with sunscreen.

Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

Much of our current work is set squarely on helping people move through this pandemic with confidence and with a sense of safety. I can’t get terribly specific about who those clients are, but they range from the grocery segment to luxury retail.

In each instance, we are working to solve very challenging issues for both the operator and the customer. Helping each client find their voice in articulating how they are working to make each interaction that much better. It could be specifying anti-microbial finishes to UV light re-lamping strategies to simple graphic communication programs all intent on solving for the situation we’re in now as well as for the more long-term future.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I suppose that’s very individualized. For me, I’ve worn many different hats across my years. From draftsman to designer to marketing support to account lead to studio director to practice leader. Each role has been instrumental to me understanding this industry more fully and in turn, it keeps things fresh and new. Make sure you do what you love and challenge yourself to explore unchartered territories within your industry whenever the opportunity arises.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I’ve worked with some extraordinarily talented individuals in this retail industry which makes it tough to single out just one, however one of the most impressionable personalities was a gentleman by the name of James Mansour. He was very successful in creating brands both at the Limited (think, Express, Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch) as well as with his own firm in New York; which is when I worked with James. One of the most valuable lessons I learned from James was the power of storytelling in design. His ability to create storylines that transported you into the space he created was remarkable. It was all conveyed by word, and this was a revelation to me. The power of the word was not something emphasized in school. It was all about how well you could visualize, which is powerful in it of itself, but when partnered with story, that is the work and solution truly become transformative.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’d like to think that I’ve used my career, experience, success; whatever you’d like to call it, to support and mentor younger talent to not just succeed but find joy in what they do; day-in day-out. And that may very well be counsel to pursue other interests. But I’ve gathered a great deal of perspective over the years and feel it my obligation to share and guide. I’d like to think that’s bringing a degree of goodness to the world.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share five examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?

Relating to what I was noting above, we are actively working with our clients to help them manage through this unprecedented event. And some interventions are more significant than others. When we think about customers coming back to stores, there is a need to layout customer journeys that instill a sense of safety. That may require some retailers to make wholesale changes to their layouts. From increasing aisle, to will-call zones easily accessed towards the shop front to a complete rethink of the fitting room experience. And in situations like that, solutions like UV lighting is an approach gaining some traction. We are working with new materials that are more easily cleaned and less susceptible concerning elements in the environment. All that said, the most powerful tool in the chest is communication. With a strong communication protocol, operators can put customers at ease assuring they are doing everything they can to ensure their safety. A heartfelt message goes a long way to build empathy and connection.

In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?

I can very confidently say yes, both stores and malls will continue to exist. In the case of retail stores, what has become very clear over the last few years is the need for brands to have both physical stores and a robust online presence. It’s symbiotic. And yes, what the past, now, nine months has shows is the power brands have online, but it also illustrates how desperate people are to be able to get back out to stores and malls. To physically go into a store and experience brands in its purest format. But it’s not just in-store and online experiences to consider. There are product delivery options that have percolated to the top driven by current necessity. But these have existed for some time. The pandemic has simply accelerated the adoption of these options, but they have always been at the retailer’s disposal. BOPIS (by online, pick-up in store) and curb-side pick-up have understandably exploded. And these will now be an expectation in lieu of a peripheral option. Ultimately all these options are now expectations, and stores without question factor into those option expectations.

Malls are perhaps a bit more challenging but no less necessary to the shopper’s expectations. That said, well before COVID, malls were in a precarious position. There is no question we have far more mall square-footage that the world needs. Can what we’re seeing help influence a correction? Perhaps. But the reality of this condition is the abundance of bad operators struggling, failing and vacating malls creating a glut of real estate and a sense of abandon. With that said, the mall is integral to fostering a sense of community, and developers are working to revitalize that connection. We see may new centers with a completely fresh take on tenant mix that reflects the community’s needs and wants as opposed to the other way around. And this gives hope that malls are without questions a part of the future.

The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

Each one of those brands does an exceptional job of keeping an eye to the horizon with great anticipation and agility, and they genuinely listen to their customers. That said, each one of those brands noted have had moments of struggle independently, but what they also have is the humility to change and adapt. Brands that fail are those that feel they are too big to fail, have an unwavering customer base -they know it all. There is no brand protected from arrogance. And the ones that have floundered or altogether disappeared over the last 9 months, likely suffered from an unhealthy dose of arrogance misrepresented as confidence.

And as it pertains to the current situation we’re in, again, a retailers success lies in listening to their customers. We’ve just released our latest trend report The Future of Shopping that focuses on consumer behavior pre and post COVID. In that report we identify key insights that can guide retailers as we emerge from the pandemic. From continued managing of crowds to clear communication of cleaning protocols, as previously mentioned, shoppers have a strong point of view as to what will make them feel safe and secure as they return to physical stores.

Amazon is going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise to retail companies and e-commerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?

Price is not a new struggle. This is something retailers have been dealing with for decades. And while there might be a higher proliferation of brands trading on a price platform, this is something US brands have been facing and working to combat through a variety of tactics. The least successful being pricing wars. There isn’t much any company can do to win that kind of war if that is the only measure, however that isn’t ever the only consideration when a consumer is buying. Our counsel to clients doesn’t focus on pricing structure. Not to say we aren’t thinking about it, but first and foremost we’re targeted towards helping our clients find their uniquely distinctive position in the marketplace.

That lies in how they speak to their customers, how they service those customers and how they build experiences (physically, digitally and everything in between) that create a value proposition that extends past simply price. This is how you build relationships. And through relationship you create committed connections that will sustain brands through to the future.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’m not sure about starting a movement but I would certainly push towards a more sustainable approach to our industry. That includes manufacturing through to consumption and beyond. I’m pained by the waste we generate as a planet. When you see images of landfills full of discarded clothing, it stings. And it’s not just apparel brands that are guilty. And really, it’s not the just the brands either. Encouragingly, we are seeing brands like H&M making meaningful moves to improve this situation. We as consumers have a choice to be more conscientious when we purchase anything and everything. We all share the responsibility.

How can our readers further follow your work?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!


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