“Spend time understanding others.” With Lionel Ohayon

The Pandemic is not responsible for the retail apocalypse we are seeing unfold. Quite frankly, neither is Amazon. Both are accelerating the demise of traditional brick and mortar retail and one can argue that Amazon unfairly stacks the deck against brick and mortar retail, but quite frankly retailers have been asleep at the wheel and […]

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The Pandemic is not responsible for the retail apocalypse we are seeing unfold. Quite frankly, neither is Amazon. Both are accelerating the demise of traditional brick and mortar retail and one can argue that Amazon unfairly stacks the deck against brick and mortar retail, but quite frankly retailers have been asleep at the wheel and very slow to innovate or understand what motivates people to shop in real life. We spend a lot of time on this subject at ICRAVE and if the experience of shopping doesn’t have an uptick from the convenience of doing it at home on your laptop, then it’s pretty clear that you’re not going to survive in the long run. Retailers need to redefine the value proposition. There is a lot that a day of shopping offers that online can never replicate. That’s where new retail will find its raison d’etre.

In the late 19th century, the department store crushed the mail order catalogue business. Amazon is the 21st century catalogue business. Imagine what it must have been like to walk into a full-service department store and use all five senses to experience products and brands that were previously two dimensional and arrived in packages. There is a yearning for a social context where retail is delivered through an experience platform. As you start to see more direct-to-consumer brands foray into brick and mortar retail as a regular extension of their business, the intersection of physical and digital will bring us completely new typologies that invite a hybrid of activities together. That’s exciting to me because retail is the underpinning of both our real estate in cities and our sidewalks. Healthy sidewalks make for great cities and happy people. If you connect the dots, a reinvention of retail will save our cities and make us happier people. It’s a big deal and that’s why we’re working on solving retail from this perspective.

As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lionel Ohayon, founder and CEO of ICRAVE, a leading design firm based in New York City that solves business challenges through strategy and design. Since launching ICRAVE in 2002, Ohayon has grown the studio into an internationally renowned practice that drives clients’ bottom line by designing spaces as experiences that capture people’s attention. Ohayon and his team work with Fortune 500 companies, top developers and other retail innovators to create award-winning work spanning healthcare, airports, air travel and cruise, hospitality and entertainment, and mixed-use residential.

Ohayon is passionate about fostering creativity in the world around him, and is a member of Fast Company’s Impact Council as well as the International WELL Building Institute’s (IWBI) COVID-19 Task Force. Read on for more from this leading experience design pioneer and his point of view around the future of retail in the post pandemic world.

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?

I was one of those kids who always wanted to be an architect. As I was progressing through grade school and college, any encounter with a former teacher invariably ended with ‘do you still want to be an architect?’ When I graduated Architecture School, it was a tough time and I was disillusioned with the profession. One of my thesis advisors said “your work is very theatrical and almost cinematic. You should direct film.” That had a huge impact on me. I had worked in many design studios during college but had never met a ‘happy’ architect. General malaise prevailed either because they weren’t doing the work they wanted, or weren’t getting the respect they thought they deserved — or they were simply broke. So I applied to the Director’s Guild and spent some time on movie sets, but the actual process of making movies was so boring to me that it left me even more confused. It was then that I decided that I had to design my own path, and it was perhaps the most important thing I have ever designed. That is the advice I give most young people — design your own path. You have to manifest your dreams.

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

To me, my career is the most interesting story. Let’s call it Flying without a Parachute. It’s a fish out of water meets a coming of age story. It’s about manifesting and taking risks when everyone is telling you that you can’t or shouldn’t or won’t succeed. It’s about not taking “no” for an answer and never staying in your lane. This story is rife with many late nights in dark places filled with intrigue, close encounters with double-crossing shady characters, seduction and betrayal. But mostly, resilience, scraping yourself off the ground and going back in for more. Around here we say if you stick your neck out, every now and then, you’re going to get your head cut off. But we believe in brave ideas and continuously pushing the boundaries to do extraordinary things. Not sure where it goes but so far it’s a pretty good read.

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

We are working on many exciting new projects right now. Our work at ICRAVE is about reinvention. We have defined our unique perspective on strategy, design and innovation, and our clients trust us to challenge their own understanding of the projects we are tasked to solve for. That’s where we exist. It’s imperative that you know why your business exists. It takes a while, you shouldn’t get there too soon or you run the risk of being too rigid and delivering banal, formulaic solutions. Conversely, if you wait too long, you will lose focus and passion and your craft will lose its edge.

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

Seek balance not success. If you seek balance you will find what you love. And if you do what you love, you will inspire others and be inspired by the people around you. You’ll also find that you collaborate with other people and other teams better through that lens. You’ll learn and teach all at once. People who are stingy with their talent always burnout. Share your vision and watch it grow. Burnout is a form of inner stress that is usually driven by ego. Seek balance not success. Ego has no domain here.

None of us are able to 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 would say I have been blessed from a young age with incredible teachers and role models. But there is a remarkable woman, Laura Furst who was like a second mother to me. She showed me a bigger world than I would have known had I not been best friends with her son. She believed in me and challenged me. Not only by expecting my best effort, but also in creating my appetite for discovery and showing me the capacity I had for engaging deeply, in different subjects and curiosities that really are the qualities I cherish most today. I’m still always learning and discovering new things. She recently reminded me that she commissioned my first design job at the age of nine, a basement rec room project. I convinced her to take out a structural wall. Thank you Mrs. Furst.

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

I’m not sure I have. While charity is a foundational part of my faith, my life and central in studio culture at ICRAVE, we haven’t found our stride yet. But we will. However, on the project side, we have done groundbreaking work in reimagining the most stressful places on earth to alleviate anxiety and most recently, reinvented the patient experience in hospitals. That work is very rewarding and we will continue to innovate around healthcare as a focus of our work.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of 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?

The Pandemic is not responsible for the retail apocalypse we are seeing unfold. Quite frankly, neither is Amazon. Both are accelerating the demise of traditional brick and mortar retail and one can argue that Amazon unfairly stacks the deck against brick and mortar retail, but quite frankly retailers have been asleep at the wheel and very slow to innovate or understand what motivates people to shop in real life. We spend a lot of time on this subject at ICRAVE and if the experience of shopping doesn’t have an uptick from the convenience of doing it at home on your laptop, then it’s pretty clear that you’re not going to survive in the long run. Retailers need to redefine the value proposition. There is a lot that a day of shopping offers that online can never replicate. That’s where new retail will find its raison d’etre. In the late 19th century, the department store crushed the mail order catalogue business. Amazon is the 21st century catalogue business. Imagine what it must have been like to walk into a full-service department store and use all five senses to experience products and brands that were previously two dimensional and arrived in packages. There is a yearning for a social context where retail is delivered through an experience platform. As you start to see more direct-to-consumer brands foray into brick and mortar retail as a regular extension of their business, the intersection of physical and digital will bring us completely new typologies that invite a hybrid of activities together. That’s exciting to me because retail is the underpinning of both our real estate in cities and our sidewalks. Healthy sidewalks make for great cities and happy people. If you connect the dots, a reinvention of retail will save our cities and make us happier people. It’s a big deal and that’s why we’re working on solving retail from this perspective.

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? See question above

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?

The pockets of success today are just that. I wouldn’t look to any of them for guidance on a way forward. They stand out because everything else is a catastrophe. Their profitability isn’t a case study, it’s a moment in time driven by a rolling tsunami that will engulf the entire industry as it reaches inland. The way forward is reinvention. Everything reinvented. The relationship between seller and their space, inventory risk, fulfillment and most important, storytelling. Brands need a direct relationship with their customers to tell their stories. We get our stories in completely new ways today. Retail as we know it is over. A remnant of the 19th century department store that has been gutted. It’s so obsolete. I want to make sure I’m clear; shopping and buying in physical space will survive all this, but if retailers come at it from the traditional retail starting point, they will not survive. It’s like trying to turn your VHS into an iPhone.

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?

If it’s a price war, there’s always going to be someone cheaper, so if that’s your game it’s the sword you die by. But retail is much more than discounting products. America is the land of imagination. The retail landscape will bifurcate into two parts: commodity shopping where you have AI working with the Internet of Things (IOT) and machine learning to determine the logistics of your need for everyday consumption. In this realm, technology sorts out the cheapest and most efficient way to get a product into your fridge, drawer or closet and your time is freed for other uses. On the other side, it’s about culture and entertainment. The opportunity for discovery of products, curation and personalized experiences will be heightened and the battle will be for driving customers into stores. The conversation of digital and physical as separate parts is coming to an end. All retail is both and will continue to be both in varying degrees.

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. 🙂

Well, if I were to try and save humanity I may create a once in a century contagion that forces us to isolate with the people we care about most, or worse, away from them, forcing us into a meditative state of gratitude for what we have and how fleeting it all is. I would hope it would force us all to recognize together, how lucky we are to live in this most divinely perfect balancing act nature provides for us. Then maybe, just maybe we would all see the greater purpose, be inspired to create a better more equitable world and just shut the fuck up with all the nonsense…. But then, that’s just crazy talk.

How can our readers further follow your work?

You can check out our website www.icrave.com or follow us on Instagram @icraveny for the inside scoop on all happenings at our studio.

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

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