Entrepreneur’s Guide to Designing a Retail Space

Between 40 and 70 percent of customers make their final purchasing decisions in a store with a physical retail location. Make your brick-and-mortar space more inviting to potential customers, and you can convert them into fans of your brand.

Start with understanding your customer flow and merchandising needs, then move on to the mysterious ingredient: ambiance, which is easier to create than you may think.

Where Should You Start When Designing a Retail Space?

Deciding on a floor plan starts with blueprints. Your square footage, the size of the products you’re selling, the number of employees you have or need, and the location of existing structures in the space all influence where you put displays, the checkout counter, information booths, signage, and furniture.

Many retail stores put racks and shelves in a basic loop pattern, so customers are guided in a circle around the store to the checkout. But there are many other kinds of layouts you can use with psychologically similar flows of traffic.

There are seven retail store design principles to remember as you go:

  1. Make your merchandise eye-catching.
  2. Encourage the customer to take their time.
  3. Mark out the path the customer should take without being obvious or obstructive.
  4. Encourage the customer’s natural tendency to turn right after entering (at least in North America).
  5. Make bold choices that reflect your brand and keep you apart from your competition.
  6. Aerate the layout. This may include decluttering some areas, adding seating, or placing a few plants or lighting instruments in certain areas to create a feeling of expansion.
  7. Always think of your space as an opportunity for creative solutions.

After you take care of the basic structural issues, like where support beams, pipes, and wires need to be placed, you can begin arranging your actual product displays. While you create presentations, consider how products work together (for example, a small soap display can complement a display for shower curtains) and how many items you need or want to put out.

Do you want your customers to examine numerous choices to find exactly what they’re looking for? Does your space work better with a minimalist approach? The decision for abundance versus minimalism can influence where you place these product displays.

The main component of display creation should optimize natural flow around the store.

Traffic Flow Enhances the Retail Experience

Your customers must move around the store, find what they need, see other items they may be interested in buying, get information to answer their questions, and pay for their items.

These needs are easy to manage and accommodate, but what makes the shopping experience pleasant? The answer to this question will vary based on your target demographic, but several foundational elements are true of any retail experience.

These are some ways to enhance your customers’ shopping experience regardless of what you sell.

  • The decompression zone: This is the entryway of your storefront, typically about the first 5 to 15 feet of retail space. Essentially, your customer crosses the threshold from the outside world into your store, and that transition should be smooth and engaging.
  • The right side: In North America, 90 percent of customers turn to the right when they enter a retail store. For many retailers, the right-hand wall is called the power wall because it is the first flat surface customers encounter. This can serve as a high-impact area for your products, so creating an appealing display of your merchandise and services here is important.
  • The path: Once a customer is in your store, whether they’re simply browsing or looking for a specific item, you have the power to guide their journey. You can guide them through particular sections of your store based on popularity, price point, or association with each other.

    Over time, pay attention to which areas have more popular products because you may change the path based on what your customers are most interested in. However, you also do not want to appear to force them in a specific direction. Instead, use racks or shelves of items, furniture, and information stands to guide them without seeming too pushy.

    Typically, this path moves counterclockwise in North America based on customers turning to the right immediately after entering a store. You can make this path more appealing by changing the color and texture of the floor, and you can guide the customer’s eyes to specific areas with bright colors, arrangements of certain items, or prominent but attractive information displays.
  • The customer’s pace: While you want your customers to follow a specific path around your store, you typically want them to do so slowly. This way, they can browse your items, encouraging them to purchase more. Even if they do not pick up additional products, the aesthetics of different display areas can lighten their mood.
  • Enough room: Customers do not like feeling cramped or crowded. It is important to make sure your aisles and display areas are big enough for several people. You may include a strategic bench or two or a seating area if you have enough space.
  • Checkout: Your checkout counter needs to be in a highly visible location. If the average customer in the United States turns to the right and you create a circular route around your store, you may assume that the best place for the checkout counter would be to the left of the door. However, this is not necessarily true, as it can depend on how much space you have, how you must divide up your store, and even where certain support structures like beams are located.

    For some retail spaces, having the counter in the middle of the store or at the back, across from the entrance, makes the most sense.

    You can also display low-cost product displays near the cash register for customers to pass as they approach the line. Many businesses place small impulse purchase items close to the register. But even peppering the end of the path with several small, colorful displays can lead to additional purchases.
  • Walking through it: Test it once you’ve created a space you think works. Walk through it yourself, and start by turning to the right. Ask friends and family to come in and try it, offering feedback about their movements through the space, how they feel in certain areas, and if everything feels convenient and pleasing.

Mental & Emotional Customer Experiences to Keep in Mind

Once you have defined the zones and displays in your store and tested the walking path, there are still some notes to remember to keep your customers happy.

  • Keep everything spotless. One survey found that a third of shoppers avoided a business because it appeared dirty from the outside.
  • Create a sense of opening or expansiveness. For example, some stores cut windows or holes in walls separating rooms, so the space feels larger.
  • Keep it clean. The fashion designer Coco Chanel famously advised fashionistas to look in the mirror before leaving and remove one item from their outfit. Do the same with your retail displays to visually declutter them.
  • Add pep to displays. Use something other than traditional shelves or racks to display items. For example, if oak barrels are potentially on brand for you, use these to create a visual texture for your display.
  • Stay modern. Digital features, like brand information scrollable on a tablet or an interactive digital display, can enhance your customers’ emotional ties to your brand since they have directly interacted with it in some way.

Environment & Ambiance Are Crucial Final Touches

You've walked customers through a path, shown them your best products, and made the experience wonderful. What else can you try?

Incorporating the senses can help to heighten the experience and make customers big fans of your brand.

What Can Customers Touch?

More than 80 percent of customers want to touch products before they buy them. What will they feel? And when they're not touching your products, what else will they feel?

Customers don't want to feel anything that is:

  • Gritty
  • Sticky
  • Slimy
  • Moldy

Cleanliness is important here. But consider how touch can highlight your brand.

Do you sell outdoor equipment? Incorporating natural stone into the floors or rough wood on the walls may help bring the outside in. Do you specialize in luxury goods? Marble countertops and fleece chairs may help.

What Does Your Brand Smell Like?

A brand-specific scent is so powerful. Humans are hardwired to make emotional connections with our noses, and the things we smell during amazing experiences stick with us. Adding a special scent to high-traffic areas, such as checkout lines or changing rooms, could help customers remember who you are.

What Does Your Brand Sound Like?

The sounds your customers hear while they shop have a profound impact on what they buy and how long they stay.

If your playlist is upbeat and drum heavy, you’ll have people bopping down the aisles at a quick pace. Choose something slow and melodic, and you’ll have dreamy shoppers gliding through the space.

Finding the right mix can mean experimenting and asking for feedback. But the right playlist can be an incredible tool in designing your retail space.

Helpful Tools for Designing Your Retail Space

An architect or interior designer can help you create the retail space your customers will love. But you can also do a lot of this work DIY with a little help from the right tools. These are a few of our favorites:


Wondering how your retail store should be set up? Use a tool like SmartDraw to help you block out space and set up flow. Drag and drop elements until you find a setting that seems just right.


Technical tools like Radiance can help you understand just how bright your space will be with certain lights. But this software is made for engineers, and it can be complicated for average people. If you have space in your budget, working with a lighting designer might be wise.


What color should your walls be? What hue suits your brand? Use a tool like Paintzen to explore colors by trendiness, ambiance, photos, and more. Get tiny samples and paint a few walls before diving into the immersive painting experience.


You may already have an idea about what your brand should smell like. If not, companies like Bespoke Fragrance can partner with you to create a custom, signature smell for your brand and location.


Companies like ours put you in control of your brand sound. Create a playlist on a site like Pandora, and we'll take care of the licensing requirements. You'll share the sound with your customers in no time.

If you're not sure what music is right, browse from our pre-packaged playlists too. We make it easy.

Retail Space Design FAQs

What are the key considerations when designing a store layout?

Customer flow is crucial when designing a store layout. Your customers should get into, through, and out of your space without bumping into merchandise or one another. You must get this part of the setup right before designing anything else.

What considerations should be made when designing a retail store interior?

Customer preferences, employee demands, and the constraints of your space all play a role in what you can and can't do. Visualization software can help you set up zones and understand where things should go, but expect a few tweaks after opening until you hit on the right model.


Get Legal Streaming Music for Your Enterprise Business

Start Free Trial

No credit card required