The courtyard at The Row boutique in Los Angeles, designed by Montalba Architects with Row designers Ashley Olsen and Mary-Kate Olsen. photo credit Dominique Vorillon
Designing for a cash-free business: A conversation with architect David Montalba
The growing popularity of digital payments—from e-commerce to mobile wallets to the ever-growing trend of wearables like smartwatches—has radically changed the way customers shop, pay for meals and stay in hotels. In fact, a recent U.S. consumer payment study revealed that 2016 was the first year that consumers spent more money through credit and debit cards than with cash. With shoppers opting for more cash-free transactions, forward-thinking brands are reimagining what the shopping experience looks in their brick-and-mortar storefronts, turning to architects to design those spaces without cash registers and traditional counters.
“Most companies today are not building their stores for the sole purpose of retail; they’re building them with the intent of creating an experience,” says David Montalba, founding principal of Montalba Architects, an award-winning design firm based in Santa Monica, California. With his broad range of retail projects—from designing the Los Angeles store for luxury fashion company The Row to the boutique-filled LAX International Terminal—Montalba notes that incorporating digital payment technology into these spaces creates a more free-flowing environment. In his opinion, this more modern setup can ultimately foster a stronger relationship between brand and customer: "These brands are also building these stores to create a workshop, or an educational experience. It’s not just about the transaction, it's about an education."
Here, Montalba offers his thoughts on the design and brand-building possibilities that digital payments creates for stores, hotels and restaurants.
Visa: Has the concept of cash-free offered new freedoms to both you as a designer and the people for whom you're designing?
David Montalba: We are absolutely seeing most luxury or higher level service brands shift toward cashlessness. They want to minimize the purchase aspects of the transaction and let the customer focus on the brand experience. With a more traditional scenario, there is a moment of pause at a cash register, which certainly adds opportunities like additional merchandising in those areas. But the fluidity that comes with cashlessness can galvanize a consumer base and offer an even better opportunity to capture an audience as opposed to making it solely about the transaction.
Visa: For brands, then, does this mean that the physical store or space should do more than simply sell products or services?
DM: I think, frankly, that if brands do have a physical store, they’re doing so to capture a brand experience, not just to try to capture a majority of their transactions. Most purchases may not be happening in a physical location, so it further emphasizes the need for a more tailored, curated environment. Not having to go through a queue—I think that’s what it should be about.
Visa: How does that experience impact the architecture of the space itself?
DM: I think it creates more opportunity for brand experiences that are not about the sale but are about, say, having lunch in a [high-end fashion] store, or having a coffee in a [luxury auto] shop in the middle of SoHo. In terms of how it affects design, it creates situations where we're trying to capture and retain an audience, holding them there for a longer period of time to buy more.
Visa: When digital technology helps free up extra retail space, how do you repurpose it?
DM: I would dedicate it to lounge space or brand-building space. It’s all about creating an opportunity to keep the consumer engaged and in the shop. Often in today’s Internet-sales-driven world it’s increasingly acceptable to drive online sales from in-person shopping experiences, so developing a space that is an experience and builds brand loyalty is critical. Also, another thing that needs to be kept in mind is that if you have a staff of 10 people in a non-register-based environment, every one of these employees needs to be able to assist with the transaction, and in doing so they will need to be generalists, not so much specialists.
I think a lot of these brands want to create places where customers can go to their store to talk with their experts. It’s an opportunity to let the customer be a brand’s insider as opposed to making a purchase, because you can purchase goods from their online shop. It’s more about creating connection points between the customer and the brand.
Visa: Have there been any hospitality or retail brands that have impressed you with how they have incorporated cash-free design in their physical spaces?
DM: Aman Resorts is one. They're a hotel chain and if you stay there, you basically make a reservation and give them your credit card. For the rest of your stay, you do everything you’d normally do, but you never sign anything. They can keep track of it all because generally there are only 20 or 30 guests at that hotel. When you leave you meet with the front desk and pay for everything and it’s done. You don’t really notice anything in between check-in and check-out. I think the more and more we can take the transaction out of the retail purchase experience, the better it will be for the customer.