How to Design a Retail Space in Boston


Retail store design best practices

When creating a unique retail experience it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Every little thing vies for your attention, from the type of lighting to the finish on the shelves. To stay on course in this sea of competing details, it’s important that you have a guiding design plan that always points to your brand’s “true north.” Next time you’re trying to figure out how to build a unique retail experience, consider these best practices.

Since 1993, Sleeping Dog Properties, Inc. has helped design and build some of the most unique retail spaces in and around Boston, Massachusetts. To help you figure out what to prioritize when designing your unique retail experience, we’ve put together these best practices that will help you stay on track for all of your decisions, big or small, while giving you room to get creative.

Here are the 4 guiding principles that will help you balance creativity and functionality:

Choose the right retail store layout

Retail layouts have been heavily studied and optimized. The guru of retail store design, Paco Underhill, has helped define many rules that successful retail stores (from boutiques to flagship locations) have followed to great success. There are generally three tried and true floor plans that most stores follow:

An example grid layout

Image courtesy of “Retail store layout, design, and display” by Prithvi Ghag

  1. The Grid Layout. This layout generally utilizes multiple parallel aisles that customers will zig-zag through. This is great for highlighting any sales or seasonal displays at the ends of aisles and is generally used by grocery or Big Box stores.
An example boutique store with the free flow layout

Image courtesy of Pinterest.

2. The Loop Layout. In this layout there’s an island of merchandise in the center surrounded by a ring of merchandise that lines the walls. This creates a racetrack-like loop that your customers will follow.

Image courtesy of Pinterest.

3. The Free Flow Layout. Many boutique retailers will use the free flow layout because of its versatility. It also lends itself well to creating lifestyle vignettes, which are great utilizations of space if what you’re selling is relatively small, expensive, and emotional.

Keep your customer flow in mind

The most beautiful store in the world would be worthless if it doesn’t help your customers find the product they want then get to the register. Optimizing the following points along your customer’s journey in your store helps you keep people on track to find what they want.

The threshold

This is the transitional space between the outside world and your store. People will be making rapid judgments about every aspect of your store. While here and getting the lay of the land, people tend to miss any products right in front of them. Therefore this space should be used to give people a chance to get their bearings before heading to the display that catches their eye.

Get on their good side

In America, around 90% of customers will turn right upon entering the store. Take advantage of human nature with a strong display on the right. An accent wall, showroom lighting, and unique architecture can all help highlight your most profitable merchandise.

Guide the way…

Creating a natural path lets you lead your customers to the natural end point: your cashier registers. Use unique designs on your floor or focal points at key locations to draw the eye in the correct direction.

…But don’t rush them

unless you deal with a tremendous amount of foot traffic, you’ll rarely want to hurry your shoppers through your store. One of the most effective ways to showcase your products while encouraging people to slow down is through “speed bumps.” Speed bumps are the stands or displays in the middle or at the end of aisles that highlight impulse-friendly or seasonal products.

Finish strong

According to cognitive psychology research, people tend to remember three parts of any experience: the beginning, the most unique or ‘extreme’ aspect, and the end. If your threshold is the beginning experience and your power wall is the most unique moment, then you should also focus on the checkout process. While this can (and should) vary a lot store to store, there are a few basic principles you can follow:

  1. Place your register at a natural stopping point in the customer flow that you’ve designed
  2. Create a comfortable counter experience, that’s big enough to unload bags and lean on
  3. Highlight your individuality with a unique architectural feature behind the register — your customers will likely remember this, associate it with their purchase, and talk about it with their friends

Your store is about more than shopping

You’re also creating a story around your brand. This should be in the same voice as other brand experiences — there should be a logical flow between your online branding and your in-store presence. Creating an immersive experience and offering something more than just a 3D catalog is probably the single best thing you can do to stand out, but it’s also pretty easy to faceplant. Here are some guiding principles to make sure you stick the landing.

  1. Give old staples a unique twist: Display models are all over the place, but you don’t need to follow the pack. Modernize your mannequins with injections of unique flavor that speak to your brand. Little touches like these will help your unique boutique stand out in a city known for creating engaging brand experiences.
  2.  Set the right mood: Make your store an immersive experience by engaging all your customers’ senses. Build a truly memorable experience by refining the following senses that trigger positive emotional associations.
    • Lighting: When you’re planning lighting for your store, you need to be careful to find the proper balance. Too little light and you create a dungeon-meets-Hollister vibe, while going overboard can make your customers feel like they’re in a hospital. To get the perfect amount, combine different sources of light: track, lamps, sconces, picture lights can all work well together to effectively showcase key products.
    • Colors: Remember the basics of color psychology — green means eco-conscious, black means sophisticated, burgundy means luxurious, etc. When it comes to balancing these colors out we recommend you follow the 80-20 rule: 80% should be your neutral, primary color, while 20% should be your bold accent colors.
Custom gallery wall

One of our clients, The Rug Company, uses a beautiful and high-contrast rug to add visual interest. Striking images are more likely to leave a lasting impression.

  • Smell: Are you looking to make a truly unique boutique ski store in Beacon Hill? Try infusing your store with a subtle, fresh, and outdoorsy pine scent. Scent is the strongest sense tied to memory, so make sure you choose wisely!


A bright and bold way to showcase your brand’s primary color is an accent wall. Many stores stick to tradition when it comes to their walls — either coloring the entire store one color, or hanging up a barrage of posters. Stand out by creating mostly neutral walls. Then, choose one wall to be your accent wall. A bright coat of paint, unique wallpaper, or textured fabric are great ways to add variety to your store.

Give people space

While face-to-face interactions can be refreshing reminders of your brands humanity, people still need their space. Part of this involves training your clerks, but it’s also important to design your store to allow people to browse in peace. Consumer behavior expert Paco Underhill found that most customers (and especially women) will avoid going down any aisle if there’s a chance that they will have to brush by someone’s behind (or have their own rear accidentally brushed by) — even if the aisle has the product they came into your store to buy.

A good (and required!) rule of thumb is to create a minimum of 3’6” of space between fixtures. This allows everyone to browse your aisles without being uncomfortable, from people in wheelchairs to parents with strollers.

Finally, do what you can to make your store seem bigger. Create the feeling of space by making sure your store has as many windows as possible. If you simply do not have great access to windows try hanging blinds on mirrors (or even walls!) to create the illusion of airy space. You’ll also want to emphasize the verticality of your store to open it up as much as possible.

Whether you’re trying to design for millennials or baby-boomers, these principles will help you create a memorable store that helps attract and convert your customers.

Boston is one of the more competitive shopping destinations — creating a store that’s true to your brand and encourages people to share the word is paramount to succeeding. Creating extraordinary retail experiences can quickly get overwhelming and complicated, even after following best practices. We at Sleeping Dog Properties, Inc. have over two decades of experience bringing unique retail designs to life.  


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