Episode 34


Interested in future of retail brick and morter, the mashup of retail, workplace and hospitality, or the future of urban downtown areas? If so, you’ll want to listen in to some great stories in this episode. Brand strategist, consumer trend expert, architect and master storyteller, Joan Insel, meanders with us through her delightful observations and well informed experiences.

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“I always like to look at the root of words to understand where they come from. And the French word for retail would be the root word, the French word “retallier” which means to re-tailor. And we have to think about that, retail needs to retailor on an evolving basis. If it doesn't, then it's not going to work. And part of that tailoring is personalization, which is key right now in the big world of retail.” Joan Insel


CCB: [00:00:00] Welcome to the ONEder Podcast, this is your host, CCB, and we are going to have a lovely conversation this afternoon with another interesting and influential character from the design world, and we love to talk about the breadth of design as it relates to people and place and culture and societal influences, if you will. And so we're very, very fortunate to have with us today, Joan Insel. And I'm going to say, Welcome, Joan. Thanks for joining us.

Joan Insel: [00:01:10] Thank you so much, CCB. I'm so honored to be on this podcast with you.

CCB: [00:01:14] Well, you're going to work for your honor here in the conversation. So Joan, take a few minutes and tell us what your background is and how you got to be the influential character that you are today, we're going to talk about your influence, OK?

Joan Insel: [00:01:34] Yeah, I can tell you, I try to be a character as much as possible. I would definitely say that my background is in architecture. I actually had a degree in architecture, but I should not be designing buildings, as I am not good at that. It was not something that was really interesting to me, and I didn't learn about that until I actually got into the work world. But it has served me very well because after architecture, I really, really enjoyed graphic design and learning about typography and how to communicate with, you know, and doing visual storytelling. And that was really quite wonderful and that actually grew well into working into storytelling within architecture and interior design. And then from that, I jumped into brand strategy and consumer trends and consumer insights. And I've always enjoyed watching people and just seeing how they interact with spaces and places. And it helped that I understood architecture and design. And so I just married those two things together to really pull through and really work at designing, I would say, doing brand translations from words to design in the real world and have really enjoyed doing that.

CCB: [00:02:43] When you've been very successful in it.

Joan Insel: [00:02:47] I have been. I was very, very lucky that I happened on a place that could really nurture me.

CCB: [00:02:52] Ok, well, I was going to say that marriage between education, passion, interest and then a small bit of luck, you might say. Most people, it's more of the former as opposed to the latter being. But anyway. So, you've done, a lot of your work has been involved in the retail area of places and the interaction of people with those places and those brands. So could you tell us a little bit about that?

Joan Insel: [00:03:23] Sure. So I've been working on retail projects for probably the last 10 years. I've worked on both large scale commercial projects, as well as small scale store projects. And really, and I would say within the last three years, we've seen a lot of change happened quite rapidly. And that's been interesting. But it's been going on all along. And I always like to look at the root of words to understand where they come from. And the French and the word for retail would be the root word, the French word, excuse me, [00:03:54]retailler, [00:03:55] which means to retailer. And we have to think about that retail needs to retailer on an evolving basis. If it doesn't, then it's not going to work. And part of that tailoring is personalization, which is key right now in the big world of retail. It's also about making it easier and effortless for you as a shopper. And then also, that retailering means it's about really focusing on convenience and all of to help us do this all together would be through the use of technology as an enhancer, an enabler and not something that's front of face to the consumer. What does all this really mean to brick and mortar? Well, brick and mortar is here to stay because people need people. You know, I know it's kind of that song that "people need people". I'm not going to start singing it here. I don't have a singing voice, and I only know the first few lyrics of it anyways. But people really do need people in the pandemic with us all being cooped up and, you know, wearing our masks and not being able to go out necessarily as freely as we used to. We really want to be back in touch with people and that we want to, you know, whether it's through community or through just shopping and touching things, but enlivening all the senses, not just our visual senses that we're seeing that we can do when we do online shopping. We want that tactility and we want that in-person tactility more than anything.

CCB: [00:05:18] Wait a minute. I'm on a break in here for a minute and just say it's really fascinating because you think that there already had been kind of a, you talked about this earlier, that waves and how trends kind of move back and forth and they have you can tell us what you think of the lifespan is, but the trend towards makers and having more, you know, as opposed to the streamlined industrial, we can have as many of these things as we want. People want more personalized, want more individualized and that's been kind of going on for a while.

Joan Insel: [00:05:53] Yes, definitely. And so trends usually go on like a 10 year cycle of being how people are moving and going towards certain things. If you just, I always like to say I like to braille the culture to really understand what's going on in the world, and you can see a lot of that happening right now. And I would say that the one thing that's really key is as we think of trends coming and going, we see this really good, and I wouldn't say that this is a trend, but it's definitely a movement that needs to happen. This idea of inclusivity and this idea of inclusivity means everyone is equal and everyone's welcome. But at the same time, what we're seeing right now is also a rise in club memberships and exclusivity. So that's one thing to get back to the idea of the makers. People want to know where their things come from and the stories that come to tell with that. And that's really the key thing is that I know where this is made. I know that it came from a really great source and there's a story behind it with everything. And so I think that's where the interest in makers, it's also about talking about and supporting your local community and also growing local resources that you have there. And you talked about the streamlined corporate of retail putting goods and services out there. We can take a look at Peloton, which does very much weight, does have a very good, you know, personalized experience and everybody wants to get on board. But their main issue right now is the supply chain. And so that's broken and that's why the local makers are also such a valuable part of the ecosystem in retail.

CCB: [00:07:32] And we're seeing more and more of that now with, yes, identification with community and support to community because because we've been disenfranchised because we've been distributed, because we haven't had connections, but also because of arguably some of the more global trends that have been having a negative impact on yes, folks. So as you're sitting here talking about those changes that are taking place and it and cities and communities, there's going to be. I'd love to hear you share with us the trends that you are kind of perceiving for the way that that places might change. What kinds of, yeah, what kinds of shifts are you seeing?

Joan Insel: [00:08:25] We're definitely seeing a focus on more the local and community, and people have described it as the anything from the 10 to 20 minute city. I think Korea is making a 10 minute city is the one that they're focusing on where you can walk everywhere and it's really focusing on physical mobility. So there's that physical health. So you're going from mobility to wellbeing and capturing all of that, that's going to continue to stay, that we know that as we grow. And then that also goes into more the social responsibility, whether it's climate change, carbon zero, all of that stuff is all coming together and it's people joining together and like minded efforts to really bring that up into one solid, and you're into your local community, where you live and where you live, and where your work can be the same. Now as we all know, we're not all necessarily going back to our downtown offices, which is one thing that the downtowns really need to think about is now that they no longer have a group of commuters coming down on a daily basis to downtowns. How are you going to get people in that large scale continue to come downtown? What is my reason for going there? And so I think downtowns need to really rethink what their role is in the lives of people that don't work there anymore, huh?

CCB: [00:09:43] That is fascinating. Yeah, we had a conversation recently with with another fellow, you're up in the Pacific Northwest with another futurist trend thinker about mobility and the nature of mobility and how it's probably going to become more of a hop skip and get places as opposed to once again factoring in climate change and concerns. And so the impact on place just seems to be, since places such as it's the most difficult change because there's the physical change. Yeah, it's going to be interesting, yeah, to think about what cities, huh?

Joan Insel: [00:10:30] Yeah. What is going to happen to those cities? Are they going to become a lot of micro downtowns? Interesting, at the beginning of the pandemic, there were talks that much of the downtowns are going to now be really focused on spaces for those local makers and so that you would see something new and different and it wasn't something that you can necessarily see through an online, you know, nationwide department store or anything to that matter. But it was something that was unique to your community that you could share. On the flip side that once consumers all start going towards that trend, then that trend starts to reverse itself and says, no, now we want mass-produced products because of this, this, and this, and there will be new technologies that say that will mass produce is better for the environment. There will be something that comes out of all of this. It's just that cyclical nature that as human beings that we're part of.

CCB: [00:11:22] So that's very curious when you think about the storytelling and that stories are constants. Stories are human. Stories are communication. And so the link between the trends and the kind of focus, I'm going to say, what's the word I want? I'm sorry, the amount of focus that we have to remain looking at one kind of thing before we get bored and/or need something different. And you see that so much more in retail with cycles and collections and things like that. But where did that kind of go when it comes to the way that people are using spaces? Is there any trend change?

Joan Insel: [00:12:14] It's definitely, and this is the word that everyone is using right now is that hybrid experience is not just retail, it's retail and workplace. It's retail, workplace, and hospitality. And we've seen a lot of places that have started to bring those three things together in the past, whether intentionally or not. I think of the Ace Hotel lobby in New York that they wanted people to come in and sit down. I think of the third spaces that Starbucks created about that place between work and home. WeWork was definitely trying to go in that direction. They're just their business model was based on a low margin. And so you really can't, there's not a lot of growth there if you have a low margin. So you have to really take a look about through all aspects of what you're trying to do. I think the workplace of the future is also going to entail the retail of the future, as well as hospitality of the future. These are all meeting spaces, when you think about it and so we really need to understand what people want when they they go there to these little meeting spaces. Do they want to have the same thing that they have now? Or do they want something new? You know, familiarity is always comfortable, and that's great. But we also want a little bit something that's new or exciting and sometimes mind blowing. And so it's really going to depend as we move forward into that. I think going forward, retail--bricks and mortar is going to be here to stay. It's got to evolve to something different. And if it doesn't, then we have to figure out what that needs to be. I know from a sustainability aspect more and more people, they're looking into different types of, is it rental? Is it subscription? I think the great thing about doing a subscription type of services that brings in recurring revenue to your business and so it can continue going. Starbucks loyalty program is a great concept of that. But, as human beings, we like to see different things. We don't want to have the same old all the time. We have to have that balance and that balance leads to wellbeing, which I know we all are embracing right now.

CCB: [00:14:13] Ok, so I'm going to break in here and say there's a reference. I mean, there's there's a ton of reference here to to American or U.S., yes, but you work all over the place. Yes. Yeah, you work all over the world. So. So what are the what are the similarities that you're seeing in trends so sustainable?

Joan Insel: [00:14:34] Sustainability definitely is here to stay. We're starting to see that in China, pre pandemic, there's plum, which was a resale program that was going on there, but that was happening in China. You're seeing that in the Middle East right now. It's greatly they're realizing that. I mean, Saudi Arabia has their KSA Vision 2030 that's really picking up, and it's focusing on, well being a thriving and vibrant economy and physical health. And so in order to do that, tourism is a big part of there is a big part of that Vision 2030, as well as leisure and entertainment. And again, so that's all about bringing people to places. And so how do you make those places work? That's, you know, that's a common thing. Every place is doing this, whether it's in the U.K. or or in China or in the Middle East and in America, they're just slightly different in what the infrastructure is and how you go about doing it. And, of course, weather considerations as well.

CCB: [00:15:35] Ok, so who hires you?

Joan Insel: [00:15:40] Right? Lots of people hire me. So right now it's real estate development firms, retail design firms, retail and retailers. You get people that are, it's quite vast and an interesting group of people, but there's always something what's great about it. It's something that I can learn from, but also apply what I've learned to the project at hand and what needs to happen in those places. So it's quite exciting time right now.

CCB: [00:16:09] I'm always literally fascinated with folks that have numbers of interests. And we're seeing much more of that right now that there's a broader set of interests in individuals that we're bringing to the environment, to our environments, to our conversations. What do you think, and this is kind of an off topic, what do you think education is going to look like or needs to look like to support some of these trends that you're talking about?

Joan Insel: [00:16:44] So education, especially in the upper, I would say, college and university education, that needs to be opened up again, it seems to have gotten really closed off. I know that when I graduated from the University of Washington, it seemed like it was a fairly easy place to get into. But now it seems like they've really focused down. The cost of education is not easily accessible to all. I think when I went to college, it was maybe like $450 a quarter. Granted, that was a long time ago. However, I think the the cost of education has more than increased anything else, and not everyone has access to it. So it needs to be more democratized so that everybody has a chance to learn and grow. And we need to make it much more diverse and not just saying that people, that you see these, certain there's networks that are formed within certain universities and then they grow from that and that informs the business models. And I think the more diversity that you have and that will help open up things much, much more. And so really start taking and looking at the education. So I would agree that a liberal arts focus is quite good because it does open you up to many ideas, it's just starts singing about what's appropriate for you and what you're good at and how you can move forward, but not necessarily go into a place because you want to make a lot of money. I think we need to shift away from that and what's best for you as an individual. And so it goes down again to personalization.

CCB: [00:18:21] Yeah. And you're taking me to one of the other conversations or topics I wanted to bring up, which was we're hearing so much more about purpose today, and it's a purpose of organizations, the purpose of individuals, it's purpose of communities. So they're there feels like a better connection now between the good of the entity? And you know, in everything else around us, however, we also have everything else that's going on in society today. So from a trend standpoint, how do you square those things? How do you take the big external context and the local factors or influences?

Joan Insel: [00:19:09] It's going to depend on the company, the brand that you're working on and what your approach is to that and how you want to embrace it. But don't come up and say, I think right now you're seeing a lot of companies say their purpose driven brands out there, but it's not like they're holistically purpose driven. They're just like selectively being purpose driven. And so you see a lot more of that social responsibility reports coming up and it's like, well, we've done this and we've done this, and it's just like, That's great, but what is your overall ethos and how you approach that? Is that in your company's vision statement and that's what people are going to start looking for. It's not whether you've click the box off on this program or checked it off here, it's you really need to have a holistic approach. I think REI is a great example of a purpose driven company. Patagonia is another one. They really put their money behind their mouth and everything that they say. And they're really there for whether it's the environment or the consumer, they are there to really make things good for a better world.

CCB: [00:20:14] Well, OK. So we pretty much talked about, like so many things that I wanted you to weigh in on. I wondered if there's this other bit about the connection to technology and data that we haven't really addressed, and I know it's big in retail has been for a while, but could you talk about that and where are there going to be similarities that you are seeing?

Joan Insel: [00:20:41] So it's interesting. So data is huge. Everyone's like, Give me the numbers, give me all of this, and I agree that any type of information is very valuable. I was reading somewhere that someone likened Google to God because we ask Google all sorts of questions that we would normally ask a higher being for outside support, which, you know, and then I'm just like, Can you imagine all that information that Google has on us that we're talking to them about this on the data? And I'm scared. I get to work on a variety of projects and I don't look at things that are necessarily important to me. But I'm just wondering, it's like, Well, when I worked on that project that was solely focused on the male customer, who do they think I am? Because now I'm getting all these ads that are directed towards men. But I'm not that. Going because I was researching it, so it's interesting to see how their algorithms are forming a picture of me personally, don't know how that means data is very useful. I think data really talks to us about telling us, how is it? It's the rational side and it tells you the what this is, what we're doing and what we're buying. This is how much we're mining, how much time we're spending. But it doesn't necessarily always tell you the why. And that's where it's putting that data together in a narrative or in a story form that will really make it sing within a retail environment. I was just reading this morning, one of the big developers was saying that they could no longer use foot traffic as a as a means of saying that their stores were successful or not. They had to actually look because people aren't coming into the store anymore, they're shopping online. And so even though the foot traffic is down, the sales are up. So we have to balance the data and the rational with the emotional to really understand the why are they coming or why are they not coming? And then really make sure that we make those touchpoints about when they do come, really make those sing and really increase that, that attention span that we have on the customer to both the rational and the emotional so that they come back more and more and more so that we all those touch points we maximize on.

CCB: [00:23:02] You should be doing workplace consulting right now or the Return to the Work. The power of the story, the need for connection, the intention for being there, what's the draw, the destination. All of these things are the same conversations. You're so well positioned to have them looking at us in retail and then also the hybrid nature of everything. And of course, we're tired of that word. But what is this blend of, you know, of space and purpose and intention that needs to be designed and communicated again to your story because communication has become even more valuable given the fact that we have been so distant and dispersed? And so how do we have these even though we're sitting here talking on Zoom and you can do this all day, but it's not the same?

Joan Insel: [00:24:00] No, it's not. I'll tell you a story. So this was a woman that I met. She worked for a large financial institution, and this was about 2010, 2011. So about 10 years ago and she was actually working remotely. She was working from home, and the company had decided that 40% of the workforce would work remotely to save on real estate costs because we knew at that time real estate was the second highest cost next to employees. First, which is good. And then it was real estate. And so they wanted to save money on real estate. And so people were working from home. And she hated being on calls all day, and she would just stay in her pajamas. I mean, it was pre-Zoom pre, you know, it was very archaic back then, if you can think about it. And she said that she would just come into the office once a week so that she could dress up and meet another human being. And that's where we are now. So that was 10 years ago that people were already aware that they wanted that hybrid approach and they wanted to, you know, be balance it from both working at home but also being able to choose to go. And so that's what it comes down to. It comes down to choice. People like to have choice. They like to have control. They like to have a sense of belonging. And if we apply that to retail, if we apply that to workplace, hospitality and healthcare, all the categories, if we keep remembering that we'll continue to be successful. And so but that just means listening to what the consumer wants.

CCB: [00:25:32] Ok. You just ended like boom, drop the mic. That was so perfect.

Joan Insel: [00:25:38] I meander and I pull from so many things.

CCB: [00:25:42] But it's such a great comment to everyone to be aware of. What are those? And it's basically simple. If we if we don't over complicate the project.

Joan Insel: [00:26:00] But to get to simple, it's usually complicated. It's not easy.

CCB: [00:26:03] This is true. Ok, so we actually are winding up time. And I just wonder, is there anything else that we haven't talked about that you feel is important to share?

Joan Insel: [00:26:16] So let's maybe not be on topic, but and I've been promoting this a lot. Is that really because of all the mask wearing, we're out of smile deficit and we really need to see each other smile more. So any chance you get, you know, don't feel like you're being goofy if you're just smiling at strangers through a car window. I think people really do appreciate it when you do that, and we all need that for just better mental health.

CCB: [00:26:40] Thank you so very much, Joan Insel. It has been an absolute delight having a conversation with you. And we're going to share this on the ONEder Podcast on all those streaming services, and we will look forward to having another conversation with someone maybe as interesting sometime soon. Thank you very much.