The U.S. retail climate is currently challenging—to say the least—but for a handful of North American retail consultancies, there is a bright entry to their otherwise-soft bottom line: overseas work. Certainly international projects and clients are not news for well-established North American firms, but they are gaining importance as domestic work slows.
That’s no surprise to Paco Underhill, CEO and president of New Yorkbased Envirosell, the global retail research and consulting firm that studies the retail landscape worldwide. He puts it this way: “The North American market is ‘over-stored.’” Happily, there are merchants still building, but the action is happening in emerging markets. Naturally, Underhill explains, “our retail design industry has to go where the work is—which is off-shore.”
And that work runs the gamut from projects for North American companies expanding outside their borders to assisting “in-country” retailers crafting new store concepts and designs for their own soil and beyond. Hoping to ride the international wave, firms have added international offices and bilingual staffers to ease the challenge of working with different cultures, customs and currencies.
Retailers are headed where populations are growing, as well as the places where life expectancies are soaring, and where industrialization is contributing Report to burgeoning middle and upper classes. Of course, those retailers and the consultants who serve them might also encounter obstacles, such as aging (or nonexistent) infrastructure, unreliable energy, government red tape, corruption and crime.
Cincinnati-based architecture, design and branding practice FRCH Design Worldwide has a long history of doing international work. “Our international work represents anywhere from a minimum of 10 percent to a high of 40 percent,” depending on market conditions, explains Kyle Kieper, FRCH creative director. The firm has had a number of Korean-speaking architects and designers on staff to handle its longstanding work with Lotte, the Seoul-based department store group. And last November, FRCH opened an office in Sao Paulo to handle its burgeoning business in Brazil, with specialty clients such as O Boticario. On the flip side, there’s also work with the iconic U.S. brand Hilton Hotels, in translating its Hampton brand to new hotel sites across Europe and beyond.
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