POV: Interview with Jim Polowy, Retail Design

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Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



jim-polowyJim Polowy has experience in all forms of brand design, from corporate identity to packaging to exhibits. Living in Long Grove, Ill., Polowy currently focuses his consultancy on retail design and concepting for three-dimensional spaces. Previously, Polowy was the vice president of retail design at TPN and a retail design director at Arc Worldwide.

With more than 18 years in retail design, how have you seen the industry change?

The advent of computers and software programs have opened tremendous varieties of design and implementation strategies but at the same time narrowed the focus of the individual designers. There is a need for a broader understanding of the craft and how that symbiosis works in concert with the client/brand.

Marketers don’t pay enough attention to the in-store experience. In your opinion, is this true or false? Why?

It depends on the level of understanding the marketer has of the in-store experience. Other circumstances, such as budget and individual retailer guidelines, can also create obstacles. Many times marketers of a brand in a category will find their ideas for display are not in line with the retailer’s guidelines of display and signage. A direction I have sometimes taken is to revitalize and organize the whole segment and present this to the retailer. What you get is a “rising tide lifts all boats” approach, which is more likely to get the retailer’s attention. Retail design can convert customers to shoppers and shoppers to advocates.

What are some common mistakes made in retail design?

Lack of understanding of the shopper mentality. A confusion of messaging. A “tell more-sell more” approach. The ability to define the brand and win the space. Commodity thinking.

What technologies, such as Shopper Tracker, Google mapping or holographic virtual assistants being adopted by retailers are you most excited about? Why?

They all take us another step closer to understanding the shopper and give insight to brand personalization. Uncovering and leveraging insights is the key. We are given a more precise vision of the shopper and their habits, which allows the retail designer the ability to successfully pinpoint an in-store solution.

What does your process look like for concepting or redesigning a retail or corporate space? What is the most exciting part of each new project?

Certainly leveraging those insights we’ve discussed is the first step in the concept phase. Starting with a fresh palette and being able to use every club in the bag. Pulling together substrates, lighting, color, graphics and technologies to create a brand environment that is unique and functional is a fulfilling challenge. It’s amazing to see your sketches and renderings come to life.

What influences your designs for retail environments? What “style guides” do you adhere to to create a space that emphasizes the products or personality of the brand and tells a story through the interior design?

Simplicity. There is almost a Zen-like approach that concentrates the focus on the brand essence. Successful design is achieved not when you have added everything, but when you have stripped away the unnecessary.

You currently run your own consulting agency. What have been the most rewarding and challenging aspects of running a consultancy?

No more commute to the city. Better control of my personal time. I am the final arbiter for my design solutions. But I must now wear many hats.

How can brands utilize touch screens to provide shoppers with relevant and personal retail experiences? What are some of the challenges of incorporating these into retail locations?

Touch screen is a good, targeted medium in the right physical environment. However, it’s effectiveness depends on many variables. Is the shopper primarily mission-oriented? Is placement in a well-travelled path? Is the interface simple and intuitive?

How have the economic struggles over the past few years and growth in more deal-based online shopping changed the way retailers look at the store location and its role in the consumer’s decision process?

Web-based shopping and Groupon deal-type opportunities will continue to grow exponentially, which is all the more reason to create a unique environment for the shopper experience.

What are some of your favorite examples of retail designs that embody the brand and provide the consumer with an unforgettable experience?

Number one would be Apple. They present what I would call “humanized technology.” Their physical stores radiate a glow of sophisticated modern tech elements in terms of substrates surfaces, lighting and monochromatic color schemes that are juxtaposed with large, natural wood display tables that support the simple human aspect of their products. Apple has also done a great job with it’s store-in-store designs for Best Buy as well. By employing a black monolithic wall panel featuring the backlit iconic Apple logo and including the wooden display tables, Apple was able to truly own its space within the retailer space.

Another would be Crate and Barrel. Exceptional product and category display.

One reason that you love what you do: Coming up with design solutions that are totally unexpected by the client.

Mentor: None. Graduate, School of Hard Knocks

Must read book: Any book. Just read.

Music that gets you in your zone: Eclectic…a little Tony Bennett, Duets2, some Lady GaGa (I just call her Ga), toss in some Amy Winehouse.

Connect with Jim on LinkedIn or through email.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr user joshuaseye.

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