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Asia is home to some of the most competitive retail spaces in the world, nowhere more so than Hong Kong. With around 50 million visitors a year, adding to a population of 7.5 million, in a space roughly the size of New York City or London, it’s become a concentrated retail grouping almost without comparison anywhere in the world.

How does a retailer achieve standout in a city where it’s not unusual to see three Gucci stores on the same block?

This is the question faced by the retail team at M+, Asia’s first global museum of contemporary visual culture, which opened in November of this year.

Celebrating the local

Wherever we’ve designed retail spaces, from the Tate Modern in London to MoMA in New York City, and many other places besides, we’ve always believed they should reflect not only the brand of the broader collection, but also the area in which they’re located.

So much global retail is bland and homogenous. Walk into a store in Singapore or Sao Paulo, Mumbai or Milan, and they could be the same. There’s a strong sense of the corporate brand, but little of the locality, and this is a missed opportunity.

From the outset, it was very clear that this would be even more important with M+. 25 years in the making, built by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, with a reported price tag of $760 million, it is an unmistakably global museum, but it’s also a key part of the emerging West Kowloon Cultural District. As museum director, Suhanya Raffel, explained to China Daily last December, it aims to become a key part of the community.

“In ten years after the museum opens, we would like to see regular attendance from Hong Kong people, up to five to six times a year,” she said. “That is when we know that the museum is embedded into the imagination of our community. It’s about our deep commitment to the city as a museum.”

Bringing it to life 

How, then, to create a retail space that reflects and plays a part in its local community? It began with deep immersion in the locality, and from that came ideas such as the four three-metre-high pavilions, inspired by the traditional Dai Pai dongs of Hong Kong food market stalls, which form the centrepiece of the store and will act as an ever-changing showcase of artists and merchandise.

In the Other Shop, products are displayed in cabinets redolent of a Chinese apothecary. But it’s more than these eye-catching centrepieces. You reflect a locality in all the tiny details. Where most museum shops are white, the M+ Shop uses a colour associated with a popular Chinese soap opera. We used local materials, like clay-effect concrete and bamboo, in our design. The overall sense we aim for is that of a bustling Hong Kong street. We wanted to take it as far as we could from the bland, sombre store people might be expecting.

And this has been carried through into the merchandising strategy. An artist has created a collage of Hong Kong imagery and used it to cover skateboards. Bags are made from fishermen’s nets recycled from a local island.

If you can make it there

M+ is far from the only store in the world taking this hyperlocal approach. At other visitor attractions, Londoners have long visited the Tate Modern to buy gifts without entering the collection, and in New York MoMA’s store is known citywide as the place to go for a certain type of highly curated and desirable products. The Pompidou’s retail offering has been embraced by Parisians.

Elsewhere in retail, we’re even seeing the global corporates look beyond the homogenous look and feel typically associated with them. Most notably, Nike Live is now in Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles and London, with plans to roll it out to 250 stores worldwide. 

However, there’s so much more that could be done. Wherever you are in the world, from the most competitive space in Hong Kong, to the quietest town anywhere, the key is to think first about who your customers are and what they want from a visit to your store. Work with the assets you have, whether that’s architecture, history, people or something else, and find imaginative ways to bring that to life.

As Kirstin Mearns, head of museum retail and commerce at M+, concludes: “The challenge with all retail is differentiation, and nowhere more so than in a place like Hong Kong. Achieving that is about your merchandise, your people and a number of factors, but store design is critical. It needs to add another layer to the story. We hope we’re achieving that here and that our store will become a place Hong Kong citizens and visitors love coming to again and again.”

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