Interview: Anthropologie Executive Creative Director Kristin Norris
I’ve long enjoyed Urban Outfitters for their clever displays and entertaining atmosphere; their showrooms make shopping fun (darn it). But friends, don’t even get me started on Urban Outfitters’ woman-focused brand Anthropologie, which I adore . . . adore, a fact which doesn’t make me any less of a man . . . dudes.
So I was pleased that Anthropologie’s Executive Creative Director Kristin Norris agreed to chat with me about her role at the company and how she uses display not only to present the merchandise but also to communicate with us. Merch to customer, merch to customer; buy me!
Thanks to Kristin and architects Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle for the photos of Urban Outfitters Philadelphia campus, which is located on a decommissioned naval yard.
Please welcome Kristin Norris.
How long have you been with Anthropologie?
I started working for Anthropologie when we opened our first store in Wayne, Pennsylvania in October of 1992.
How did you get the gig?
I started working at Anthropologie when I was 21 or 22. I’d worked in design during college – I went to a school with a co-op program, which means you work in your field as part of the curriculum. But when I graduated there was a recession and there weren’t a lot of design jobs. I came across a want ad for Anthropologie, and it really sounded interesting. Before that I’d never thought about working in retail; it didn’t even cross my mind that there were merchandising and display jobs. So I remember going for my interview, and the man interviewing me was asking for my qualifications, and I had no idea what he was talking about. I asked him, “do you mean you want somebody to make the store look pretty? I can do that.”
It didn’t get me the merchandising job, but it got me a part-time sales job.
What about Anthropologie appealed to you?
What hooked me was how influential the environment of the store was on the customer. I found that fascinating. Fascinating. When we first opened we had a cafe, and that was at a time before there were Starbucks on every corner. Shopping wasn’t considered entertainment then. People still found jobs through want ads in the newspaper. People didn’t have cell phones . . . it was a totally different world. No one can ever believe I found my job through the paper.
We had this really big fountain in the store, and it became a hub. Women would spend half a day there – having coffee or finding something to eat in the café in between browsing the store and trying on clothes. I came from a family where shopping wasn’t important; shopping was something you had to do. We were a playful family – we played, shopping was in the”work” category. Shopping just wasn’t a very exciting thing, so working at Anthropologie opened up a whole new world for me.
Did you miss designing residential interiors?
I like the anonymous nature this work affords me, of knowing the customer but not designing for her directly. Interior design gets very personal with each and every client, but I wasn’t as interested in that level of interaction – the persuading and convincing, its not something I have the patience for really. With this you do your work for the customer, but it’s for a bigger audience and they’re always appreciative.
How did you go from sales to visual display work?
We opened at the end of October and by the end of the year we needed somebody to do display work, so I started making things, and I thought, “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this.” We kept the things that stuff came wrapped in; we’d keep the tissue paper, the cardboard, we’d keep the shredded paper – we kept everything, and then we’d use it to make displays. I’d go down to the railroad tracks and collect leaves. We’d collect shells. We’d just use what was around to enhance the presentation in the store. People would buy the frames just because of the stuff we put in them, because we made the presentation artful.
I realized the power of display, like how wood hangers elevate something over plastic hangers, all these simple things that affect your perception of how desirable an object is.
(My job) just kind of evolved into these different roles along the way, and I became more and more responsible for different aspects of the customer experience as we grew. When we were small, inexperience was actually a benefit. Now we’re in a different place, a very public place, but that spirit of experimentation still exists. Everything we did when we began was made up; nothing was based on a model we were following. It was, here’s a problem and here’s how we’re going to solve it.
Why do you think Anthropologie is successful?
Anthropologie feels very cohesive, but it doesn’t feel like one person’s idea. We have a not too big group of very talented people working on what Anthropologie is, what type of product we create and sell, and what type of environments we do that in – I think that comes across in how people interact with us as a brand, I think its one of the reasons we resonate with our customer, I think its something that makes us different and that difference relates to our success.
I think our product comes from a more overtly feminine place than our store design, but that’s a good thing because they’re not competing with one another. If you put the sweet in the sweet you get syrup.
Why are you so passionate about store design?
I really get space and how to use space and how to build intimacy without making it feel small, how to make a big space feel expansive without disengaging you from the brand. Public spaces can give you all kinds of excitement levels and emotional reactions. The store design is one of my favorite things to work on.
I’m the kind of person who goes into a hotel room and rearranges it. I have to make it intuitive for me. In our store the floor plan is a map, it’s the way you help the customer to experience the product. You want them to find the thing that interests them, but you also want to make sure the big messages come through loud and clear. Sure they don’t have to follow that path, but most will if it’s a compelling one. You get to speak with them in a number of different ways. Is there an upstairs? Do I know how to get there? Do I understand where my interaction point will be, so that I can avoid it or get to it if I want it?
How much freedom does each store have to create their own displays?
We don’t dictate decisions about merchandising and display to our stores, we guide their decisions, based on our explorations of ideas and concepts, which is a departure from most retail environments. Our communication is a two-way dialogue, so we get really good and surprisingly consistent results. It is the best way to celebrate the talent we are lucky enough to have both in the stores and at the home office.
How does the company generally and your group specifically handle tough economic times? Do you make different decisions?
Whenever we face a difficult situation, we go back to the customer. They’re giving us clues. What they purchase, how they purchase, how much time they’re spending with us.. Whenever we find ourselves slightly un-moored by a situation, we focus very intensely on the customer. Our stores and website are our portals to the customer-how we know them, and how they interact with us. The customer tells us when they’re happy or unhappy and all the reasons why with their behavior.
How do current trends impact the way you display?
When you work in retail you’re constantly keeping on top of what’s coming from all types of resources. What are fashion designers doing? What are architects doing? What is the buzz in the design community? Not all the things that are exciting to us individually are exciting to the customer. We have a really specific customer in mind, and we try to stay focused on the things that appeal to that group. That doesn’t mean we’re safe, because that doesn’t get you anywhere. We want to be part of what enriches her life on multiple levels. Our brand is more than just shopping. Trend is important, but we’re not driven by trend.
What’s unique about the corporate culture at Urban Outfitters / Anthropologie?
Well there are dogs, we have a lot of dogs. I think we may have over 50 just in the Anthropologie building. The cat lovers might feel a little slighted, because we don’t allow cats, only dogs. I think pets add richness to your life and it makes people happy to bring their dogs to work with them. A lot of people here have dogs that wouldn’t ordinarily have them because they can bring them with them.
We also really value people – their individual contributions to the whole, their personalities, their talents, their quirks. I think a lot of companies say that, but I think at Urban Outfitters, the people who work here would say that, too. That’s unique.
It’s a fun company to work for, in both good and not so good times.
And what do you like about your new digs?
Having space cannot be underrated. Our previous office was a lovely and grand old home off Rittenhouse Square – cool but not too great for an ever expanding group. We had stuff stored in every nook and cranny – things got lost. At the Navy Yard, we have large buildings with few interior interruptions – SPACE! It’s a very open plan. The idea for the campus was to celebrate collaboration, so there are very few offices, very few closed spaces. It’s about working with your team and collaborating with other groups.
Our campus is a little isolated, which has positive and negatives, just like living in the city had positives and negatives.It’s great to have all this space and easy parking and all that, but I do have to say I kind of miss running out to shop at lunch. It’s not that far, but more than likely you’d have to drive and then you’d have to park. But there’s a gym, people can go for a run around the yard complex. People bike to work. There are bikes available to ride from building to building (some are farther away than others). It’s fantastic. And just having space can’t be underrated. I don’t know how we fit ourselves into our building.
The other thing that’s intriguing is that we have our own power plant, in one of our shared buildings, and thea gym on top of it. We create most of our own power. Another interesting fact – the way the navy works is that they number the buildings in the order in which they were built. We have buildings 10, 7, 12, 543 . . . . Building 543 has the power plant. The downside – the numbering system is independent of the building locations in the overall Yard complex, which doesn’t make much sense to visitors, so you are often flagged down by cabs and lost souls looking for building 49 or 62.
Maybe the people on the treadmill generate the power?
(laughs) Exactly. If that were the case, we might not have enough electricity.
You should sell replicas of those numbers in your store.
Yea, they’re nice.
What else is cool?
All the building’s had purposes. Anthropologie is in the woodworkers building, where, surprisingly, they worked with wood. In building 543 we have a room we call the acid bath, because that’s what it was when they used the building for shipbuilding.. And the koi ponds were forms they used to bend pipes around. We tried to keep as many interesting, utilitarian aspects of the buildings that we could and to effect them as lightly as possible. There are still tracks for the trains and carts running all through the campus.
Why wouldn’t you do that?
Keeping things as they were isn’t an easy proposition. You have to beware of old materials – do they meet current safety codes? Are the structures still sound, etc., its not impossible, just more time consuming at times, and can also be more costly.
But, you may be asking the wrong person why you wouldn’t tread lightly – we like to reuse if we can, we like the character and texture that age brings to a building, we like the history of a place.
Click here to read a terrific Metropolis article about Urban Outfitters corporate headquarters.
And click here if you are happy and you know it.