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Shop front
June/July 2011

Retailing tips

Does your shop front attract or distract?

As a retailer, your shop front is the face you present to the world, the first impression you make with customers, the final advertising and branding to passing customers and the easiest way to draw attention away from your competitors. Successful retailers place a huge emphasis on the importance of their shop front and spend a meaningful amount of their store fit-out capital on this. NELLE DU TOIT highlights the key elements of a shop front and the respective aesthetic and functional value of these elements

Whether intentional or not, your shop front may already send a strong message to passers-by and potential customers that may contribute to their perception of your store before they have even set foot inside.

Understanding the value of the traditional elements of a shop front, and altering it to suit the style and image of your store, can enhance your visual presence and trading success.

A shop front faces a dual challenge as it must attract attention and customers through the door while, also blending with the surrounding building to create a harmonious atmosphere.

The shop front, advertisement, signage, canopies, external lighting, shop security measures and access facilities are all elements, which if well designed, can help promote a confident image of the shop. It can also make positive contributions to the character and trading success of the street, shopping centre or building in which it is located.

According to a research project by arcitectural students at the University of Pretoria there are no set guidelines for shop fronts in specific districts within SA — the architect and client (shopping mall or building owner) will set up a manual with regulations and guidelines for the interior retail and shop front design. A smart landlord could offer a partial contribution to a new shop front as a lease incentive, as s/he will understand that a shop front upgrade will keep the building looking fresh. This would enhance economic interest and will defer the need to refurbish the mall or building at their own expense.

“The Canal Walk Design Guidelines forms the backbone for adjudicating tenant store designs and ensures a minimum standard,” says Vanessa Herbst of Canal Walk Shopping Centre in Cape Town. “This includes all aspects of the design and importantly includes shop front design that is critical in a Super Regional Centre.”

The criteria stipulates minimum heights, materials and critical signage that forms an integral part of the shop front as a whole.

Planning permission is required for any material changes in the external appearance of a shop, including the removal or replacement of any architectural features, shop front fixtures, advertisements and signage. General repair works and routine maintenance work that do not change the external appearance of a shop front do not require planning permission.

Experience has shown that the most successful modern or contemporary designed shop fronts are based on the reworking and re-interpretation of traditional forms and the introduction of new elements and materials. The principle of providing a clear division between neighbouring shop fronts and visual support for the rest of the building still applies in modern designed shop fronts.

Good design, whether modern or traditional, recognizes the importance of the various elements of the shop front and integrates the aspirations of the shop owner, whilst enhancing the building, street scene and retail operation.

Bad design can be a consequence of cheap materials, bad workmanship and lack of thought. But more often, bad design is due to lack of understanding of the value and importance of the elements that form original shop fronts to make them a visually cohesive part of the building.

Elements of traditional shop fronts:

The fascia is the area where the shop’s name is located. In a traditional design it is normally positioned between the console bracket or capital of the pilaster, which is positioned at either end of the fascia. Fascia depth (from the cornice to the top of the window) generally should not exceed 1/5th of the total shop front height. In traditional shop fronts the depth of the fascia is quite small and the potential for elegance and verticality is further exploited by running the windows high up to the underside of a narrow fascia band.

The architrave forms the lower edge of the fascia and is formed of a simpler horizontal moulding than the cornice. A cornice provides a horizontal line between the shop front and the upper floors, or rest of the building, and provides weather protection to an outside shop.

Pilasters provide vertical framing to the shop front and establish physical separations between adjoining shop fronts. They provide support to the cornice and encloses the fascia. Traditionally, pilasters are made up of three elements — the plinth at the base, a column the height of the shop window and a console bracket or capital at the top that is usually in line with the fascia. The corbel or console brackets support the cornice and are usually present at the top of the pilasters.

The stallriser provides a solid base to the shop front and could allow the shop to display its goods at waist height, while screening unattractive floor areas. It also helps protect the bottom of the shop from knocks, kicks and splashes, helps to create a horizontal link with adjoining buildings and can be reinforced to increase security provision.

Materials used to construct the stallriser should always respect and enhance the materials of the whole building and the shop front. As a general guide the stallriser should not exceed 1/5th of the overall shop front height and should not project in front of any pilasters or the shop front opening.

The size and style of the window(s) and glazing bars, mullions and transoms, should reflect the character of the building and street. Designers agree that the visual proportions of the window glazing can be improved if it has a vertical emphasis (i.e. the panes of glass are taller than they are wide) which can be achieved by dividing the window vertically with mullions.

In addition to this, a transom rail can be added across the upper part of the mullion to form clerestory lights (rows of windows above eye level that allow light into a space). Transom rails are typically in line with the top of the doorway.

In the case of a multiple story building, the number and location of mullions should ideally reflect existing vertical divisions on the upper floors. This will assist in providing visual support for the upper levels, whilst providing a solid structural element at ground level.

In the same way that the size and shape of windows affect good design and can enhance trade, window displays can become a powerful drawing card in reeling potential customers and passers-by into the shop.

The article on window displays will focus on display tips that will form a positive image in the customer’s mind.

Recessed doorways are commonly used in traditional, and older, shops and allow for an increased window area and a larger display area. If the entrance can’t be level with the pavement, a non-slip ramp should be provided for people with limited mobility, including elderly people and shoppers with pushchairs.

The pattern, colour and texture of the flooring material at the entrance to the shop should ideally complement the overall shop front and provide an attractive link between the interior and the street/walkway.

The main purpose of a blind or canopy is to protect shop goods from damage caused by sunlight and provide rain protection to the front of the shop. Planning permission is generally required before the installation of a blind, canopy or marquee, as many see this as an opportunity to increase store branding, which can be considered undesirable in some instances.

Security measures should be considered in full during the initial design stages, and not as an afterthought. It should ensure that a balance between addressing a shop’s security and the wider environmental and public interests is achieved. Surveillance measures that do not affect the overall appearance of the shop front is the most desired form of security. Security measures will be covered in full in a future issue of Sports Trader.

The number of different materials and colours used for the shop front must be kept to a minimum in order to avoid a clash with the adjoining buildings and the character of the street or building. Beware of materials that are described as maintenance free as this may mean that when they wear out, they cannot be repaired and have to be replaced.


The purpose of a shop front sign is to clearly attract attention and advertise essential information like the shop’s name, type of business, the building’s street number and, if needed, the shop’s address details.

The size, location, colour, design, style of lettering and how it is illuminated can not only greatly enhance the appearance of a shop and character of the building, but can also increase and influence a shop’s trading success. Hanging and projecting signs are normally used to help identify a shop from a longer distance and is usually situated between the architrave and cornice of the fascia.

“We restrict the number of signs on shop fronts — each case is looked at on its merits i.e. length of shopfronts, aesthetics, etc. —and our architects are involved in vetting this process,” says Sharon Swain of Sandton City Shopping Centre.

Most illuminated signs will require an application for advertisement consent.


The use of individual internally illuminated letters might be considered less intrusive than a box sign in some locations. Internally illuminated box signs, however, will always require advertisement consent. Carefully illuminated displays using spotlights rather than bare fluorescent tubes generally have the most impact.

Lighting, during the day or night time, forms an integral part of the overall look of your store. It can set a focal point within window displays, highlight store features such as store names etc and provide added security in the street at night.

Using these elements to enhance the image and functionality of your shop front can have an immense impact on trade and the sense of security within the environment.

Building guidelines are not set up to stifle creativity or prohibit stores to conform to a set style, but rather to provide guidance through tried and tested methods of store front design. As long as the shop front is adding to the overall appearance of the building it is situated in, and not distracting from it, it can be considered a good design that can be presented for planning permission.

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