Designing the Customer Experience | by Caroline Busch

Based in Montréal, Ruscio Studio is an award-winning full-service design firm that specializes in commercial interiors for retail and hospitality clients. Over the years, their portfolio has grown to include a wide range of projects within the sector, from mall renovations and kiosks to boutiques, bars, hotels, and restaurants. Since it was founded in 2002, the firm has completed projects for many notable clients such as Michael Kors, Nike, Starbucks, and more.

We spoke with Robert Ruscio – Principal and Owner of Ruscio Studio and lead designer behind the Garden City Shopping Centre in Winnipeg, MB – about the changing landscape of retail, winning the 2020 Ceramics of Italy Tile Competition, and his philosophy about the role design has to play in creating an unforgettable customer experience.



Your team has completed a number of impressive, award-winning projects throughout the years. Is there a common thread that ties them all together?

There are no two retailers alike. Each one has its own special recipe, and that’s what makes it interesting. However, if I had to highlight certain common traits, I would say they all: strive for excellence; are considered a category leader; are constantly evolving; always remain relevant to their customers and true to their core values; and offer unique, experiential store environments.



With the rise of e-commerce and new digital technologies, the retail industry is changing rapidly. What role can good design play in creating a memorable customer experience?

E-commerce has been steadily increasing over the past decade, and has now ripened into a looming threat to conventional brick-and-mortar businesses. The actual fact, though, is that it is not a competition, but rather a complimentary component to the retail industry. I kind of see it in the same way as when the microwave was first introduced to our kitchens in the 80’s. It did not replace the stove! We eventually recognized its advantages and disadvantages while we integrated this new appliance into our daily functions. For example, microwave popcorn is good, while microwave pizza is bad!

As for creating memorable customer experiences, design is key. The physical store is a touch point where customers are able to meet and interact with the brand. It’s where they will discover or build relationships with the brand. It’s like entering the brand’s home – you learn about its beliefs, its musical preferences, how it celebrates the seasons, etc. The same way you invite guests over to your home is the way a store should welcome its shoppers.



Your project, Garden City Shopping Centre in Winnipeg, MB, won the 2020 Tile Competition in the Commercial category. Can you walk us through some of the design goals for this project?

Our approach was to develop a sleek, contemporary design that also played upon the name ‘Garden.’ This concept was successfully executed by introducing a variety of geometric floral patterns, Canadian oak wood, unique and distinctive modern lounge areas, and geometrically-shaped wooden pendant lights clustered in combinations of different sizes and finishes, which can be found throughout the mall.

However, the one element that ties all this together is the porcelain floor tile, which is the perfect neutral, warm tone evoking an impressive natural and rich finish. It makes a great setting for a lively garden-inspired mall design. While the field tile is made up of various tile sizes, the lack of colored stripes, borders, and decorative or distracting motifs throughout the entire common area makes the entire mall seem to have become wider and less cluttered. The only pattern is located in the center court, and it’s a giant gradient clash of the same field tile, but in different tones. This borderless pattern allows flexibility to reconfigure the center court for various events and holidays, without being limited by the floor design.

We broke free from the mold when it came to tile selection in the bathrooms, as well. We picked unexpected, bold 3D-patterned wall tiles for both the men’s and women’s WC, each with their own tonality.

The end result is a revitalized, warm and inviting space that better serves the needs of the local community. The success of the renovation was felt immediately, with mall traffic increasing by an impressive 22%. The modernized design is also now being applied to the newly-redeveloped 92,000 sq.ft. space formerly occupied by Sears. The owners are very proud of their newly-renovated property, confidently knowing that its beauty will stand the test of time.



How does Italian ceramic tile contribute towards achieving these goals?

When it comes to mall design, renovations usually have a very long life cycle. They are not limited to a 5 year lease. They can go for over 20 years before seeing a renovation, and depending on budgets, sometimes the floor tiles may not even be listed as an item to replace. All this meant that we needed a product that would stand the test of time – both in durability and aesthetics. The floor tiles needed to be able to withstand the wear and tear of daily traffic, and to age gracefully over time. This choice was so important, it became the first design element we sought out. Our inspiration led us to a tile collection produced in Italy. With this material, we managed to practically export a little piece of natural beauty from Italy all the way to Winnipeg, Canada.

How do we know that we selected the right product? Well, for one, most people who look at the finished installation mistake the porcelain tile floor for an actual stone finish! Another, more personal reason, is that every time I look at the final result, a voice in my head says, “Wow, che bello!”


Did you encounter any challenges throughout the design process? If so, how did you overcome them?

Fortunately we didn’t experience too many challenges, but what is noteworthy to mention is that the floor tile was approved by the client committee immediately when they saw the first mock-up. Now, how often does that happen? It was love at first sight!


Watch the video interview!

September 2020