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Changing spaces

As the way consumers shop for food is evolving, so, too, is grocery store design

Alberta's Freson Bros. pulls out unique offerings to showcase in a curated station called Frank's Finds, named for Freson founder Frank Lovsin.

Alberta’s Freson Bros. pulls out unique offerings to showcase in a curated station called Frank’s Finds, named for Freson founder Frank Lovsin.

Whether they’re migrating to online grocery delivery and BOPIS (“buy online, pickup in store”), spending their food dollars at new competitors like UberEats or being more focused on the quality of their food and where it comes from, consumers’ shopping habits are changing, and the grocery store is having to adapt in many ways, including store design.

“We’ve had so many shifts. We’ve had technological shifts, we’ve had generational shifts, and we have a lot of outside players coming into the market that never were in the market before,” says Kevin Kelley, principal and co-founder of Shook Kelley, a retail strategy and design firm in Los Angeles. “So we’re going into [grocery stores] and saying look, the time to be conservative, the time to try to just get short game plays is just no longer. You really have to start throwing the long ball; you have to take some big chances.”

But when it comes to store design, what are the right “chances” to take? Canadian Grocer spoke with four innovative North American design firms to get their views on some of the biggest (and smartest) trends in grocery store design right now.

Making the store a hangout
“The biggest thing we’re trying to do is get all the social, hangout, let’s have fun, non-chore-related things up to the front of the store,” explains Kelley. “So we’re definitely trying to put bars, restaurants, patios, any kind of lifestyle element to the front of the store—that is a really big aspect for us—and we’re trying to create separate entrances to those features.”

Indeed, as online shopping and BOPIS become more popular, it’s increasingly important to create features that entice shoppers to the store—and that encourage them to linger. “The idea here is to keep them longer, because retailers know the longer the customer stays in that store, the more they’re going to buy,” says Jean-Pierre Lacroix, president of Shikatani Lacroix Design in Toronto.

While the “grocerant” concept has been around for years, it’s become a much more important part of grocery today. Stéphane Bernier, design studio director at Montreal’s Aedifica—which has won multiple awards for its design work on Quebec’s Avril Supermarché Santé chain—points out that when designing their first Avril store some 15 years ago, the dine-in section had about 20 seats. “Now, the latest store has 120 seats … and in the next store, the dining area will be even bigger. You can see where they’re putting their money and efforts, it’s a huge area of growth.”

READ: Natural wonder

The Corks Beer & Wine Bar at Longo's in Toronto's Liberty Village aims to entice shoppers to hang out and spend more time at the store.

The Corks Beer & Wine Bar at Longo’s in Toronto’s Liberty Village aims to entice shoppers to hang out and spend more time at the store.

But dine-in areas, restaurants and pubs aren’t the only elements aimed at keeping customers in the store longer; grocers are also putting greater emphasis on community-building features such as cooking classrooms and meeting rooms. Big players like Loblaw have had these for years, but they’re now becoming pervasive. While these features may have been viewed by retailers as a nice-to-have option in the past, Vince Guzzi, managing partner at Toronto-based Watt International, says “I do see that type of functionality within the role a grocery store plays in the local community as now moving to the forefront; being something that really inextricably becomes an important thing that satisfies the needs of the consumer.” Longo’s, a client of Watt, features its Loft Cooking School at a number of locations, but the Loft is not just a place for cooking classes—it’s also a spot for meetings, events and birthday parties. “It’s the old adage: ‘If you build it, they will come,’” says Guzzi.

The “seemingly impossibles”
“We have this thing that we do with every chain, if we can, where we believe innovation happens right at the edges of the constraints—whether it be the operator’s constraints, or an employee’s constraints, or a consumer’s limitations even … and we call them ‘seemingly impossibles,’” says Kelley.

He points to Harvest Market, a store owned by Niemann Foods in Illinois as an example. For Harvest Market, it was decided the overall philosophy of the store would focus on its connection to farms, the land and the local community. “When they asked us what’s a ‘seemingly impossible’ they could do, we came back to them and said, we’d like you to churn butter in the store. And they said, yeah, that is really impossible,” Kelley says, laughing. “But we said if we could do it, it would say so much to our customer about everything we do in the store. That’s generally what we find; if we can do one really exaggerated, over-the-top sticky memorable idea, it does so much.”

Kelley pays credit to the folks at Harvest Market who spent the next six months trying to figure out how to churn butter in the store, which was challenging “because it almost becomes a separate manufacturing facility, with the health department and everything.” But in the end, it worked; Harvest Market now has a butter churning station in the store. The feature has been so popular with customers they plan to incorporate it in future locations.

A unique offering or focal point doesn’t have to be as complicated as in-store butter churning; there are countless examples of innovative attractions grocers have installed to appeal to shoppers. When Watt International worked with Market 32 in New York state (a Price Chopper brand), they decided to install a Growler Bar where shoppers could bottle their own growler (jug) of beer. “It’s an experience,” says Michael Nussbacher, vice-president of business development at Watt. “It’s not just, ‘I’m going there to get my grapes and bananas;’ I’m also going to stop by and talk about which beer is the one I want to fill a jug with.” Watt’s Guzzi adds that this feature was chosen to appeal to the store’s shopper demographic: “This was also us recognizing there were more males as the primary grocery shopper here [than usual] in this particular market.”

There’s also the emerging trend of installing vertical farms or rooftop gardens in stores, where retailers can grow their own produce onsite. Avril Supermarché installed one of these inside its most recent store in Laval, Que. “It speaks to passion and authenticity and quality, but it’s also a way to start finding alternate ways of bridging the production of fresh goods and offering it onsite,” says Aedefica’s Bernier. It’s good for the environment, he says, as it reduces transport, energy use and waste; but in addition to those benefits, it also helps attract environmentally conscious consumers to the store for what the vertical farm represents.

Eataly's new Toronto location exemplifies the popular "food hall" design trend.

Eataly’s new Toronto location exemplifies the popular “food hall” design trend.

Food hall and market style
Every designer interviewed for this story mentioned Eataly and the “food hall” trend as being a major influence in store design. Aedifica’s Bernier calls it “the biggest trend in food right now,” noting that at Eataly, specifically, “a lot of people dine in there because it’s great food with a fun ambiance, but also you are exposed to a highly curated, sophisticated, high-quality product offering. And, it’s kind of bringing the European public market in a smaller scale into [a] retail format.”

READ: Eataly experience is a show with substance, exec says

Eataly and other gourmet food halls undoubtedly offer “experience” (in terms of dining in, hanging out, and being educated about products) but it’s also an example of the market-style design format that’s moving away from the traditional, wide linear aisles that have long been a staple in grocery design. And while Eataly Toronto may be a whopping 50,000 sq. ft., this design style could work in any size store, including small formats.

Lacroix believes marché-style stores— with stations and stands rather than aisles—are the way of the future. Guzzi agrees: “We’re moving away from pragmatic, traditional linear design, for lack of a better word, and moving more towards things that are more fluid.” The prototypical linear, aisles-centric design “was built for the convenience of grocery, it was never built for the convenience of humans. Humans don’t like aisles, we don’t like corridors, we don’t like alleys,” adds Kelley. “We [as designers] are really just trying to break centre store down as much as we can, and get rid of the aisles as much as we can.”

Generally, the traditional “centre store” is going through a period of flux. People are increasingly opting to purchase commodity-type products—think kitty litter, dog food, paper towels— online rather than schlepping it home from the store, says Kelley, but they still prefer to buy fresh items such as produce and meat at the store. “Centre store is most affected by this trend,” he notes. Lacroix concurs: “You’re going to see the centre of the store shrink when it comes to commodities, staples, dried goods, and this is going to leave room in the centre of the store for more fresh, unique offerings.”

Smaller stores, more frequent trips
“Probably my No. 1 request is, can you do a 10,000-sq.-ft. store for us?” says Kelley. Indeed, store sizes are shrinking and there are a number of reasons why. “In retail in general, the growth is in urban areas,” he explains. “But the big mainframe grocery stores don’t fit in these areas. And generally in these urban areas, people are living differently.

They’re either young and don’t have kids or they’re older and empty nesters, and they’re not using a full cart—so all of this has been radically changing.” Kelley says in the case of smaller-format urban stores, he typically suggests taking out the traditional centre store and turning the locations into fresh concepts instead. “I’d say every time we do a smaller store, the retailer fights us, doesn’t want to do this. And yet when they’re done, the sales are incredible.”

Going hand in hand with the smaller-sized store is the consumer’s tendency to shop more frequently with smaller baskets per shop—buying just enough food to get them through two or three days, rather than for a week or more. According to Bernier, this stems from several factors. “A lot of the younger generations are foregoing or delaying car ownership,” he says. “So they can’t go and buy 10 bags of groceries like before.” Many people are also trying to be less wasteful, he adds, and shopping for a just a few days at a time can result in less food waste. Also, the move away from plastic bags often means people are coming in and only buying what they can fit into their backpacks.

Pop-ups and flexibility
Guzzi says this pattern of more frequent store visits plays into another design trend, the “pop up,” which is making its way into grocery spaces. Nussbacher describes the concept as having different temporary merchandised sections that function like a store within a store.

“The desire to rotate things in and out in a greater frequency is going to continue to increase. It’s the whole Costco thing, right? Experience it today and get it today, because it might not be here next week,” adds Guzzi, noting this fits perfectly with a consumer base that’s shopping more frequently. It adds to the treasure hunt aspect, he says, “that desire to go and go now; that drive to get people into the store.”

Kelley points to a similar “treasure hunt” idea at Harvest Market where curated “modules” are set up (much like end caps) called Farm Finds, which also serve to connect shoppers to the overall mission of the brand. Here “you can find out about a small family farmer that has a certain type of eggs, or certain type of saddle soap, or certain type of bread,” he says. “Customers get really excited about these.” Shook Kelley implemented something similar at Alberta-based Freson Bros. called Frank’s Finds (named for Freson founder Frank Lovsin). “Those are just things that Frank Lovsin loves, and he’s like, ‘I think you’ll like this too.’ And he’s got a story for every kind of wacky product out there,” says Kelley.

Generally, when it comes to design or re-design, recent research (2019) from McKinsey & Company suggests that retailers take an “agile” approach; one that doesn’t wait the traditional three to five years for a complete store overhaul, but instead involves updating the store little bits at a time. This could be a smarter strategy for retailers to employ, considering how rapidly consumer shopping habits are evolving.

“Such an approach focuses on continually making one-off, high-impact changes rather than department-wide or storewide remodels,” explains the report titled The ever-changing store: Taking an agile, customer-centric approach to format redesign. “Indeed, retailers must adopt a mindset of ‘never being done’: format redesign should be an ongoing process of implementing solutions quickly and refining them constantly, with retailers keeping their fingers on the consumer pulse and adapting store formats to respond to evolving consumer needs.”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’February 2020 issue.

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