Changing food preferences and shopping habits are reshaping grocery stores.
By Kenneth W. Betz, Senior Editor
In the past, a typical grocery shopping experience was boring, even dreadful, and something to avoid or rush through, observed Deborah L. English, IIDA, CCID, founder and president, D L English Design, Pasadena, CA.
Today one may find a pop-up restaurant by your favorite local chef, a 250-seat full-service bar, a live band or DJ during Sunday brunch, wine tastings, or coffee baristas serving up nitro cold brew.
Consumer shopping preferences have experienced a major generational and cultural shift, English continued. “We are undergoing the socialization of just about everything, including the once-mundane trip to the supermarket. In consumer food environments, we see a shift in preference for grocery store experiences toward hybrid spaces that blend the lines of retail, food service, restaurants, and entertainment,” she said.
Many brick-and-mortar retailers face significant competitive challenges from online players, and retailers and architects are responding by creating enticing spaces that elevate the retail experience and invite shoppers to spend more time in the store, English added.
In addition, food selections offered by retailers have expanded greatly in the past two decades, according to Tom Henken, vice president, director of design, api(+), Tampa, FL.
“There is now a much wider selection of prepared, specialty, and international foods. In addition, the market is divided by large, low-price stores like Costco at one end of the spectrum and small, specialty stores like Trader Joe’s at the other end. These changes have forced traditional grocers to lower prices and increase product variety and quality to compete,” he said.
“Meal kit, restaurant, and grocery delivery are inspiring traditional brick-and-mortar stores to offer similar conveniences. This trend will continue to grow as the consumer adopts a hybrid method of food shopping both online and in-store, based on changing lifestyles and options,” Henken continued.
Fresh, natural, and organic are the preferences for many shoppers, especially Millennials, commented Joe Keene, vice president, mechanical engineering, Cuhaci & Peterson Architects Engineers Planners, Orlando, FL.
The products in the store have evolved as consumers have trended toward healthier eating and away from frozen foods, added Jason Longbrake, program manager and grocery SME, ms consultants Inc., Columbus, OH.
Tom Phillips, owner, Phillips Enterprises Inc., Langley, WA, confirmed the healthy-eating trend. “Today’s shopping patterns are really, really geared to healthy eating. Not necessarily organic healthy eating, but just healthy eating. We’re finding that perimeter departments in our grocery stores—fresh foods, produce, delis, and meats and fish—are high-priority areas, with the major lines of hard goods being less of an item,” he said.
Phillips related that his firm has designed food stores geared to healthy eating on the ground floors of student housing complexes at Washington State Univ. and the Univ. of Washington. “Sounds kind of crazy, but instead of drinking beer, [students are] actually shopping for groceries and cooking their meals,” he said.
In addition, “the shopper today is shopping more European style, which means shopping for each meal each day. They’re looking more at how to assemble that meal. They’re buying the main entrees, and they want specialty entrees. They want more of a healthy-choice type product,” Phillips noted.
John Youger, senior director, strategy & insights, WD Partners, Columbus, OH, agreed that stock-up trips, the life-blood of most grocery stores, have been under assault in recent years. “This burden is exacerbated by the increase in food preferences from gluten free, vegan diets, etc. These smaller trips, coupled with varied food preferences across shopper types, make it challenging for grocery chains to serve everyone. The future challenge of grocery stores will be: who do you focus on as your core customer? Will this customer want to come to your store or will they expect services that allow them to buy online and pick up in store (BOPIS) or will they expect these items to be delivered to their home?” he asked.
Not all food venues are megamarkets such as the Walmarts or the Meijers, either. Tom Phillips thinks there is still a place for smaller stores. “Smaller stores can provide more personal customer service, and they can actually get fresher product, but the biggest thing that we’re finding is the independent grocery operator can make changes at the snap of a finger, unlike a large chain. If that client doesn’t like something or they want something different, they can virtually get it done that day or the next day. Frankly, most of our stores are in the 18,000 to 25,000-sq.-ft. range, which makes them a whole lot more manageable,” he said.
Store layout and design
Store designers have responded to intense competitive pressure on food retailers and evolved shopper habits with layouts that offer more convenience, Tom Henken of api(+) observed. Some stores are shrinking and taking a curated approach to merchandise based on consumer demographics. Designers are working to heighten the shopping experience, providing a sense of theater and engaging guests in ways that cannot be duplicated at home on the Internet. Some ways stores can do this is by exposing prep areas and creating demonstration and educational stations, he explained.
“As consumers have trended toward healthy eating, store layouts have had to evolve as well,” said ms consultants’ Longbrake. “Oversized freezers are now the dinosaurs of the grocery world. The trend from frozen to fresh has resulted in grocers reducing their frozen selections up to 50%.”
“The produce selection has moved to the front of the store in nearly every grocery in the country. Flowers and bakeries are also taking center stage, focusing on the importance of the sensory experience. The core staples of the grocery world, like milk and eggs, still find themselves at the rear of most stores, drawing consumers through the heart of the store. But even this fundamental of the grocery layout has been challenged as grocers providing more quick-trip options at the front of the store,” Longbrake commented.
“A number of larger-scale grocers now have small areas at the front of their stores for the quick run to the store to pick up a gallon of milk or carton of eggs,” he noted.
The basic premise is still the same but it has modified a little based on smaller trips. agreed WD Partners’ John Youger. “The shopper is focusing on specific categories instead of the whole store, so the store has to be efficient in these areas to maximize their basket. Groceries have to determine what makes them unique and different to provide the shopper a clear reason to come to the store from the start. The layout will need to elevate and showcase these areas; this will boost sales,” he asserted.
“We’re finding that perimeter departments in our grocery stores—fresh foods, produce, delis, and meats and fish—are high-priority areas, with the major lines of hard goods being less of an item,” Tom Phillips of Phillips Enterprises concurred.
“There continues to be increased focus on the perimeter departments where fresh foods and freshly prepared meals live, thus connecting the entire retail space with compelling food experiences placed along the way,” Deborah English agreed. “Square footage traditionally dedicated to center-store is being edited down. The rigid linear approach to store layout is being reshaped to create a more dynamic, interesting configuration. Retailers are successfully integrating restaurants, pop-ups, and bars into their spaces to generate sales and increase foot traffic,” she said
Several years ago, at an FMI (Food Marketing Institute, Arlington, VA) conference, a presentation was given on laying out a store on a grouping format—for example, grouping all sandwich items into the same area: breads, sandwich spreads, peanut butter, jelly, lunch meats, etc., according to Joe Keene of Cuhaci & Peterson. To his knowledge, no grocer has implemented this format, he added.
Aside from store layout, or perhaps in tandem with it, the design philosophy driving food retailing has evolved.
Tom Henken of api(+) noted that “savvy retailers are strategic about their brand and understand that it is so much more than a logo and tagline. Your brand is the entire set of experiences that shape guests opinions and motivate loyalty. These retailers are positioning their environments with a deep understanding of the psychographic DNA of their core customer. The days of ‘all things to all people’ retail design are numbered. Focused design solutions are necessary for specialty stores. Supermarkets are beginning to follow suit, understanding that they need to have a similar but broader approach to their store design. Differentiation in the marketplace is critical when competition is as fierce as it is today. A brand-strategy-based store design team will articulate and emphasize your strongest points of difference to help you compete.”
Deborah English has seen changes as well. “Throughout our 20 years of food retail design we have seen a major shift from the ‘get them in/get them out fast’ approach of the traditional supermarket philosophy toward the inclusion of experiential spaces within the market. Grocery stores have now become places for social gratification and engagement. We design a wide range of food retail spaces that offer boutique experiences within larger supermarkets. Restaurants, bars, pop-ups, coffee shops, and cafés become distinct destinations within the grocery store. These boutique environments defy the stereotype of what’s included in a traditional supermarket by integrating social and hospitality elements,” she said.
“The key is specialization and understanding your consumer,” according to ms consultants’ Jason Longbrake. “The specialization comes in once you dive past the fundamentals of a successful grocery store. What is the market? Urban, suburban, rural? Large ethnic or cultural population groups? What are your demographics?” he asked.
“Stores must be designed to be able to quickly evolve. Static elements like underground refrigeration chases and drop ceilings are a thing of the past. Open ceilings are now the norm, allowing for much quicker reworking of refrigeration lines, electric, and signage,” he said.
John Youger concedes there will be differences of opinion about focus. “The default answer will typically start with ‘experience,’ but I think you have to dig a little deeper, and I personally believe this would be to focus on trips. What are the trips that you want to win? Couples night out? Gluten-free food preferences? Once you determine this, you can start to focus on the experience you want to create that brings all of those together,” he said.
More than a place to buy food
Many grocery shoppers are looking for more than just packaged edibles. “Grocerant is a term the industry is using to describe the mash-up of grocery stores and restaurants,” according the Henken. “Many stores are adding restaurants as a direct response to consumer’s evolved lifestyles in our multi-channel economy. Grocers are strategically expanding beyond traditional products and services to differentiate products and services from their competition. Signature hero products and services are being emphasized throughout the shopping occasion,” he said.
Jason Longbrake agreed: “Grocery stores have become more than just a place to stock up on food for the week. Along with in-store dining and entertainment, grocers partner with retail banks, coffee shops, pharmacies, and other conveniences. These additional offerings give consumers more reasons to go to the grocery store with the added convenience of a one-stop-shop. These additional services also give the grocers an opportunity to sell higher markup goods and services. The in-store dining and take-and-bake type meals are essential additions to large grocers who are catering to consumers who are busier than ever.”
Youger related that the one big takeaway from a project that catered to Hispanic shoppers was the idea of the whole family experiencing the store. “The families were making an afternoon of going to the store with entertainment, dining, etc., creating multiple events for the whole family to experience and enjoy. Ironically, this flies counter to the ‘convenience’ word that keeps getting mentioned. My thinking is that if you believe that online shopping will own more of the center store —basic items—then what will you own? It had better be unique,” he said.
“Unfortunately most grocery chains have stayed so focused on the functional side of things—stack it high and let it fly— that they are not keeping an eye out on what will really change them, Youger continued. “Store experience has been routinely defined as wider, cleaner aisles; better and easier parking; and quicker checkout. New technologies in the next five years will radically reshape these expectations and experiences. Amazon Go-type checkouts will eliminate a constant frustration point. Shopper experience will be described by not only in-store but also out-of-store tactics.”
“It is critical for grocers to understand the consumer, both in demographics and brand perception. Understanding this consumer helps shape an ideal shopping experience,” Longbrake said.
Lighting and equipment
One of the factors influencing the creation of the shopping experience, aside from the physical layout, is lighting. The wide availability of LED lighting products has had a significant impact on the look of modern supermarkets, not to mention the energy bottom line.
“Lighting in most traditional grocery stores has been the same for six decades because fluorescents were the most efficient way to light the cavernous aisles and voluminous spaces common of grocery stores of the past,” api(+)’s Henken said.
“The LED lighting revolution has allowed designers to expand variety and quality of lighting throughout the store. It creates broad, efficient coverage while allowing pinpointed and other unique lighting techniques to highlight architecture, merchandise, displays, textures, and signage. LEDs greatly reduce energy consumption and heat load throughout stores,” he added.
“Lighting is the highest order of magnitude for us, as it can affect the consumer experience directly in ways other efficiency elements cannot,” English said. “In our opinion and experience, the best lighting is always natural. We aggressively incorporate natural lighting into our projects whenever and however it makes sense to the space, client, and budget. In addition, LED lighting has come a very long way since its introduction into the marketplace. The quality of LED lighting is constantly improving and advancing energy efficiency along its evolutionary path.”
Indeed, for businesses such as food retailers, that operate on slim margins, energy efficiency is a prime concern. “Mechanical (cooling and refrigeration) efficiency is improving rapidly but continues to be one of the highest single operational costs.” according to Tom Henken.
“Fixture-level innovations help with energy use as well,” he continued. “Retailers are implementing solutions like easy-access, full-view refrigerated and frozen case doors and doors in non-traditional areas like beer and produce to reduce energy loss. Asymmetrical vestibules help contain HVAC loss and higher levels of insulation are often implemented to combat overall building energy loss,” Henken said.
“Temperature and humidity are major HVAC issues and are being addressed with specialized HVAC equipment specially designed for grocery stores,” Joe Keene agreed. “Refrigeration systems are more efficient than in the past. Grocers are starting to put doors on cases to conserve energy. Building controls are integrated to control not only the building temperature but the lights, refrigerated-case temperatures, refrigerated-case lighting, water consumption, among other systems”
Consumers also shift toward brands they can believe in, ms consultants’ Longbrake said. “Not only does energy efficiency play a role in the bottom line, but grocers are more transparent about focusing toward sustainable efforts.”
“Today’s customer seeks brands that uphold sustainability and energy efficiency responsibly. We encourage our clients toward sustainable and earth-friendly solutions as a core part of our design ethos,” Deborah English added.
Food shopping today offers more variety and enjoyment than in days past. Shoppers expect it, and retailers must identify the specific desires and preferences of their clientele to remain successful. It’s clear, too, that food stores have not stopped evolving. What automation and big data will add to the mix may well be the next big thing in food retailing.
Hyper Shopping Made Convenient And Practical
The challenge with the Soriana Miyana hypermarket in Mexico was to make a large-format superstore experiential, with a sense of discovery and surprise, while at the same time appearing convenient, practical, and easy to shop. D L English Design, Pasadena, CA, started by creating two distinct entrances. Architectural elements, such as lighting, ceiling heights, flooring, and landmarks, mark the beginning of the shopping experience at each entrance. The first entrance is focused on fresh-food offerings, where customers are welcomed by the floral, juicing, and produce departments strategically located adjacent to the food hall. The second entrance focuses upon general merchandise, where customers are greeted by the electronics department adjacent to the pharmacy/optic section and beauty studio. The activation of both entrances was key to the success of the layout, which connects with a big loop through to the back of the store.
Adjacencies were carefully planned throughout the store to ease the transitions between departments and activate the general-merchandise portion of the store. For example, a grill center was created to transition between the meat department and general merchandise in the back. The baby, sports, and children’s apparel departments are clustered together, and hardware and men’s apparel are in close visual proximity to one another.
The use of ceilings and soffits at different heights, with a variety of lighting, is a common element in D L English’s projects that helps increase or decrease the scale of venues within the overall space depending on the size and relevance of the department. For instance, in Soriana Miyana, the soffit at kosher meats is taller than the one over the main meat department. The soffit at entertainment/electronics is lower and more intimate. A series of lit structures creates a distinct sense of space over the beauty department. Pharmacy/optics and the over-the-counter departments also live under the same lower soffit to create a more intimate and private feeling for customers.