Watch out! Dangerous curves may be lurking ahead in the arena of new technologies and philosophies being used in store design.
Food retailers, including Fresh Brands, Sheboygan, Wis.; Kash 'n' Karry, Tampa, Fla.; and Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., have all recently opened up stores featuring a nontraditional round design.
What is the thinking behind this deviation from the traditional everything-at-a-right-angle store?
"Store design is a way to tell customers what to expect in terms of service and selection," said Chuck Cerankosky, managing director, McDonald Investments, Cleveland.
"The idea is to highlight the quality of the product with decor that speaks to an upscale shopping experience," Cerankosky said.
Industry observers are now experimenting with nontraditional store design as a means of accomplishing this.
"Circular forms are used to set stores apart from the traditional rectangular, rectilinear supermarket layout," said Fernando Williams, founder and director of Miami-based consultants and designers the Exhibium Group.
In August, Fresh Brands opened a store-in-the-round Piggly Wiggly near its headquarters (see SN Aug. 20).
"The entire store, as well as each department, is circular," said Michael Houser, Fresh Brands vice chairman and executive vice president/chief marketing officer.
Last month, Fresh Brands announced plans to proceed with the construction of a Piggly Wiggly similar to the rounded-designed one in Sheboygan to be built in Kenosha, Wis.
Store officials said that store will open sometime late next summer.
A new Food Lion in Concord, N.C., opened just this past month, features the new round design as well.
Kash 'n' Karry, a division of Food Lion, has operated a curved-front store prototype in Clermont, Fla., near Orlando, since November 1999.
"The store has a round front, but there are no departments that are laid out in the round," said Kyle Mitchell, vice president of construction and engineering for Food Lion and Kash 'n' Karry.
"In the front half of the store, produce, deli, and bakery are laid out in a semi-circular fashion," Mitchell said.
Following the opening of the Clermont store, Kash 'n' Karry has opened 7 more featuring the semi-circular fronts. All of these stores are in Florida.
Karla Krueger, store designer for Fresh Brands, explained what that retailer was aiming for.
"We took away the feeling of being inside a big concrete box by removing the traditional style of right-angled walls and a flat roof," Krueger said.
"Instead we were inspired by natural shapes," she added.
Williams said the shape goes a long way toward making the shopping experience different for the customer.
"That's one way of really altering the layout and making it a more exciting experience for the customer," said Williams.
The excitement can extend outside the store, others said.
"We wanted customers to be hit with a fresh appearance when they got out of their cars in the parking lot, as well as when they walked into the store," Mitchell said.
"Kash 'n' Karry has quite a reputation for its fresh product, and these stores have a fresh, architectural look," she added.
This look extends to the checkout stands, which also follow the store curve, Mitchell said.
The Food Lion in Concord, N.C., arrays its stalls in a roomy, semicircular fan.
"I think people are going to be more at ease when paying," said Juan Romero, president of designer ArchitecturePlus International, Tampa, Fla., in a prepared statement about the new Food Lion store he designed.
"We want people to have as nice of an experience at the end of the trip as they did shopping," he added.
Such layouts, though, can have drawbacks for some.
Supermarket architect David Yehuda, president of DY Designs, Kings Point, N.Y., recalled a radial checkout he designed several years ago for a store in Brooklyn, N.Y.
"It looked exciting -- anything out of the ordinary creates excitement. But, in reality, it's not the best solution for an inner-city store in New York," Yehuda said. "A radial or circular design is not efficient."
The importance of this efficiency varies with store size.
"There's always a struggle between being creative and trying to fit more items into the shelves, but in a big store it doesn't take much to be creative," said Yehuda.
"Since you have so much room, if you go with circles it's not going to be wasted -- there's more traffic and more justification for being creative."
The 60,000-square-foot Piggly Wiggly had few design challenges, Houser said.
"We had to take into account areas that might normally be impacted, like issues of backroom space," Houser explained.
Little was required even in terms of special equipment and fixtures, he added.
"As long as you make the circles wide enough, you can fairly well accommodate standard fixtures," Houser said.
Efficiency may vary less with store design, however.
"I don't think store shape affects efficiency as much," said Cerankosky.
"If a retailer has enough room at the loading dock, is properly ordering merchandise and has a good logistics system, efficiency should be well served," he explained.
Cerankosky, who visited the Piggly Wiggly store, called it eye-catching and easy to navigate, with a nice, natural flow.
"You definitely feel a separation of the various departments," Cerankosky said.
"Our design goal was to give each department its own identity, to be a store-within-a-store," said Wayne Wiertzema, Fresh Brands vice president, store engineering/real estate, in a prepared statement.
Round forms aren't limited to the store floor, though.
"There are 12 natural lighting domes in the store, each a little different in size depending on the size of the department," said Houser. "The one over the grocery department is 60 feet across."
This feature, at least, is more widespread in the industry.
"We're definitely seeing a lot more skylights showing up in remodels and new stores because of the energy-saving aspect," said Cerankosky.
But there can be a trade-off for reduced lighting costs.
"It's much more difficult to control the temperature and climate," said Williams.
"If it's a very bright and sunny day you're going to be generating more heat through the skylight, and therefore you have more air-conditioning expense," Williams added.
There is also a visual cost, Williams said.
"You'll be casting and creating shadows on some parts of your store; some will be over-lit and some will be under-lit."
Additionally, there's the "delicate issue," Yehuda said, of direct sunlight harming some products.
Still, there are ways of counteracting this.
"We use a filtered, frosted glass so we don't have to worry about the lighting being too hot," said Houser.
Both chains, meanwhile, have already deemed the designs successful.
"Customer reaction has really been terrific, and the store has certainly exceeded our expectations," Houser said. "We've announced plans for a store just like it in Kenosha, Wis."
Kash 'n' Karry, which has already opened several more stores with the new architecture, is "very happy with the design," said Mitchell.
"We feel like we pulled off our objectives with it, and customers have been very positive," he added.
So is this the start of a trend?
"Retailers are constantly looking for ways to differentiate themselves," said Cerankosky. "Perhaps now we're going to see more retailers looking at store shapes as a way to do that."