In the supercompetitive 1990s, store design is giving many retailers a much-needed competitive edge.
Design and layout that enhance the shopping experience and highlight specialty departments increasingly can make the difference in where shoppers choose to buy their groceries, retailers and industry consultants said.
"Does store design contribute to a store's success or failure? It's certainly a consideration. If, in a marketplace, all
other things are equal -- price, variety and location, for example -- then the right store design could produce a competitive edge," said Cliff Sasfy, director of real estate at Seaway Food Town, Maumee, Ohio, and chairman of the Food Marketing Institute's retail store development committee.
"From a design standpoint, I think that we are challenged to find out how to make supermarket shopping a better experience," Sasfy said.
Other retailers agreed. The shopping environment, determined in large part by a store's layout and design, must be pleasing and attractive to today's customers. It is also crucial for carving out specific identities for individual chains.
"Ambience is important. We want to create a friendly environment so the customer feels comfortable and relaxed rather than harried and pushed," said Bernard Rogan, corporate public relations director at Shaw's Supermarkets, East Bridgewater, Mass. "We want the customer to identify that kind of environment with Shaw's."
Joel Barton, merchandising and marketing manager at Raley's, West Sacramento, Calif., said: "We like clean, bright decor that is pleasant, not overbearing. We don't want shopping to create a lot of stress with gaudy, loud, bright colors. We want to portray our image as professional and quality-oriented."
Design and layout "is absolutely essential as far as Raley's is concerned. We have to identify what a store needs for its demographic mix and make sure we have a point of difference against competitors. Layout, lighting, fixtures -- it all plays a part in the message we try to get across," Barton said.
But John Runyan, senior vice president of retail concepts at Fleming Cos., Oklahoma City, stressed that store design, to be successful, must proceed in logical order. Too often, retailers design the building for a new store, then decide how to lay out the interior.
"It is imperative to do both consumer and demographic research, then design the inside of the store, then build the box around it," Runyan said.
A New Partnership
Today, one of the big issues involved in store design is simply merchandising. Store design and merchandising increasingly must be close partners in attracting and keeping customers.
At Raley's, for example, when stores are built or remodeled, merchandising plays a major role in determining store design.
"To me, merchandising and store design are almost the same thing," Barton said. Knowing what products customers want to buy, then creating the best environment in which to sell those products, is what sets Raley's apart from club stores and mass merchandisers, he said.
"It's our niche. It helps us battle up against the invasion of new formats," he said.
"We look at the store's customer demographics -- income, children per household, that kind of information. We listen when customers talk, and customers talk two ways: with their purchases [tracked by point-of-sale systems] and with their comments.
"We match up the categories and departments that will excel in that store," and design a store and its fixtures to accommodate those categories and departments, Barton said. "We identify the core categories for a particular marketing area and absolutely make them focal points in store design."
The Boutique Technique
Of all the layout and design trends now shaping the way supermarkets look and feel to the shopper, the concept of including a large number of specialty shops, or "multiboutique-ing," as one design consultant calls it, is the most striking.
"The emphasis today [in the boutique area] is not necessarily just on perishables, but on numerous services," said Tom Huff, partner at CIP International Design Group, Cincinnati. CIP's clients include include Delchamps, Loblaw Cos., Winn-Dixie, Penn Traffic, Supervalu and Kroger. "Our function is to guide the customer to profit centers of the store," he said.
Such profit centers today include soup, salad and dessert bars; restaurants; flower shops; walk-in beer coolers; wine departments; seafood; deli; sit-down snack bars; scratch bakeries; "wall of values" and "club-buster specials" aisles; video departments; dry-cleaning services, and multifunctional customer-service areas for handling hunting and fishing licenses, mail, fax and packaging service.
Moreover, the key is to scatter such departments throughout the store rather than in one area. That, at least, is an approach being taken at Raley's.
Raley's has gotten away from the "power alley" concept, where key focal departments are lined up for maximum impact, Barton said. "We found some shoppers don't prefer that layout. We like to circulate those departments throughout the store, so people can browse."
Shaw's Rogan cited a similar emphasis. "In today's competitive marketplace, where everyone is in a hurry, the one-stop-shopping concept is being played out to a greater degree than in the past. We plan to have a full-service bank branch staffed seven days a week in our North Windham, Maine, store. It will be the state's only seven-day bank."
Store Size Staying the Same
While the number of specialty boutique sections in supermarkets grows, though, one thing that isn't increasing much is store size.
"The supercenters are big, but aside from that format, most new prototypes seem to be getting no larger than they have been," said Aaron Arradondo, vice president of Howard L. Green & Associates, a research and consulting firm based in Troy, Mich.
Raley's prototype store size -- 55,000 to 65,000 square feet -- has not changed for more than five years, said Ed Estberg, director of facilities.
CIP's Huff said stores he has designed recently have 45,000 to 60,000 square feet of selling area.
Seaway Food Town's Sasby said he believes conventional stores have remained the same size for the last few years. "Some companies are building 60,000- to 75,000-square-foot conventional stores, but others have found themselves very happy between 42,000 and 45,000 square feet," he said.
Seaway has two prototype sizes -- 55,000 square feet and 42,000 to 44,000 square feet. Both have the same departments, including food courts; the larger format has expanded varieties in each department and offers more nonfood.
Sasby said that while some shoppers prefer the huge, one-stop stores, others would rather get their shopping done quickly in a smaller store.