Universal fixtures have emerged on the food retailing scene to score a point of difference.
"Fixtures can set retailers apart. They need to be unique to a retailer," said Dave Bennett, owner, Molly Stone's, Corte Midera, Calif. "Every retailer does not want to be the same as the guy down the block. When a customer comes into our stores we want them to know they are in a Molly Stone's without them seeing a Molly Stone's sign on the wall. We want the look and feel of being in our units and we accomplish that through fixturing."
These aren't just any supplier-provided fixtures, but operator-specified universal fixtures. Grocery retailers are opting for the universal fixture to establish a store image and obtain control over their real estate, traffic flow and inventory.
The universal fixture trend was demonstrated in the beauty aisle last year when Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Ark., led the charge with the introduction of its Millennium fixture system, which allowed the operator to adjust its space allocations for beauty brands. Beauty manufacturers, who traditionally invested heavily in branded wall fixtures at retail, were less than thrilled by this move. Other mass market retailers were quick to institute universal fixture tests of their own.
"Supermarkets have been operational- and vendor-driven, not consumer-driven," said Nicholas Giammarco, Marco Design Group, Northville, Mich. "Now they are moving toward being consumer-driven. Fixturing plays a key role here."
In their efforts to enhance the shopping experience and improve the presentation, grocery retailers are discovering that universal fixtures can go a long way in solving various merchandising headaches. These include eliminating the store-cluttered look, better stockkeeping unit control at the shelf, easier and quicker resets, and greater flexibility overall.
Industry experts agreed that if a store is fixtured using different colors, heights and sizes, it would be a mess. "If retailers let every brand do its own thing, their store will look like an arcade," said Gerry Birnbach, FISP, president, Retail Design & Display, Granite Springs, N.Y. "Color, shape, size and form collide and you get a helter-skelter store."
Retailers voiced concern about maintaining their store's identity in an environment where various retail formats are converging. "We are seeing an emergence of retailers asking themselves why they are giving up control," said Jim Gillis, president, the Source Information Management Co., New York. "They want to garner aesthetics."
"There are a series of forces contributing to change," said Kevin Kelley, principal, Shook Design Group, Charlotte, N.C. "Retailers don't want to junk up their stores. They want a clean, crisp look. Supermarkets have not taken a shelf-level design lead. Now operators want that control."
Bennett of Molly Stone's said that certain requirements dictate the style, look and feel of fixtures. "You have to look at the type of employees you have, the style your customers are comfortable with and the type of business you have."
The northern California operator has chosen like-looking and similar fixtures throughout its units that emit a universal look, said Bennett.
Achieving continuity and making the right statement were the leading reasons for Madison, Wis.-based Sentry Foods to remodel its Hilldale shopping center unit. The original 45,000-square-foot unit was expanded to 53,000 square feet. Interior fixturing was an integral part of the program and was used to reinforce a lifestyle statement.
Tim Metcalfe, owner, wanted to control the environment and reduce visual clutter. "I didn't want signs all over the store. I want to merchandise food, not signs," he said. "I wanted to create an environment that was architecturally stimulating, interesting and created theater and excitement for the customers."
Fixtures were designed without edges. A rounded fixture for customer service is reminiscent of a hotel concierge. Alcoves have been designed to get customers out of the aisle.
Movement was added to the standard magazine and newspaper racks with a reader board above the department, keeping shoppers updated with stock quotes, breaking news and sports scores.
The result of the unit remodel completed in 1999 has produced a "20%-plus" sales increase, said Metcalfe.
Universal fixturing also means retailer flexibility. Resets are easier to accomplish when all merchandisers are standard and controlled by the retailer.
Reid's Fine Foods, Charlotte, N.C., is an example. The retailer uses its like-designed fixtures to effectively move walls to expand and contract the seating area of its cafe. "We can move our mobile fixtures of candy and gift items to reconfigure the 50-seat cafe seating area and increase it to 100 seats for special events like our wine-tasting events," said Chuck Richards, owner-operator.
"Because of our space configuration -- narrow and deep -- how we move people throughout the unit is a challenge vs. what is in the store," noted Richards. "Flexibility and mobility in this unit is key along with the universal design."
Flexibility is also important at the remodeled Sentry Foods. A modular fresh foods area gives the operator the ability to merchandise to the seasonality of items and take advantage of holidays and special event-oriented sales efforts.
Universal fixturing has also given Larry's Markets, Bellevue, Wash., increased flexibility. With the opening of its newest store last summer, the retailer evaluated its color palate and fixture design direction, said Suzie McKinney, designer for the chain. As a result, the new unit has the same base colors, but with different undertones. Fixtures were designed for the unit that would also physically and aesthetically fit into any of the operator's other units. It is hoped that this will offer up construction savings as units are updated.
While some argue that universal fixturing adds cost into the design package, not all operators are looking to custom merchandisers. To help trim costs, retailers say they are using standard fixtures and simply adding custom touches such as wood trims, materials or special colors to give the standard fixtures a custom feel. Sentry Foods, for example, specifies standard fixtures with customized features for its universal fixtures. In the frozen food area chrome trim is added as part of a decor package.
Other operators remain dependent upon vendors to supply fixtures, but these fixtures are being installed only after the retailer approves the design. Harris Teeter, Charlotte, N.C., has worked with vendors to achieve greeting card fixtures that complement the core package presented in the units, said an industry observer.
Whole bean coffee vendors provide fixtures to Molly Stone's, for example. "We provide the design specs," said Bennett. "We need a certain look and feel throughout our stores."
Fixtures furnished by suppliers fit into the Sentry unit's specific color palate including trim, bumpers and lighting. "Everything is coordinated," said Metcalfe. "Suppliers pick up the laminate colors. For example, our specialty bread provider has their logo on the fixture, but the color is ours and it melds with our decor."
Universal fixtures are aiding those operators who have deepened their reliance and commitment to private label programs, said industry observers. "Private label is definitely influencing how retailers design their stores," noted Kelly of Shook Design. "With their own brand they don't have to be totally dependent upon manufacturers. They are packaging their private label products with impact and spotlighting them as a feature while national brands are the supporting cast."
Some operators are exploring the use of fixtures to create solution aisles with vignettes that help consumers solve certain needs. An entertainment-themed area, for example, merchandises soft drinks, videos, snacks and pizza together. Some mass merchants have taken that lead by creating sports solutions with equipment, clothing, sports drinks and energy bars grouped together.
"This may be beyond universal shelving and more applicable to layout, but without the flexibility of universal shelving this option wouldn't be available," said Kelley.
Operators across the country continue to use merchandisers to create destination departments within their stores. Here again, most chains are looking to fixtures they specify to set the stage for particular departments rather than relying on vendor-supplied fixtures.
Adding wood tones and earthy elements, rather than presenting a wide array of vendor-supplied merchandisers, is creating inviting wine and spirit shops. Rouses, Thibodaux, La., recently created a high-end wine shop within one unit's walls. The section uses wood fixturing with overhead trellis, proper lighting and vinyl wood-grained floor to clearly define the section.
"Clearly defining the area has helped customers know where to start shopping the department," said Dennis Doshi, chief executive officer and creative director, Architectonics International, Farmingdale, N.Y. "Rouses wanted this to be a destination stop. They wanted to look serious about a serious category."
"Micro-merchandising at one time was not so critical. Now retailers have to examine the final details to keep competitive," said Doshi. "Destination departments give consumers a multiple of reasons to come back to a store."
While these destination departments depart from the universality of the store, experts agree that the uniform look can be taken too far. "While retailers want a uniform look, you can't ignore the stopping power of good merchandising," said Milton Merl, president, Milton Merl Associates, New York.