Retailers are re-thinking the supermarket.
Competition from multiple classes of trade is challenging operators to design and create store elements that carve out a niche of distinction. The goal is to give customers something to remember and bring them back to the store.
Boutique departments are just one emerging trend. New areas enlisted to showcase complete category offerings range from pet supplies to natural and whole health options. Meanwhile pharmacies, dry cleaners, banks and video rentals continue to provide convenient service solutions.
But the big buzz in store design today is "solution selling," retailers reported. Operators are focused on customer convenience when it comes to devising retail concepts, and many believe it's the perishable departments that hold the most promise.
Departments are being blended, walls are being broken down and work areas are opened up to full or partial customer view. Employees are being cross-trained between departments, ready and able to pinch hit during the dinner rush or during a co-worker's break. While many of these shifts are being driven by the tight labor market, most store design changes are being spurred by retailers' drive to offer service and convenience.
For example, at Seattle-area Larry's Markets, the food court is presented with a chicken case, a Mexican specialty case, a Panini case and a cafeteria-style grill area. Store associates freely move between the concepts, having been trained how to use the various equipment such as the sandwich press and grill, and how to prepare plated and to-go meals to Larry's strict specifications. The bonus is that customers don't wait and the promise of convenience is delivered.
"Convenience is our ace in the hand," said a Western operator. "Big box stores and mass merchants just aren't looking at convenience."
"If grocery operators are to remain in business, we must [overcome] our mentality that we are just pantry replenishers," said one upper Midwest operator. "Customers today want convenience and they want meals -- breakfast, lunch and dinner -- not the individual ingredients to prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner."
Gone are the days of the leisurely grocery shopping expedition, where shoppers seek out ingredients to slice and simmer. Retailers report that more often than not shoppers rush into the store between work and the kid's soccer game seeking fully or partially prepared complete meals and meal components.
"We're seeing supermarkets attempting to be the most convenient provider of solutions possible," said Brian Salus, a Richmond, Va.-based consultant and former retailer. "As I have been saying for quite some time -- the same customer is both a grocery shopper and a meal seeker and the retailers who do the best job of creating an environment that is convenient to these two needs will get the lion's share of the consumer's business."
Operators agree that the new challenge of offering both food and food solutions has meant that supermarkets are becoming more than grocery stores. An average consumer's trip to the grocery store has shifted from a necessity trip to a lifestyle trip. This brings with it elevated consumer expectations when it comes to design.
As more and more operators group foodservice areas into food courts or food pavilions, designers are challenged with a variety of available fixtures and floor plans aimed at convincing customers that convenience coupled with selection puts their favorite store head and shoulders above the competition.
Simple solutions to speed, such as dedicated cash registers and placing prepared food departments in the front of the store, are solutions embraced in many operators' foodservice areas. Self-service cases greet customers with pre-packed grab-and-go selections. Aesthetically, fresh food departments are sporting art-quality signage, background music and detailed presentation styles aimed at getting consumers in the mood to buy.
In stores operated by such chains as Schnuck Markets, St. Louis; Dominick's, Northlake, Ill.; Wegmans, Rochester, N.Y.; Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh, and Harris Teeter, Charlotte, N.C., foodservice departments are compartmentalized into areas or stations that help consumers answer the age-old question: "What's for dinner?" Self-service food bars, pizza stations, Asian food stands and sandwich shops each co-exist under a single design, stimulating and communicating with customers.
"The supermarket is a poor man's night club," said Jim Ingles, director store planning and engineering, Associated Food Stores, Salt Lake City. "You have to get the customers in and get them excited about being there. It's not just a shopping experience, but entertainment and the experience is remembered," he said.
"Shopping has to be entertaining," said a Western retailer. "Customers get entertained at restaurants, in shopping malls and at other types of retail stores. They are just used to it and expect it now."
Kathie Mullally, director of electronic marketing, Andronico's Markets, Albany, Calif., compared her company's in-store effort to that of a winning football team. "This is a game of inches. For us, the inches are details that, when properly executed, produce a synergistic effect so that every single customer who walks through those doors will say, 'Wow!"'
This entertainment concept is putting perishables departments under the microscope as supermarket operators update, remodel and build units with solution selling in mind.
Flexibility in fixtures is the key, retailers said. Multi-temperature endcaps, refrigerated inserts, service counters with self-service options and fixtures-to-go positioned on wheels each give operators degrees of flexibility not available with traditional long runs of refrigerated merchandisers.
"There is a calculated movement away from foodservice departments presented with extensive refrigerated runs," said Scott Miller, Miller Consulting, The Woodlands, Texas. "An eight-foot service case or meat presentation with a self-service section below or adjacent gives customers every indication that the department is open. Additionally, the employees, focused on production, are available to answer customer questions."
Multi-temperature endcaps and refrigerated inserts bring a variety of products to the dry grocery aisles not possible in decades past. Safeway Stores, Pleasanton, Calif., employs a self-service hot case atop a refrigerated case in merchandising their rotisserie chicken dinner. The round walk-around allows customers the convenience of selecting their chicken, priced at $5.49, or a meal with chicken, side salad and biscuits, for $6.99. The proximity of the various meal components, gathered together, allows for meal bundling with the utmost customer convenience.
"The customer doesn't have to get their chicken from the deli, go across the department for the salad, then walk to the back of the store to the bakery," said one industry observer. "The multi-temperature merchandiser gives customers convenience."
Some operators are turning to newly designed cases that show off the contents through advanced lighting and "disappearing" structure.
"Merchandisers are leaning away from the heavy steel and chrome look," said Ingles. "Plastic is being used as a structural material to let the merchandiser all but disappear and have the customer see the food. Lighter shades of color and pastels are also being used to help fixtures disappear."
Refrigerated inserts have been used to create excitement in dry grocery aisles by spotlighting some of the most popular ethnic cuisines. "People have less time to shop," said Ingles. "When operators can group an Italian dinner together for them -- pasta, sauce, bread and salad -- value has been added to the store."
Low self-service refrigerated cases with workstations behind are another fixture fix to offering selection while reducing labor.
For example, at Andronico's, the operator positions grab-and-go selections in the multi decks below the service case. Prepared foods, which occupy a full one-third of the unit's floor space at the chain's Danville, Calif., store, are presented in the operator's traditional abundant, tasteful and exciting flair with plentiful self-service options. An iced antipasto and olive bar is positioned mid-department. Another food bar offers fruits, grains, salsas and soups. Sandwiches, salads, entrees and side dishes can be found in grab-and-go guises at the "Presto Cuisine" case and in low-profile merchandisers in front of service sections.
"We wanted this store to project a high end image, yet remain accessible for everybody," said Bill Andronico, president. "Each area has its own environment setting up stores within the store. It's like an adventure, a different feeling than a big building. Our focus is on the customer's experience. We have added elements that touch their lives in the areas of food, entertaining and living. When our customers go to restaurants they experience the atmosphere, why should food retailing be any different?"
"Any type of merchandising that allows the staff to be more involved with customers, or to communicate more with customers is great," said Ingles. "Production and preparation done where customers can see it adds animation and then the staff is available to service customers. Using a bell to ring for service is a cop out."
Fixtures on wheels, first introduced in floral departments as kitschy flower carts, have taken hold in produce departments and bakery departments. These merchandisers are not only flexible in their high-traffic area placement but also in their merchandising. Operators can re-work bakery displays by day part with bagels and muffins on display in the morning, brownies and cookies offered up at lunch, and rolls and artisan breads during the dinner hours.
"Certainly the self-service aspect of using mobile self-service cases to adapt the merchandising to the day and week part needs to be explored further," said Salus.
At Town & Country's Seattle-area Central Market the entire 10,000-square-foot produce department is on wheels, ready to turn on a dime. The retailer employs a system of stainless steel racks designed for easy cleaning and with the ability to hold plastic trays. The trays can be placed atop ice should the produce items on display dictate, or merchandised dry. Tubing at the bottom of the rack connecting to a floor drain keeps water in its place, off the floor. The independent retailer has also positioned refrigerated merchandisers on wheels.
Where these racks contribute is in product integrity, according to Jim Foley, produce department manager. Product is handled only at trim, positioned into a tray which, when full, is slid onto the racks. There is no stacking of product and when a tray needs to be reworked it is brought back to the unit's work area, which is visible to customers, for refilling. "The racks have given us flexibility, changed how we do things and help give the department a different look every day," Foley said.
These merchandisers give the operator total flexibility in shifting the look of the department and keeping the department fresh in appearance. The shopping pattern flow of the department can also be adjusted to make allowances for seasonal displays. They also allow for easy movement during floor cleaning.
Designers and industry experts warn that when these versatile pieces of equipment are used by operators not committed to taking advantage of them, they become just another stationary fixture.
"There cannot be a dysfunctional relationship between merchandising and operations," said Miller. "You can build flexibility, but the question remains whether the people using it will be as flexible."